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John D. Graham papers, 1799-1988, bulk 1890-1961

John D. Graham papers, 1799-1988, bulk 1890-1961

Graham, John D. (John Dabrowsky), ca. 1887-1961

Painter

The papers of John Graham in the Archives of American Art were digitized in 2008. The bulk of Graham's papers have been scanned and total 13,475 images.

Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Collection Information

Size: 11.4 linear feet

Summary: The papers of painter, collector, and writer John Graham measure 11.4 linear feet and date from 1799 to 1988, with the bulk of materials dating from 1890 to 1961. Papers document the life of John Graham, born Ivan Dombrowsky, through personal documents related to military service and family history, passports, artifacts, correspondence, appointment books, financial records, inventories, wills, extensive writings and notes, books, clippings, exhibition catalogs, photographs of Graham and his family and friends, and artwork created and collected by Graham.

Biographical/Historical Note

John D. Graham (1887-1961) was a painter and collector from New York and Mexico. Born Ivan Gratsianovitch Dombrovski in Kiev, Russia. Various legal documents list his birth as 1886, 1887, or 1888. He moved to New York in 1920, changing his name to John Dabrowsky Graham. He was a central figure among American avant-garde artists, especially from the late 1920s-1940s. His understanding of cubism and surrealism made him a link to the European art scene. He helped Stuart Davis, Lee Krasner, William de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and David Smith gain recognition and critical acclaim. His interest in horses, Jungian psychology, yoga, and the occult appear as themes in his work. Graham collected African art which he exhibited in New York inspiring an interest in primitivism among artists. Frank Crowninshield commissioned Graham to assemble an African art collection for him. Graham moved to Mexico in 1936. In 1937, he published "Systems and Dialectics of Art," stimulating American artists interest in primitive art.

Provenance

Material on reels 3616-3620 was donated by Graham's son, John David Graham, May 1985, just several weeks before his death. In 1987, Graham's daughter-in-law, Patricia Graham, (John David's widow) donated material on reels 3894-3896 and the unmicrofilmed books. The unmicrofilmed books were donated via the André Emmerich Gallery for the estate. In 1986, the Museum of Modern Art donated John Graham papers which had been in MoMA's Department of Prints and Drawings. MoMA probably received them from the estate for use in preparing for their 1968 Graham exhibition. These papers had been microfilmed by MoMA prior to being donated. AAA remicrofilmed the papers in 1990 on reels 4042-4045. MoMA's Department of Prints and Drawings retained 16 v. of notebooks and several loose sketches and lent their master negative of the microfilm for duplicating with the stipulation that they be identified as the "Museum of Modern Art, NY: John Graham Notebooks" (reel 5049).

Related Materials

Funding

Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Location of Originals

  • Reel 5049: Museum of Modern Art, NY: John Graham Notebooks: Originals in: Museum of Modern Art, Department of Drawings and Prints.

A Finding Aid to the John Graham Papers, 1799-1988, bulk 1890-1961, in the Archives of American Art
AAA.grahjohn
Finding aid prepared by Megan McShea
Scope and Contents note
The papers of painter, collector, and writer John Graham measure 11.4 linear feet and date from 1799 to 1988, with the bulk of materials dating from 1890 to 1961. Papers document the life of John Graham, born Ivan Dombrowsky, through personal documents related to military service and family history, passports, artifacts, correspondence, appointment books, financial records, inventories, wills, extensive writings and notes, books, clippings, exhibition catalogs, photographs of Graham and his family and friends, and artwork created and collected by Graham.
Biographical Materials and Artifacts include passports and other official documents, as well as records related to Graham's family, military service, and medical history. Among the artifacts are paint pots and a palette. Correspondence is with art and antique dealers and collectors, and includes significant correspondence and related documents of Jack Mayer, Graham's agent from the late 1950s. Several artists and famous friends are represented in Graham's correspondence including David Burliuk, Stuart Davis, Ultra Violet, Francoise Gilot, R.B. Kitaj, Marc Tobey, and Ron Gorchov.
Personal Business Records contain appointment books spanning 1931 to 1961 which record appointments but were also used as notebooks and sketchbooks. Other Business Records include inventories of Graham's books and antiques made by Graham, records of antique-related transactions, wills of Graham and his last wife, Marianne Strate, and extensive personal financial records from the last few years of his life.
Graham's writings are found scattered throughout the collection, as is his artwork. The Writings series is dominated by Graham's lengthy book projects, found in multiple drafts. The author's annotated published works are also found, as well as typescripts of several published essays by and about Graham. Lists, notes, and writings on a wide range of subjects are found on loose pages and in notebooks dated from 1931 to 1961. Among the Printed Materials are many annotated books from Graham's library, some of which contain drawings, and clippings and exhibition catalogs related to Graham's career going back to the 1920s. Reference files of printed ephemera and clippings collected by Graham are found on a variety of subjects, some of which contain pictorial subjects used in Graham's paintings.
Photographs depict Graham from childhood through his last years in cabinet card portraits, passport photographs, and snapshots. Photographs are also found of his parents, his five wives and four children, and a number of famous friends including Pablo Picasso, Françoise Gilot, their children, and Arshile Gorky. Artwork includes Graham's sketchbooks of 1934, 1960, and 1961, loose sketches, and a collection of file folders with many symbols and illustrations. Also found among the artwork are antique and contemporary prints and drawings collected by Graham.
Biographical/Historical note
The Russian émigré painter and writer John Graham, born Ivan Dombrowsky, was born in Kiev in 1886, 1887, or 1888. All three conflicting dates are found on various legal papers, licences, and passports. His parents were of minor nobility but with little means. He attended law school and served in the Circassian Regiment of the Russian army, earned the Saint George's Cross during World War I, and was imprisoned as a counterrevolutionary by the Bolsheviks after the assassination of Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. He fled for a time to his mother's native Poland, and finally in 1920, he emigrated with his second wife Vera and their son Nicholas to the United States. He began calling himself John in the US, and had his name officially changed to John Graham upon becoming a United States citizen in 1927. The name Graham may have been a transliteration of his father's name, Gratian. Graham is often described as a quixotic figure who cultivated a larger-than-life persona in the artistic circles of New York in the first half of the twentieth century through his authoritative philosophical and aesthetic arguments on the one hand, and his often fabulous tales of his early life on the other, including a story he wrote of his origins in which he was dropped as an infant onto a rock in the Caspian Sea by an enormous eagle.
In New York, Graham studied at the Art Students League, taking classes with John Sloan, William von Schlegell, and Allen Tucker. Among his fellow students were Dorothy Dehner and David Smith, Adolph Gottlieb, Alexander Calder, and Elinor Gibson, who married Graham in 1924. The couple lived briefly in Elinor's native Baltimore, Maryland, where he met Etta and Claribel Cone, collectors of modern European paintings. It may have been the Cone sisters who introduced Graham to their circle of avant-garde artists and art collectors in Paris in the late 1920s. Whatever its origin, Graham's early style has been compared to Cezanne, Braque, Derain, and Chirico, and his frequent trips to Europe made him a conduit for current art ideas and trends for the American artists who knew him.
Graham exhibited his paintings steadily in the late 1920s and early 1930s, including shows at the Society of Independent Arists (New York) in 1925, the Modernist Galleries (Baltimore) in 1926, Galerie Zaborowski (Paris) in 1928 and 1929, at Dudensing Galleries (New York) and Phillips Memorial Gallery (Washington) in 1929, the First Biennial at the Whitney Museum in 1932, and at 8th Street Gallery (New York) in 1933. During this period Graham and his wife Elinor lived in Paris, New York City, New Jersey, and upstate New York. He spent a year teaching at Wells College in Aurora, New York, where he also executed a series of wall panels in 1932. Graham's friendships with other artists during this period included Arshile Gorky, Stuart Davis, and Willem de Kooning. De Kooning is said to have called Davis, Gorky, and Graham the "three smartest guys on the scene."
Graham's European travels also enabled him to earn a living by buying primitive sculpture and antiques for collectors and dealers. In the 1930s he bought African Art for
Vanity Fair
editor and art collector Frank Crowninshield, and in 1936, Graham arranged an exhibition of Crowninshield's collection at Jacques Seligmann gallery. Graham and Elinor Gibson divorced in 1934 and he married Constance Wellman in Paris in 1936. They lived in Brooklyn Heights near Adolph Gottlieb, David Smith, and Dorothy Dehner, and worked for Hilla Rebay in her formation of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which became the Guggenheim Museum. Suffering financial hardship in the late years of the Depression, Constance and Graham lived in Mexico for several stretches of time, and Graham published several articles on Mexico and Mexican Art, and an essay entitled "Primitive Art and Picasso" in
Magazine of Art
.
Graham was a prolific writer, but only a few of his written works found their way into print. Aside from his essays, published works include a small book of poetry,
Have It!
, published in 1923, and a book which presented Graham's personal theories of art entitled
System and Dialectics of Art
, published in 1937 by Delphic Studios, an eclectic New York gallery and small press run by Alma Reed. The book was influential for a younger generation of American artists; Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in particular both expressed appreciation for Graham's ideas. For decades, Graham worked on several other major written works which were not published, including a highly stylized, symbolist work about his childhood and an encyclopedic collection of short, didactic essays on a wide range Grahamiam themes, a work which Graham usually referred to as
Orifizio Mundi
.
In 1942, Graham organized the exhibition "French and American Painters" at McMillen Gallery (New York) which showed Modigliani, Picasso, Braque, Rouault, and Matisse, alongside the Americans Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Stuart Davis, David Burliuk, and Walt Kuhn, among others. The show was well-received critically and, as it was Jackson Pollock's first public exhibition and Willem de Kooning's second, and the occasion of Pollock and Lee Krasner's meeting, could be considered a watershed event in contemporary American art.
Graham's own style made a pronounced shift away from abstraction in the 1940s. He began referencing renaissance art in his paintings, incorporating occult symbols, and signing them "Ioannus Magus," or "Ioannus San Germanus." His marriage to Constance ended acrimoniously around this time. He met Marianne Strate, a bookbinder, through her daughter Ileana Sonnabend and son-in-law Leo Castelli. They lived in Southampton, New York, where Graham was close to the Castellis, Paul Brach, Miriam Schapiro, and where he renewed his friendship with Willem de Kooning, who had a studio in Castelli's East Hampton home in the early 1950s. Marianne died in 1955.
Graham exhibited at the Stable Gallery in 1954, and at the newly-opened, uptown Whitney Museum of American Art in 1955. Jack Mayer became Graham's dealer in the late 1950s, held exhibitions at his Madison Avenue gallery, Gallery Mayer, in 1960, and arranged for an exhibition at the Tennessee Fine Arts Center in 1961, shortly before Graham's death. Graham left the United States for the last time in 1959, lived in Paris for two years, and died in June 1961 in a hospital in London. Gallery Mayer held a memorial exhibition at the end of 1961. Retrospective exhibitions of Graham's work have been held at the Art Institute of Chicago (1963), the Museum of Modern Art (1968), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1969), and the Phillips Collection (1987).
Arrangement note
The collection is arranged into 7 series:
Series 1: Biographical Materials and Artifacts, 1799, 1822, 1891-1961 (Boxes 1, 11-12, 17; 0.9 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, circa 1932-1988 (Box 1; 0.6 linear feet)
Series 3: Personal Business Records, circa 1931-1962 (Boxes 1-3; 1.4 linear feet)
Series 4: Writings, 1839, circa 1923-1986 (Boxes 3-5, OV 13; 2.9 linear feet)
Series 5: Printed Materials, circa 1885-1961 (Boxes 6-9, OV 14; 3.7 linear feet)
Series 6: Photographs, circa 1860-1985 (Box 9-10, 17, OV 15; 0.9 linear feet)
Series 7: Artwork, circa 1852-1961 (Box 10, OV 16; 1 linear foot)
Provenance
Material on reels 3616-3620 was donated by Graham's son, John David Graham, May 1985, just several weeks before his death. In 1987, Graham's daughter-in-law, Patricia Graham, (John David's widow) donated material on reels 3894-3896 and the unmicrofilmed books. The unmicrofilmed books were donated via the André Emmerich Gallery for the estate. In 1986, the Museum of Modern Art donated John Graham papers which had been in MoMA's Department of Prints and Drawings. MoMA probably received them from the estate for use in preparing for their 1968 Graham exhibition. These papers had been microfilmed by MoMA prior to being donated. AAA remicrofilmed the papers in 1990 on reels 4042-4045. MoMA's Department of Prints and Drawings retained 16 v. of notebooks and several loose sketches and lent their master negative of the microfilm for duplicating with the stipulation that they be identified as the "Museum of Modern Art, NY: John Graham Notebooks" (reel 5049).
Location of Originals
  • Reel 5049: Museum of Modern Art, NY: John Graham Notebooks: Originals in: Museum of Modern Art, Department of Drawings and Prints.
Processing Information note
Papers were processed to a preliminary level upon accession, and all but the final accession in 1988 were microfilmed on reels 3616-3620, 3894-3896, and 4042-4045. The collection was re-processed and digitized in 2007-2008 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Researchers should note that the arrangement of the papers and their digital copies is significantly different from the arrangement found on the microfilm copy.

Additional Forms Available

The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2008 and is available via the Archives of American Art's website. Materials that generally have not been scanned include photographs of works of art (except installation views), card files of handwritten essays for which there are typed versions, bank statements, and stocks and tax files.

microfilm reel 5049: available for use at Archives of American Art offices and through interlibrary loan.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center.

Restrictions on Use

Reel 5049: Museum of Modern Art, NY: John Graham Notebooks Authorization to publish, quote or reproduce requires written permission of the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, N.Y. 10018

How to Cite This Collection

John D. Graham papers, 1799-1988, bulk 1890-1961. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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