Graham’s development exemplifies the early twentieth-century shift in artistic focus from Europe to the United States. Born Ivan Dambrowski in Kiev (then Czarist Russia, now Ukraine), he studied law and served as a cavalry officer for the Czar in World War I, until the Bolsheviks imprisoned him in 1918. The artist’s own accounts of his departure from Russia were conflicting, but after either escaping or being released, Graham made his way to New York via Paris in 1920. He matriculated at the Art Student’s League and befriended fellow classmates Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Alexander Calder, and Elinor Gibson, while studying under the direction of John Sloan. Throughout his life and in death, Graham has been exhibited widely, with notable recent exhibitions including a retrospective organized by the Phillips Collection, John Graham: Artist as Avatar (1987-88), and a retrospective at Allan Stone Gallery, John Graham: Sum Qui Sum (2005). The artist’s works are found in numerous important collections, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and the Phillips Collection. Graham relocated to London in 1961 where he died.
During the 1930s while Regionalism and Social Realism reined in America, Graham’s expertise in Surrealism and Cubism canonized him for a new generation of American Modernists, including de Kooning, Gorky, David Smith and Franz Kline, among others. Graham introduced them to the significance of the unconscious as a source of inspiration and thus contributed to the earliest developments of Abstract Expressionism. In 1942, he organized a show for the McMillen Gallery that featured works by Stuart Davis, David Burliuk, de Kooning, Krasner, Pollock, and himself across from works by Picasso, Braque, and Matisse.
Graham rarely painted in any one style, choosing rather to let his intuitive impulses guide him from one theme to another. He studied mysticism and closely followed Freudian and Jungian psychology as they developed. Graham's eclectic impulses grew by the early 1940's as he incorporated elements of Cubism and Surrealism, but also Tribal art, of which he was an avid collector. The spectrum of cultural references in Graham's work points to his mystical tendencies, and gives ground for Eleanor Green’s characterization of the artist as an “avatar."