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American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and their circle opens at the Neuberger Museum
Jan Matulka (1890–1972), Composition, c. 1930. Oil on canvas, 30 × 40 in. (76.2 × 101.6 cm). Collection of Bunty and Tom Armstrong©Estate of Jan Matulka. Photo: Joshua Nefsky.

PURCHASE, NY.- From the late 1920s to the early 1940s, many of America's most inventive and important artists, including Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Adolph Gottlieb, forged their identities, dramatically transforming conceptions of what a painting or sculpture could be. A group linked by friendship and common aspirations, many had shared experiences in the classes of influential Czech Cubist Jan Matulka at the Art Students League and in the Federal Art Project during the Great Depression. Most significantly, they were all closely associated with John Graham (1887-1961), the enigmatic Russian-born artist, connoisseur, and theorist. They, along with others such as Jackson Pollock and David Smith, all drawn together by their common commitment to modernism and their eagerness to exchange ideas, played a critical role in developing and defining American modernism.

American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and Their Circle, 1927-1942, an exhibition opening on January 29th at the Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College, showcases more than sixty works of art from these vital years by Graham and the members of his circle, providing compelling testimony to the dialogue and cross-fertilization that existed during this period in the history of American art. The high level of the work these artists made not only points ahead to their future accomplishments, but also demonstrates that the decade of the thirties, far from being solely a period of depression and retrenchment, was a time of exciting and important innovation. The exhibition sheds new light on the New York School, abstract Expressionism and the vitality of American modernism between the two world wars, providing a long overdue examination of an important and little-studied period in American art.

American Vanguards: Graham, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, and Their Circle, 1927-1942 was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. The exhibition will be presented from June 9 - August 19 at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, then travel to the Addison where it will be on view from September 21-December 31, 2012. Generous support for this exhibition and publication was provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and The Dedalus Foundation, Inc., and by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, co-published by the Addison and Yale University Press, and was curated by scholars William C. Agee, Irving Sandler, and Karen Wilkin.

Graham, Gorky and Davis were together so constantly that they were known as the “Three Musketeers.” The young de Kooning, who met the trio not long after arriving in New York, joined them as d’Artagnan did Dumas’ fictional heroes. De Kooning always credited the “Three Musketeers” with developing his understanding of modernism; “I was lucky enough when I came to this country,” he said, “to meet the smartest guys on the scene: Gorky, Stuart Davis, and John Graham, David Smith, his wife Dorthy Dehner, Adolph Gottlieb, David Burliuk, Edgar Levy, and Matulka -- were also part of the inner circle -- a cross-section of some of the most remarkable American artists of the period.

This inner sanctum of New York modernism was notably diverse. Some were European born. Others were irreducibly American, but they were all drawn together by their common commitment to modernism, their hunger for the information that Graham, who traveled frequently to Europe, could provide, and their eagerness to exchange ideas. Graham’s System and Dialectics of Art, first published in 1937, seems to echo their conversations, in the form of a Socratic dialogue probing the origins of creativity, the nature of abstraction, the aims of modernism, and much more. Graham believed that the best of his American friends could hold their own with anyone and in System and Dialects of Art, he listed those he declared to be as good as their European counterparts, including Jan Matulka, David Smith, Stuart Davis, de Kooning, and Edgar Levy.

Despite Graham’s close links with so many key figures during the seminal years of American abstraction, little attention has been paid to these important relationships. American Vanguards assembles works by Graham and the members of his circle from the years of their association, providing compelling testimony to the dialogue and cross-fertilization, the common sources and stimuli, that existed during this vital period in the history of American art. The high level of the work these artists made during these formative years not only points ahead to their future accomplishments but also gives the lie to the persistent rumor that American art was provincial during the 1930s. It also demonstrates that the decade of the thirties, far from being solely a period of depression and retrenchment, was a time of exciting and important innovation.

Graham seems an unlikely central figure in the history of twentieth century American modernism. Born in Kiev, Ukraine (then Russia), in 1887, he was an art lover, trained as a lawyer, who served in the czar’s army, before coming to the United States in 1920. In America, he became a serious, full time painter, as well as a connoisseur, aesthete, collector, advisor to collectors, art theorist, occasional poet, and full time mystic. Graham had a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic command of the history of art, and expertise in African sculpture. He was most informed about current advanced European art, not only as an intelligent observer, but also as a friend of many of the Parisian vanguard. Graham’s frequent trips to Europe and his familiarity with European modernists made him a catalytic figure for aspiring New York painters and sculptors, most of them much younger than he. He was a source of news, gossip, and influential publications.

Many of the most gifted young artists of the period were associated with Graham and affected by that contact, in an intricate web of shifting connections. Alliances were multiple and sometimes shifted. Among the “Three Musketeers,” Stuart Davis and Archile Gorky’s once very close friendship cooled during the difficult years of the Depression, largely because Gorky did not share Davis’s enthusiasm for social activism and preferred to stay in the studio. Gorky’s studio relationship with de Kooning, however, intensified. Smith, Dehner, Levy, and Gottlieb were neighbors as well as colleagues, but they may have been introduced originally by Graham, who knew Gottlieb from their early years at the Art Students League. When Davis went to Paris for an extended stay, he and Graham made prints at the same atelier. Davis wrote home from Paris about attending the opening of an exhibition by the expatriate sculptor Alexander Calder, who did a portrait in wire of Graham. Everywhere we turn, we find Graham as the connecting thread among these diverse personalities.

David Smith’s history illustrates how important Graham could be to the artistic evolution of his young American artist friends. Smith and his wife, Dorothy Dehner, first met Graham, who was two decades older, at the Art Students League in 1930, and through him met Stuart Davis, Archile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning. In New York, Graham showed Smith magazine photos of the first welded sculptures by Pablo Picasso and Joan Gonzàlez. The images provoked Smith, who still considered himself primarily a painter, into constructing with metal, essentially changing Smith’s future direction. Later, Davis saw several Gonzàlez sculptures, probably the first in the United States, that were in Graham’s possession. Graham welcomed Smith and Dehner to Paris on their first European trip and introduced them to artists and writers. Dehner recalled, “Matulka was the great influence on David’s painting; but John Graham was a perfectly tremendous influence on his life and philosophic attitude. He introduced David to a wider world.”

The friendship between John Graham and Stuart Davis solidified in 1928 when they were both on extended sojourns in Paris. The two worked in nearby studios (Davis rented his from Graham’s friend Matulka), and they made prints in the same studio. Graham arranged for Fernand Léger and Davis to exchange studio visits. While the similar subject matter and robust surfaces of Graham’s and Davis’s Paris pictures bear witness to their friendship, the pragmatic Davis never shared Graham’s interest in surrealist notions about taping the unconscious mind in creating art, just as he failed to share his friend Gorky’s fascination with these ideas. Davis remained faithful to his own vernacular Cubist idiom. What was more important, all of the Musketeers had ambitions independent of existing European-inspired approaches. In 1930, Graham wrote, “Stuart Davis, Gorky, and myself have formed a group and something original, purely American is coming out from under our brushes.”

Like John Graham, Gorky reinvented himself in the United States, hiding his identity as Vosdanig Adoian, a survivor of the persecution of Armenians in the wake of World War I. By 1930, Gorky’s own artistic voice had emerged clearly, without obscuring either his earlier obsessions with European modernists or his conversation with his fellow Musketeers and the other members of Graham’s circle. Gorky’s study of Pablo Picasso and Joan Mirò is visible in the simple, expressive shapes, clearly bounded planes, and unexpected pastel colors of his paintings of the mid-1930s, but the work also has clear connections with Davis’s Egg Beater paintings made almost a decade earlier. The argument appears to be taken up again by David Smith in the late 1930s in sculptures that transform the two-dimensional Cubist-derived structures of Gorky’s paintings into three-dimensional metal lines and volumes. Davis and Gorky were particularly close in the early 1930s, as the similarities between their paintings of the period attest. In September 1931, Gorky wrote an enthusiastic appraisal of Davis’s work for the magazine Creative Art. Davis returned the favor several years after Gorky’s death, with an affectionate memoir written for the Magazine of Art.

If, as Willem de Kooning teasingly claimed, John Graham, Stuart Davis, and Archile Gorky were the Athos, Porthos, and Aramis of the New York art world before World War II, he himself quickly assumed the role of d’Artagnan. Each of the Musketeers was significant to the young Dutchman’s evolution as an artist, but the most important was Gorky, de Kooning’s near-contemporary and fellow immigrant, albeit a far less recent one and a more sophisticated modernist. De Kooning always acknowledged his debt to Gorky, cryptically giving the address of Gorky’s Union Square studio as the place he “came from.” Although there is ample evidence that the two painters shared an interest in biomorphic abstraction, the clearest evidence of their closeness can be found in their exquisitely crafted figure paintings, which both continued to make in the late 1930s and 1940s, while also investigating the possibilities of abstraction. Graham also made intermittent forays into figure painting at this time. Gorky, de Kooning, and Graham all had complicated responses to the presumed need to choose between image and abstraction. Gorky worked for years on two portraits of himself as a child with his mother, even while painting the abstract images that established his reputation. De Kooning regularly returned to figural references for the rest of his life, most notoriously, in the series of grinning Women that he began in the late 1940s. Graham abandoned abstraction after the early 1940s to make eerie, carefully rendered figures.

In January 1942, John Graham organized a surprising exhibition, American and French Paintings. It combined works by well known Europeans, a handful of Americans with reputations, and a group of young, virtually unknown Americans -- a radical mix in an era when the center of advanced art was deemed to be Paris and New York was regarded as a backwater. Graham’s selection included Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Pierre Bonnard, Amedeo Modigliani, Georges Rouault, André Derain, Giorgio de Chirico, and André Dunoyer de Segonzac; along with the established Americans Stuart Davis, David Burliuk, and Walt Kuhn; the unknowns -- William Kooning, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Graham himself. On the strength of this show, de Kooning always credited Graham with having discovered Pollock.

Graham’s own work and his views were changing at this time. He seemed to lose faith with modernism and take refuge in mysticism and the values of Old Master art. He deleted the names of the progressive American artists he once championed when he revised System and Dialectics of Art his text on art theory and, in his painting, he concentrated on carefully drawn and modeled figurative works, such as this exhibition’s Poussin m’instruit, for the rest of his life. Graham’s meticulous figures suggest that he had paid close attention to Gorky and de Kooning’s portraits, but the close relationship among the Three Musketeers, Graham, Gorky, Davis, and their faithful d’Artagnan, de Kooning, was over.

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