Modernism and other Twentieth Century

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John Graham
Nature Morte, 1929-30
Oil on canvas
17 x 24 inches
Signed and dated at upper left: Graham // [1]930, Signed and dated at lower left: Graham 29

Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowsky was born in Kiev, studied to be a lawyer, and eventually fled to New York in 1920 after the Russian Revolution. In the 1940s, he made his mark upon a generation of painters with his figurative works, owing a certain debt to Rose Period Picasso as well as the Old Masters. But long before this, he had already synthesized a personal idiom of modernism, incorporating virtuosic alongside naïve forms.

There are many parallels in the careers of John Graham’s and the Armenian-American Arshile Gorky. Beyond their mutual roots in Eastern Europe in, the two emerged from periods of chameleon-like emulation of other artists and found powerful personal voices mediating abstraction and the figure. Graham explored a variety of different modes of abstraction before alighting upon his own personal vision of the human figure. The artist recollected, in 1972,

On some paintings of mine I have worked for a long time, layer after layer, scraping, retracing them and painting again. [As quoted by Lisa Bush Hankin in John Graham: Renaissance & Revolution, 2002, p. 16]

The present work is one such example. The paint has been applied in a variety of thicknesses, its restrained palette giving over free reign to the play of surface treatments. The muted grays, with hints of cool green and blue, are a stage for the dramatic piles of paint that are variously sculpted, incised, embedded with sand, and combed. The playing card carved into the thick impasto at lower right may be a lingering trace of Picasso’s analytic cubism, as well as an entry way for the return of figuration into Graham’s then fully abstract work. A pair of inscriptions confirms Graham’s intensive labor over the picture. At lower left, he signed the work “Graham 29,” while in the upper left, likely after doing more of his scraping and shellacking, he signed it again “Graham / 930,” a figure we take to mean that the work was finally completed in 1930, with an illegible or omitted “1.” [Graham, who spoke five or more languages fluently, was highly prone to elisions and cryptic inscriptions of all manner. Works are variously signed in Roman numerals, mixtures of Greek characters and glyphs of personal significance. This present example is among the more legible inscriptions.]

Jacob Kainen—artist friend Gorky– would describe Graham’s preference in subject matter, “limited to those he thought crucial to art of the time: the nature of form, the essential qualities of painting, the significance of mystery or enigma (timelessness), and Cubism.”

The artist’s sculptural handling of the paint in Nature Morte well represents the “essential qualities of painting.” Graham embraced contradictions and mysticism, and the appearance of the egg was to him both a primal form and likely an unacknowledged timeless symbol. He vocally opposed those who interpreted his work in any literal manner, but that there is nonetheless a profusion of egg images suggests in 1928-30 suggests that the painter instilled in them profound meaning. 1928’s La Tasse de Café (Coffee Cup), features a coffee cup next to an ordinary egg on a plate, both dwarfed by an enormous ovoid shape. In another work of 1930, Abstract Still Life, the enormous egg casts a black shadow across a modestly scaled coat rack. The egg had been an object of fascination for Brancusi in the teens and twenties, and Graham was taking it up for his own, quasi-surrealist purposes. While the work is almost entirely abstract, the artist has given the title Nature Morte, the French term for still life. It would seem an unlikely accident that he has used the French word – literally translated: “nature, dead”—to title a work presenting what Brancusi named “The Beginning of the World,” a timeless symbol of life.

The present work is featured in Menconi + Schoelkopf’s 2015 fall catalogue.

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