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John Graham: Artist and Avatar exhibition records

Identifier: IR-CUR-016

Scope and Contents

Records in this collection document the research and planning that went into the exhibition John Graham: Artist and Avatar, organized by the Phillips Collection. The show also had prior stops at the Neuberger Museum, State University of New York at Purchase (June 25 to September 13, 1987); Newport Harbor Art Museum at Newport Beach, California (October 23, 1987 to January 3, 1988); University Art Museum, University of California, Berkley (January 20 to March 20, 1988); and The David and Alfred Smart Gallery of The University of Chicago (April 14 to June 12, 1988).

Starting in 1984, Eleanor “Sue” Green, the guest curator of the exhibition, conducted primary research as well as making initial contacts. She contacted numerous people who had collected Graham’s works including private donors as well as works from various art galleries. Others who worked on the exhibition include Ellen Hicks, editor of the Graham catalogue; Linda Johnson, the exhibition coordinator at the Phillips; Laughlin Phillips the previous director of the Phillips Collection, and then curator Willem de Looper.

The type of materials in the collection include loan forms for Graham’s paintings, correspondence with individual donors, photocopies of articles related to Graham, and finally other exhibition materials such as glossaries and checklists about the exhibition.


  • Majority of material found within 1985 - 1987
  • 1920s-1988
  • Usage: The materials in this collection were used in preparation for the 1988 exhibition.


Conditions Governing Access

This collection includes restricted material.

Biographical / Historical

John Graham, a painter, collector, and writer who has often been overlooked as an artist, influenced abstract expressionism. Documentation on his early life remains scarce and contradictory. Published sources have widely cited his birthplace as Kiev, Ukraine, but baptismal records indicate that Graham was born Ivan Dombrowski into a noble family in Warsaw, Poland, in 1886 (1887 in the Gregorian calendar). He spent his youth in Kiev, graduating from the University of Kiev in 1907. In World War I he served as a Calvary officer for the Russian Army and was also an officer for the “Whites” or Anti-Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. After immigrating to New York City in late 1920 to escape persecution, Dombrowski immersed himself in the local art scene, and ultimately changed his name to John D. Graham. He was known for his extravagant claims, some of which included that he had shared a prison cell with Tsar Nicholas II and that he was the son of the Roman God Jupiter. Graham’s greatest influence in the world of art are perhaps his portraits of cross-eyed women, and his 1937 essay Systems and Dialetics of Art, which had a major influence on Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other abstract expressionist artists. Among his major patrons were Duncan Phillips, who in 1929 gave Graham his first solo museum exhibition, and Katherine Dreier. Graham died in London in 1961.

John Graham: Artist and Avatar was the first major retrospective on Graham’s work. The exhibition came about when an anonymous donor contributed money to conserve and exhibit Graham’s work, with additional support for the exhibition and accompanying catalogue made possible through the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibit was held at The Phillips Collection from July 9 to September 4, 1988.


3.34 Linear Feet (8 full legal boxes)

Language of Materials



John Graham: Artist and Avatar exhibition records contain materials created and collected by the Curatorial Department, The Phillips Collection, during the course of organizing the exhibition. Included are correspondence, loan forms, and exhibition planning materials.


The collection is organized into three series. Series 1: Exhibition Research and Planning Materials, 1982-88, Series 2: Correspondence, 1984-88, Series 3: Loan Forms, 1985-88.

Materials in Series 1 relate to the planning of the exhibition, John Graham: Artist and Avatar. Included are handwritten notes, research sources on Graham (mostly photocopies of resources dated from the 1920s-1980s), and other ephemeral items. Photocopies of articles and images include date of publication if found, otherwise date copied.

Series 2 contains general correspondence regarding the exhibition as well as files with individuals. Files with individuals are arranged alphabetically by correspondent name.

Series 3 contains loan agreements between lenders and the Phillips Collection. This series contains sensitive materials and should be referred to the librarian for access.

Custodial History

The collection is owned by The Phillips Collection, and was accessioned from the curators' offices in accordance with the museum’s records schedule.

Related Materials

Researchers who wish to learn more about Graham’s life and work, should contact the Archives of American Art and inquire about the John Graham Papers. The John Graham Papers contain Graham’s correspondence, biographical materials, and personal photographs.

John Graham papers
Archives of American Art
750 9th St NW #2200
Washington, DC 20001

HathiTrust provides Public Domain access to the full text of System And Dialectics of Art.

Processing Information

After an initial survey of the collection, some materials that were duplicates or of no future reference value were disposed of with approval by the librarian. For the sake of time, paper clips were removed when possible, but staples remained. Post-it notes were photocopied or otherwise removed, and handwritten notes were maintained with the collection when possible. Photocopies of academic articles, as well as photocopies of Graham’s notes were also maintained in the collection as well.

John Graham: Artist and Avatar exhibition records, 1920s-1988
The Phillips Collection Library and Archives 1600 21st Street NW Washington D.C. 20009
William Dawson, archival volunteer, under the direction of Karen Schneider, Head Librarian. Partially revised by Colleen Hennessey, Archives Assistant
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the The Phillips Collection Archives Repository

1600 21st St. NW
Washington DC 20009 United States