Every good life should include at least one encounter — preferably several — with a person who enlarges one’s life. Such people are rare. But they have multiplying effects: If you find them altering your world, you’re usually not alone.
Even as they enlarge lives around them, such people are often larger than life themselves, in ways that can make true friendship a tricky proposition. But simply encountering them, entering their world, getting a sense of how they live and what matters to them, will help crystallize free-floating values in your own life.
John Graham was such a figure in the small world, congested with talent, that was American avant-garde painting in the 1930s. He is also the hinge on which turns the most impressive exhibition of modern art to have appeared in New England in several years.
Titled “American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, De Kooning, and Their Circle,” the show was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, where it has been beautifully installed after earlier stops in Purchase, N.Y., and Fort Worth.
The roomy, light-filled galleries upstairs at the Addison are now filled with chewy works not only by the artists in the show’s subtitle, but by Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Adolph Gottlieb, Dorothy Dehner, Jan Matulka, and — for my money the break-out star of the show (and the period) — the painter-turned-sculptor David Smith.
You may have thought avant-garde painting in America in the 1930s was a provincial, narrow affair, that it didn’t really go gangbusters until the 1940s, when Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and their fellow abstract expressionists exploded onto the scene.
This show won’t exactly refute that cliché. The world it uncovers was narrow. But it certainly gives the lie to the once-accepted notion that abstract art was barely pursued by American artists before World War II and that, to the extent that it was, it was negligible and wholly derivative of European modernism.
You come away from this show with, on the contrary, a sense of great energies, intoxicating ideas, and palpable accomplishment.
What a bunch of artists! And what a stirring time in all their lives: Pollock and de Kooning right on the cusp of their world-changing breakthroughs; Gorky at his questing best; Davis doing his tightly controlled, never-quite-great but reliably impressive pictorial tango; and Smith — wow. Watching David Smith take up sculpture, as we have the privilege of doing here, is the aesthetic equivalent of watching a young Roger Federer pick up a tennis racket. Incredible aptitude. Dazzling sureness of touch.
At the center of it all, the exhibition’s raison d’etre, is John Graham.
Tall, with a shaved head and piercing eyes, Graham was a narcissist who wore Savile Row suits and, over the course of his life (he died in 1961), married five times. In a milieu of impoverished, put-upon artists, he projected a “high romantic superiority and absolute commitment to modern art,” write Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan in their 2005 biography of de Kooning.
This was just what the doctor ordered for the avant-garde art scene, and it didn’t matter if not everything he said could be trusted. Graham was exciting. Fed by his own early experiences, his perspective on life and art was large. Consequently, he seems to have done more than anyone else at the time to prod American art out of its demure provincialism.
“Graham” was not the artist’s real name. He was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski in Kiev in 1886. He was from a family of minor Polish nobles. Before the 1917 revolution, he studied law and served in the czarist cavalry.
The Bolsheviks imprisoned him after the revolution, but he was released (he liked to say he escaped, reports curator Karen Wilkin in an exemplary catalog essay), and he came to the United States in 1920.
Many of the claims he made about his early life (that he earned a St George’s Cross, for instance) have the ring of fabrication. But in Moscow, it seems Graham did become acquainted with many of that country’s best-known avant-garde artists, among them El Lissitzky, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Tatlin, and Mikhail Larionov.
He had also been a regular visitor to the home of the great Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, where he was impressed in particular by Picasso — who became a touchstone not only for him, but for Smith, Gorky, and de Kooning, among others.
But Graham didn’t study art officially until he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York in 1922. Fellow students included Gottlieb, Alexander Calder, and Elinor Gibson, whom he married in 1924.
Gibson was from Baltimore, so the couple moved there, which allowed Graham to get to know important collectors such as the Cone sisters — who, like Shchukin, knew and collected Matisse — and Duncan Phillips in Washington, D.C. Both bought Graham’s work.
He traveled to Paris from New York and Baltimore all through the 1920s. These annual trips, Smith said later, “kept us all apprised of abstract events, along with ‘Cahiers du Art’ and ‘Transition’ [two leading art magazines].” Graham also had solo shows in Paris — an unthinkable honor for most American artists.
“In the grim Depression years,” write Stevens and Swan, “John Graham was a marvelous, other-worldly apparition.” If he was at times autocratic and a little too wedded to his own highfalutin theories about art (published as “Systems and Dialectics of Art” in 1937), it was also true that he “elevated every occasion he attended.”
The lines of his influence on the major figures in American avant-garde art at the time are too tangled to trace in a short review. But a few examples give an idea of the impact he had.
Smith and his wife, Dorothy Dehner, met Graham at the Art Students League in 1930. Graham introduced them to Davis, Gorky, and de Kooning. Smith considered himself a painter at this time, but after Graham showed him photos of the first welded sculptures of Julio Gonzalez and Picasso, he got other ideas, and the rest is history.
Dehner later described Graham as a “perfectly tremendous influence on [Smith’s] life and philosophic attitude. He introduced David to a wider world.”
Davis, meanwhile, got to know Graham in Paris, where they had nearby studios in 1928. Graham introduced Davis to Fernand Leger. Back in New York, Graham, Davis, and Gorky formed a group and became known as “The Three Musketeers.” As Graham wrote to Duncan Phillips, “something original, purely American is coming out from under our brushes.”
Years later, de Kooning would tell the critic Harold Rosenberg: “I was lucky enough when I came to this country to meet the three smartest guys on the scene: Gorky, Stuart Davis, and John Graham.” (When de Kooning first met Graham in a New York gallery, he had such an authoritative air that de Kooning assumed he was a dealer.)
How good was Graham as an artist? There may be truth to the claim by Stevens and Swan that “his greatest work of art was surely himself.” But on the evidence here — especially in works such as “The Yellow Bird,” “The White Pipe,” and my own favorite, “Embrace” — he could be very, very good. He had a lush sense of color, which could be both muted and bold, an acute sensitivity to the ways in which edges can animate compositions, and an obsession with wild contrasts of texture, all of which clearly had an effect on Gorky and de Kooning, in particular.
He believed in the power and force of the Freudian (and Jungian) unconscious, and was the first person in America to promote the Surrealist method of “automatic writing” — without which it’s hard to imagine Pollock, de Kooning, Cy Twombly, and so many others.
This show, brilliantly organized by Wilkin, Irving Sandler, and William C. Agee, doesn’t elevate Graham unduly. But it acknowledges a fascinating figure and is full of revelations. In the process, it reminds us of the strange adhesiveness of certain people who dare to put themselves at the center of things, where they can exert their own charismatic pull, and weave their mercurial magic.
Sebastian Smee can be reached