The Sienese Shredder - Art Design Literature Poetry Music Culture News
Sienese Shredder 4 Now Available

Limited Edition Slipcased Set The Sienese Shredder 1–4
Available now


John Graham - Cave Canem, 1944

John Graham
Cave Canem, 1944
Oil on canvas
30 x 28 3/8 inches
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph
Randall Shapiro, The Art
Institute of Chicago.
Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago.

David Carbone



One summer’s day, during MoMA’s great Picasso retrospective, I found myself standing before a large major canvas depicting a still life set before a window, The Bird Cage of 1923. I was fascinated by the use of flat, brilliant yellow shapes, suggesting the light flooding in from the window, and playing over the whole field of the picture’s surface while holding distinctly different positions in the space of the room. As I continued to bathe in the pulsing energy of the work, I became aware that the bird wasn’t the only trapped figure. Shape-shifting within the forms of the table and its objects, like the bird who trills in its cage, is a harlequin singing and playing the guitar.

My absorption in the work’s visual dynamics was broken by the unmistakably loving tones of a girlish voice, giddy with enthusiasm, “Isn’t he thrilling?” I turned to see an animated eighty year old woman, who turned out to be the sculptor Dorothy Dehner. A conversation ensued in which she told me how she and her former husband, David Smith, had been introduced to African and Modern art, and especially Picasso, by John Graham. Listening to her I felt as though I had met an early Christian: Picasso was the Christ and Graham was his prophet.

An aristocratic White Russian, Graham was a charismatic bohemian presence in the New York art world of the twenties, thirties and forties. Graham mentored and was friends with Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, and David Smith; after his annual trips to Paris, he kept them abreast of the latest developments in European Modernism. Graham was more a connoisseur than an active painter: he amassed a large and exceptional collection of African and Oceanic Art for Frank Crowninshield, then the editor of Vanity Fair. During the thirties he painted in a synthetic cubist style. In 1937, Graham published a book on his Modernist point of view, System and Dialectics of Art, in question and answer form. Today, the book is seen as a bible of American avant-garde thought of the time. Also published that year, in April, was an article in the Magazine of Art, titled Primitive Art and Picasso.

Once, in conversation, Robert Motherwell told me that Pollock was obsessed with this article, and carried it around to re-read, when they first met. It apparently was Pollock’s introduction to Picasso, Jung and other themes central to his development. Later that summer, Graham met Pollock, and became the first to recognize and promote Pollock’s work. Reading the essay today, one may easily comprehend the references to the unconscious, Jungian theory and spontaneous creation, but what can one make of the eccentric and wildly original opening: “Plastically and aesthetically there are only two basic traditions operating up to our own day: the Greco-African and the Perso-Indo-Chinese?”

DAVID CARBONE is a painter and writer living in New York City. He has exhibited widely, including The Boston Museum, The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, The National Academy of Design, and Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago. In addition to various scholarships, fellowships and awards Carbone has been a recipient of The Englhard Foundation Award and The Ingram-Merrill Award. He has published criticism and essays on painters in Antaeus, Arts Magazine, Art and Antiques, and Modern Painters.

For the complete article purchase The Sienese Shredder #3

Related article in The Sienese Shredder #3
John Graham - The Case of Mr. Picasso

Also by David Carbone
On Seeing Nadelman's Standing Male Nude
Tracing Giovanni’s Shadow

Back to The Sienese Shredder #3

Sienese Shredder IssuesIssue 4The Sienese Shredder, Volume 4Issue 3The Sienese Shredder, Volume 3Issue 2The Sienese Shredder, Volume 2Issue 1The Sienese Shredder, Volume 1