Born Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowski in Kiev, Russia, John Graham was a figure of decisive influence in the early years of American modernism, both as an artist and as a connoisseur. Graham fled to New York in 1920 after fighting in the Russian Revolution on the side of the czar. In 1923 Graham was enrolled at the Art Students League, working briefly as an assistant to John Sloan, and in 1925 he participated in the Tenth Whitney Annual Exhibition. That year he moved to Baltimore and met Duncan Phillips, who gave him his first one-person museum exhibition in 1929.
Also working in New York and Paris, Graham became a catalyst in the transmission of European modernism to America. Stuart Davis, Dorothy Dehner, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, and David Smith were close friends, as were Katherine S. Dreier, one of the most influential American advocates of avant-garde art, and in later years the artists Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Graham’s book, System and Dialectics of Art (1937), influenced the development of abstract expressionism, in foreshadowing the abstract expressionists’ concern for the process of painting and its expressive qualities. The book also introduces two of Graham’s preoccupations: a mystical connection with his subject and the role of line in expressing sensations. “Painting is essentially an abstract process,” he wrote in System and Dialectics of Art, “great works of art stir one
not by literary means, but by velocity of brush, intensity of drawing, precision of form, vibration of surfaces.”
As early as 1932, Phillips anticipated Graham’s importance when he wrote that “painters like
Graham bring to us alien points of view and exotic manners of expression, but they, too, make up part of the New America.” In his acceptance of Graham’s art and ideas, Phillips confirmed his long held belief that an American renaissance would grow out of diversity: “Not only does America inherit the arts of all nations and of all ages, but rich should be the harvesting and exquisite the flowering.”