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The Mysterious John Graham Revealed at Newport Harbor

November 01, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

OK, here is the script--it's 1920, a White Russian aristocrat fleeing the Bolsheviks escapes to New York with his beautiful wife and new baby. He is a dashing former lieutenant in the Czar's cavalry and a man of great learning, speaking a dozen languages. In his homeland he served as a lawyer and judge. Despite these accomplishments, he is initially unable to find work in New York and is reduced to teaching horsemanship while his wife serves as a governess.

But the Russian--let's call him Ivan Dombrowski--is talented and resilient. He decides to exercise a knack for drawing with both hands to become an artist. Soon he is at the epicenter of Manhattan's art world and remains well-connected in Europe. He studies with John Sloan at the Art Students League and befriends Stuart Davis in Paris. The renowned collector Duncan Phillips becomes Dombrowski's patron, buying works and sending him a regular stipend. The artist single-handedly discovers Picasso and Jackson Pollock. He is a friend and early champion of Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning and many of the Abstract Expressionists.

Cosmopolitan charm and pyrotechnical intelligence act as an open sesame for Dombrowski, who attracts everyone in the art scene including such rivals as Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art and Hilla Rebay, the inspiration for the Guggenhein Museum. Dombrowski is gracious and generous. He gives a wire portrait of himself to a friend. The work is by Alexander Calder.

Dombrowski is caustic, maniacally egocentric, insulting and stingy. He lives like a Russian monk in a cell-like apartment. He dashes to the back of the bus, forcing his friends to pay his fare. He denounces Picasso as a fraud.

When not painting, Dombrowski acts as an art dealer, curator and important theoretical writer on art. In his spare time he womanizes relentlessly, marrying three or four times and seducing every pretty girl in sight with the fervor and success of a Casanova. It gets him in trouble. He is sacked from a teaching job for fiddling with a young student. Moralistic collectors stop buying his work. It gets him out of trouble. He marries an heiress who dies and leaves him financially secure.

Dombrowski thinks he is immortal, the half-human son of Jupiter and an Earth woman. To ensure his eternal life, he studies occult sciences like theosophy and practices yoga. He is so successful at maintaining his youthful looks and physical vigor that he does cart-wheels in his 70s, has a fling with Picasso's former mistress, Francoise Gilot, and pursues romances with two beauties in their 20s. One is the Andy Warhol superstar, Ultra Violet.

Dombrowski dies at 75 in a London hospital on June 27, 1961, after consciously purging all his bodily fluids, a feat said to be possible only for an advanced master of yoga.

You believe that yarn? Good yarn but clearly invented by some Hollywood scriptwriter suckled on "The Picture of Dorian Grey." Anyone who knows anything about real artists knows they don't act like that. They work all the time. Except for their art and interesting minds, their biographies tend to be a little dull. Dombrowski doesn't wash. Somebody made him up.

Right. And guess who it was?

Dombrowski.

He was a real person. I mean he existed. But he was one of those characters who invented himself to be mythical and larger than life, his own greatest artwork. They say he was a precursor of people like Warhol and Gilbert and George. Arshile Gorky's real name was Voisdan Adoian. Dombrowski called himself John Graham and embroidered the truth until it was a Byzantine tapestry of fiction welded to the sinews of fact.

And you know what's crazy? The part I just told you, that's the true part. Well, he was really Polish and not Russian, he never acted as a judge and he did not discover Picasso--but the rest is factual as far as they can figure.

Now there is a traveling exhibition of John Graham's art at the Newport Harbor Art Museum. Organized by the Phillips Collection in Washington, it nonetheless fits perfectly into the sensibility of museum curator Paul Schimmel, who likes the offbeat tributaries of contemporary art (as if all of it were not offbeat enough by everyday standards). The Graham retrospective--the first ever out here--is so bewitching it threatens to swamp an otherwise respectable companion showing of 10 winners in the sixth annual round of Awards in the Visual Arts that is also on view to Jan. 3.

When word got out that the Graham show was coming, even decently literate art pros hereabouts looked politely blank. Graham is the kind of artist known mainly to lovers of esoterica--rather like the German fetish doll maker Hans Bellmer, with whom Graham shared a slick drawing style and presumptive hang-ups. Even art mavens tend to have but a single image of Graham, the guy who painted the cross-eyed ladies.

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