“The Modernist Vanguards: Graham, de Kooning, and Gorky” Exhibition

Shin Gallery (66-68 Orchard St.)

poster for “The Modernist Vanguards: Graham, de Kooning, and Gorky” Exhibition
[Image: John D. Graham "Angel in Dodecahedron" (1959) Oil on Canvas, 30 x 24 in.]

This event has ended.

Shin Gallery presents an historic exhibition of works by acclaimed modernists Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and John Graham. Alongside Stuart Davis, who rounded out the cohort that de Kooning fondly dubbed ‘The Three Musketeers’ of the downtown art scene, Gorky and Graham were major catalysts of the American abstract expressionist movement. Though all three artists shared a passion for European abstraction—particularly the works of Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso and Joan Míro—the drawings and paintings included in this show are exemplary of the new, distinctly American style emerging in the late 1920s that would forever change the field of modern art. Having contributed greatly to the technical and intellectual education of many esteemed 20th century modernists including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, David Smith and Dorothy Dehner, the collective legacies of Graham, Gorky and de Kooning have undoubtedly earned the title of vanguard in American
art history.

Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowski spent his first few years in New York attending classes with the Art Students League, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Alexander Calder and Barnett Newman. Arriving in 1920, within a short period of time the polymath emigré from Kiev developed an intercontinental artist persona who would henceforth be known as John D. Graham (1886-1961). A devoted admirer of European abstraction, Graham frequently travelled to Paris, where he was heavily influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso and revelled in the ideas put forth in Christian Zervos’ art journal Cahiers d’Art; he was known to bring multiple copies back to New York to proliferate amid his social circles of artists, curators and collectors.

Among this handful of New York luminaries was Dutch-American artist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), who became a de facto member of the unofficial American Abstract artist group after Graham took an interest in his career in the late 1920s. Graham soon introduced de Kooning to other young artists in the downtown Manhattan scene—one of them was Armenian-born Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), who would quickly become one of de Kooning’s closest friends and source of inspiration.

The humorously puzzling work Untitled (1954) serves as a captivating example of the levity with which de Kooning painted during his peak abstract expressionist years. According to Elaine de Kooning, this three-hole wooden outhouse seat from the Civil War era home in Bridgehampton, NY was painted in a matter of minutes for a croquet party the artist couple was hosting. In an attempt to visually elevate the outhouse for their impending guests, de Kooning quickly executed a marble trompe l’oeil on the seat, possibly with the help of friend and roommate Jackson Pollock, whom he met through Graham. The painted latrine seat provides an enlightening window into the youthful ebullience of the artist’s life as he was entering the most lucrative, critically recognized period of his career.

Arshile Gorky (1904-1948), Enigma, 1928-1929, Oil on Canvas, 33 x 43 in. (83.8 x 109.2 cm.)
In describing his desire to capture the universal in his art, in 1926 Gorky stated: “Art is not in New York; art is in you. Atmosphere is not something that New York has; it is also in you.” Despite the relatively short length of his tenure in the downtown scene compared to his contemporaries, Gorky’s adventurous sampling of multiple styles informed many of the artists working in New York in the mid-20th century. His deft command of oil paint is best exemplified in the rich impasto of Enigma (1928-29), which seems to take Picasso’s abstraction to new heights with its ambiguous shapes, devoid of any identifiable cues to the type of objects depicted.

Gorky first crossed paths with Graham around 1928, who shared similar views on the aesthetics of modernism and took him under his wing. Peculiarly, the two had in common a tendency toward self- mythologizing, reimagining their names upon arriving in the US and often fabricating personal details to obscure their biographies. Shortly after their own initial meeting, Graham introduced him to de Kooning and the two struck up a friendship that would last until Gorky’s untimely death by suicide in 1948. Upon reading a blunt review of Gorky’s final show in ArtNews, de Kooning wrote back to the magazine in defense of his late friend, declaring a visit to Gorky’s studio a beautifully dizzying experience.

Graham was notably fascinated by the arcane, fervently consuming literature on astrology, theosophy and occult practices in addition to ancient mythology and new theories of psychology that were emerging during the early 20th century. In the 1940s, he began to shift away from abstraction toward a more Neo-Classical figurative style. In the years leading up to his death he began to inscribe his name as IOANNUS SANGERMANUS (Latin for John of Saint Germain), believing himself to be the reincarnation of the Christian saint.
John D. Graham (1881-1961), La Strega Losca (The Beguiling Witch),1959
Oil, Ink and Graphite on Parchment, 23 1/4 x 18 3/4 in. (59.1 x 47.6 cm.)
In the 1959 portraits Angel in Dodecahedron and La Strega Nostra (The Beguiling Witch), the sitter is thought to be Linda Leyden, the twenty-two year old daughter of Graham’s Art Students League friends with whom he engaged in a six-month dalliance. His portraits of women created during this period all feature a slight distortion of the eyes, a detail that Graham purportedly viewed as a charming indication of “modesty, a certain confusion [and] a little perplexity.”

Leyden, who knew nothing of these paintings, was obviously the source of much frustration for Graham. Though labelled “beguiling,” the sitter in La Strega Nostra rests in stoic ignorance of the approaching swan in the corner of the composition. These portraits, decidedly non-idealistic in their portrayal of the subject, allude to the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan in which Zeus transformed into a swan and raped the maiden Leda on the same night she laid with her husband. Graham’s portrayal of an imperfect, almost monstrous woman seemingly echoes the aggressive non-conventional depictions of femininity found in Picasso’s portraits of women (particularly, the 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon).

The relational dynamics between these three artists is best described as an intensely close symbiotic process of exchanging philosophies, painterly techniques and art historical literature. In addition to Gorky and de Kooning, Graham acted as an unofficial tutor to many artists, most notably the young Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. Though many looked to him for mentorship, throughout his life Graham maintained that these relationships were reciprocal in nature—as is evident in his work, he consistently found inspiration in the burgeoning artistic careers orbiting his own.



from April 14, 2021 to May 23, 2021

  • Facebook


    All content on this site is © their respective owner(s).
    New York Art Beat (2008) - About - Contact - Privacy - Terms of Use