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    Sale 2104

    Selections From The Allan Stone Collection

    12 November 2007, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 667

    John Graham (1881-1961)

    Woman with Dodecahedron

    Price Realised  

    John Graham (1881-1961)
    Woman with Dodecahedron
    signed and inscribed 'GRAHAM IOANNUS SAN GERMANUS' (on the reverse)
    oil, chalk, wax crayon, pen and ink on board
    48 x 35½ in. (122 x 90.2 cm.)
    Painted in 1959.


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    e had a special appeal for modern artists because they could provide a mystery or complexity that was otherwise missing in twentieth-century life, and these esoteric forms of knowledge were most often appealing when they were hyper-personalized, presented obsessively, paradoxically, so that esotericism became an especially stylized kind of individualismthe paintings of cross-eyed dames decorated with geometric emblems that John Graham, that old friend of de Kooning's was exhibiting in the 1950ss. Looking at Graham's paintings and drawings, you do not really know where there is a model of a dodecahedron placed right next to a particular woman, or why another woman's face is covered with a grid of images of suns and moons. And yet this seems to be the way it has to be for Graham, and you may feel that this is the only explanation that is needed" (New Art City, November 2005, p. 303).
    The legend surrounding John Graham persists long after his death, complicating his placement in art history. Throughout his entire life and career, he mingled fact and fiction, self-mythologizing to conceal or simply embellish his true background. Much of this biographical information, although entertaining and charming, remains contradictory and confusing for scholars, as Graham would likely have intended. Nearly everything in Graham's painting can be a form of appropriation. Extravagant, and often arrogant claims that he grew up in a household where witchcraft was practiced, escaped imprisonment from the czar in Russia, and that he was entrenched in the French post-Cubist development remain uncertain. Graham's imagination is reflected in his oeuvre, in which, as an aesthetic chameleon, he features the original and untried. He exhibited great range and versatility in draftsmanship, dabbling and shifting in technique, finally arriving at his own characteristic style and discrete vocabulary of images as a middle-aged artist.

    Irrespective of Graham's historic reality, he surely had an influential hand in what Irving Sandler would claim as the "triumph of American painting." As early as 1930, perhaps in unconscious anticipation of post-war gestural abstraction, Graham described painting in a letter to Duncan Phillips as "an arduous task with great pain and joy, but more pain and wages for wisdomGut artists cannot stop creating though he knows all the sorrow that follows." Though Graham himself was not an abstract painter, he certainly understood the significance of gesture and was a precursor to action painters of the future.

    Moving to New York in the early 1920s from Kiev landowning gentry, Graham was met with great sympathy as an aristocratic White Russian exile that had resisted the Bolshevik revolution. Continuing his practice of reinventing his past and present, the artist changed his birth name, Ivan Dombrowski, and began to pursue life as a serious artist. Graham soon befriended Alexander Calder, Barnett Newman, and Adolph Gottlieb at the Art Students League. Together, with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, they constituted main ring artists of the New York School. By 1942, John Graham organized the "Exhibition of French and American Painters" at McMillen Gallery which showed, for the first time, Picasso, Braque, and Matisse alongside such unknowns as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. It was also at this time that Graham, remaining a realist among the abstractionists, began painting neo-classical figurative works, which eventually evolved into his signature series.

    In the 1940s, John Graham, remaining a realist among abstractionists, begun painting neo-classical figurative works, which eventually evolved into his signature series of women and soldiers. Among his variations on the same theme, Woman with Dodecahedron, 1959, stands compositionally and symbolically as a tour de force within Graham's women. Framed with a subtle palette of bold blacks, ashy grays and muted blues, a relaxed and composed woman sits in a full dress, hands clasped. The sitter's flat, unmodulated dicolletage, arms, and hands appear unfinished, demarcated simply by bold, dark scribbles. Whether an intentional artistic device or not, this contradictory effect serves to press the figure against the background, vivifying the interplay of dimensional space. These "unfinished" areas dually function to show his allegiance to drawing, whereby he probes the limits of form, its edge, where one color meets another.

    Like other female subjects portrayed by Graham, Woman with Dodecahedron dons crossed-eyes, a device the artist once explained as "giving life to the face." A distinctive element from his other woman and as the title suggests, is the presence of a dodecahedron model which accompanies the sitter to the left, atop a bureau. Unlike parts of the woman's body, he flaunts his draftsmanship skills in rendering the object whole, complete with traditional modeling and shading.R
    Like a crystal or gem, the dedecahedron's facets and symmetries have been a source of metaphysical interest for thousands of years. A twelve faced structure, it represents an idealized form and in this case, a complement to the portrait of a "flawed" cross-eyed beauty. However, when considering Graham's characteristic predilection towards jolie laide women, his choice of such a symbol suggests a leveling between the two forms, woman and object. He equates them literally on the compositional plane and metaphorically in his own mind. Consider when he writes: "beauty cannot be foreseenBeauty is the beautiful expanded to the verge of ugliness" (J. Graham, System and Dialectics of Art, New York, 1937, p. 133). Hence, the presence of the dodecahedron, as the penchant for cross-eyes, can be seen as a reflection of Graham's interest in perception and vision, beauty and truth.

    "Esoteric forms of knowledge have had a special appeal for modern artists because they could provide a mystery or complexity that was otherwise missing in twentieth-century life, and these esoteric forms of knowledge were most often appealing when they were hyper-personalized, presented obsessively, paradoxically, so that esotericism became an especially stylized kind of individualismthe paintings of cross-eyed dames decorated with geometric emblems that John Graham, that old friend of de Kooning's was exhibiting in the 1950s. Looking at Graham's paintings and drawings, you do not really know why there is a model of a dodecahedron placed right next to a particular woman, or why another woman's face is covered with a grid of images of suns and moons. And yet this seems to be the way it has to be for Graham, and you may feel that this is the only explanation that is needed" (New Art City, November 2005, p. 303).

    Provenance

    Estate of the artist
    André Emmerich Gallery, New York
    John Nicholson
    Donald Morris Gallery, Detroit
    Robert and Sylvia Zell, Detroit, acquired from the above
    Kirby and Melinda Hamilton, Boston, by descent from the above
    Donald Morris Gallery, Birmingham, Michigan, acquired from the above
    Maurice and Margo Cohen
    Their sale; Christie's, New York, 13 May 1999, lot 473


    Literature

    "Reviews and Previews," Art News, vol. 67, no. 4, Summer 1968, p. 12 (illustrated).
    Detroit Free Press, 18 June 1972, p. 4D (illustrated).
    "John Graham: Brilliant Amateur?," Art in America, vol. 75, no. 12, December 1987, p. 136 (illustrated in color).


    Exhibited

    Chicago, The Arts Club and Minneapolis, The University of Minnesota, John D. Graham, September 1963-January 1964, no. 26 (illustrated). New York, André Emmerich Gallery, John D. Graham, 1881-1961, May-June 1966, no. 11 (illustrated).
    Saratoga Springs, New York, Skidmore College, Schick Gallery, John D. Graham, 1881-1961, February 1967, no. 22.
    New York, André Emmerich Gallery, John Graham, June-August 1968.
    Detroit, Donald Morris Gallery, John D. Graham, June 1972.
    Purchase, State University of New York, Neuberger Museum; Newport Beach, Newport Harbor Art Museum; Berkeley, University of California, University Art Museum; Chicago, The David and Alfred Smart Gallery of the University of Chicago, and Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, John D. Graham: Artist and Avatar, June 1987-September 1988, pp. 126 and 154, no. 71 (illustrated in color).
    New York, Allan Stone Gallery, John Graham, Sum Qui Sum, October-December 2005, p. 158, no. 122 (illustrated in color).