After reading Dore Ashton’s book on the New York School, I was fascinated by John Graham. Partially because I liked his painting, but also because he was framed by Ashton as a bridge between what was happening in Europe and America. His many artist peers also thought of him as a deep thinker. His book, “System and Dialectics of Art”, at the time it was published was consider an important work. I found a copy, falling apart at the Art and Architecture Reading Room of the New York Public Library and spent two days in that lovely space reading. Below are a number of photographed pages as well as verbatim quotations. Can one define a system of art? Clearly, John Graham did.
Notes from “System and Dialectics of Art” by John Graham; © 1939 Delphic Studios, New York, NY; Printed in France
Page 14: 2. — What is abstraction? Abstraction is the evaluation of form perfectly understood. …. Art has nothing to do with representation, impersonation, interpretation, decoration, compromise, character, caricature or psychological problems. It contains psychological problems but deal with them in terms of form and not subject matter.
Page 15: 4. — What is the purpose of art?
The purpose of art in general is to reveal the truth and to reveal the given object or event; to establish a link between humanity and the unknown; to create new values; to put humanity face to face with a new event, a new marvel.
The business of art is not to portray life or nature or their aspects (there are other agencies that do it better, such as photography, bookkeeping, etc.),but by using nature as a point of departure draw pertinent conclusions, create new values with will eventually enlighten people on the subject of pure truth.
The purpose of art in particular is to re-establish a lost contact with the unconscious (actively by producing works of art and passively by contemplating works of art), with the primordial racial past and to keep and develop this contact in order to bring to the conscious mind the throbbing events of the unconscious mind. Conscious mind is incapable of creating; it is only a clearing house for the powers of the unconscious.
Page 15: 6. — What is a work of art?
- A work of art is a phenomenon or event only as far as it is perceived by human consciousness.
- A work of art is a creative, significant and unique expression of one’s point of view. A work of art is a problem posed and solved. A work of art is an organism, it functions.
Page 16: 8. – Why does an artist create? Artist creates because of (conscious or unconscious) desire to arrest motion and to contemplate; because it is a joy to create. The source of creation is sorrow. An ability to suffer is a gift, a gift possessed by few. Talents deprived of the gift of sorrow, produce only near-values. Capacity of perception depends greatly on capacity to suffer. Suffering is the measure of one’s genius. Suffering extends the limits of consciousness.
Page 19 … on what is a genius … on what is an erudite man … “There is such a thing as aimless scholarliness, such as a man possessed by a desire to create without having an adequate mental and emotional equipment and who goes on in his writing, piling up information upon information without being capable of either coordinating it or systematizing it or drawing and pertinent conclusions. The activity of such men is rather more fretful than creative, more obscuring than enlightening, more disastrous than beneficial.
Page 21: “Art offers an almost unlimited access to ones unconscious. However, the only way to approach the powers of the unconscious is through our emotions and instincts. In this way art differs from craft — first is based on the powers of the unconscious, the second is based on the powers of the conscious mind. Thus art is the best medium for humanity to get in touch with the sources of its power.
Page 22: 19. — What is design and what are the elements of design?
…. “Pure design belongs to the domain of applied art.”
Page 23: 20. – What is composition and what is it based upon?
Composition is a design (two dimensional or three dimensional) based on intuitive and creative elements and is a unique entity in itself …
Composition does not depend on the pure perfection of design. Composition is a design personified, a design not mechanically perfect but emotionally perfect. A design of an evocative nature. Design that is magic. In a perfect composition shapes excluded and shapes included are equally important. … Pure composition belongs to the domain of art.
Page 24: The history of pure painting can be expressed as follows: Prehistoric, Greco-Egyptian, Pompeian, Byzantine, Gothic, Ucello, Ingres, Cezanne, Picasso and Mondrian.
Page 24: 22. — What is abstract painting?
An abstract painting is argument drawn to a conclusion. The point of departure for an abstracting painting is nature though the conclusion may be far removed from it …
Most abstract paintings are bad not because they are abstract, but because they are bad paintings.
The only legitimate abstract paintings is the painting based on and departing from hard reality and not from imagination.
Abstract painting is the highest and the most difficult form of painting because it requires of the artist the ability to take full stock of reality and the ability to make a departure from it.
Abstract paint is the most realistic, materialistic and idealistic in the end.
Page 25-26: 23. — What is the difference between a work of art and a work of craft?
A work of art:
1) is the result of vision
2) has no commercial value in view
3) has only amateur’s (collector’s) value and social value
4) is unique
5) is of evocative quality.
A work of craft:
1) is the result of an able and skilled effort
2) has applied or commercial value in view
3) has a definitie market value
4) can be duplicated
5) is of no evocative quality
Page 29/30: 28. — Why is art included in educational systems?
Art is intended to counterbalance the brutalizing effects of modern, commercial education, art being both a source and a result of reflection.
In Europe art education is provided automatically by living in and walking through cities such as Paris, Vienna, Venice … There are education in school is formal and incidental, it consists mostly of certain data on art: the qualitative art education is done mainly on the street and in the home where centuries of tradition have amassed and preserved the heritage of culture based on intuitive thinking.
The streets of American and English cities do not provide a free, constant and penetrating education in art. …
Page 30++; defines a range of terms including:
Minimalism is the reducing of painting to the minimum ingredients for the sake of discovering the ultimate, logical destination of painting in the process of abstracting. Painting starts with a virgin, uniform canvas and if one works ad infinitude it reverts again to a plain uniform surface (dark in color), but enriched by process and experiences lived through. Founder: Graham (!).
Dadaism is anarchy in art – art without objectives. Anarchy, not as a disorder, but anarchy as a system and process. It stresses that the objective importance of things is purely arbitrary. Dadaism performed the function of the house-wrecking process in the realm of the romantic art. It is a useful process preceding the foundation laying process for the new structure. Founders: Arp, Tzara, Duchamp
Abstract art in general (in its best examples) is an art based on profound knowledge of reality, knowledge of anatomy of space and bodies and plastic destination as well as origin of forms. Abstract art uses this knowledge as a point of departure. It revaluates the spaces and forms observed into new terms. It is evocative. It is materialistic – it operates directly in the medium itself – paint, stone, etc. with full understanding of their sensuous qualities and potentialities instead of relying on make-believe representations. …. Abstract art like all philosophic thinking, starts with certain assumptions, advances against the grain of mystery, process, dispenses again, draws conclusions, deals in potentialities. Pure abstract art is a superior kind of art because the artist has a double tasks before him: a) to take stock of reality, and b) to make departure from reality at the same time. One cannot make departure from reality unless one knows and understands this reality. ….
Abstract art departs from reality and nature only to draw far-reaching conclusions about this reality. A legitimate abstract work of art can be produced only on the basis of profound knowledge of nature. The artists who stay always within the limits of naturalistic art are those who can see only superficial aspects of nature, because to see manifestations and law of nature profoundly, requires profound gifts and profound gifts impose great responsibilities. The desire to copy nature is the desire to escape responsibilities, it is the result of a sense of guilt, racial or personal imposed by parental prohibitions or both.
Page 35: 34. — Of what does the study of art consist?
The study of art consists of the development and the understanding of a point of view.
Page 40++: 37. – Why is modern art inacceptable to many people?
The reason that great truths do not register any further than conscious mind and remain there mummified like museum curious is that the natural desire for whole truth conflicts with an inner compulsion which will not allow the greatest desire to emerge easily, from fear that if the whole truth is faced once squarely the person will have no other choice but to act honestly and directly. This creates a compulsion to ignore truth. Fear automatically closes inner chambers of the unconscious mind’s understanding as precaution against any upheaval that might disturb the accepted running of things. The modern art in all its branches opens the way to unconditional acceptance of truth. A seed dropped into unconscious mind bears legitimate fruit in one’s conscious and prompts one to resolutions and direct action. Truth expressed in great works of art is the truth of art of economics, of politics, of life, of love, it is a universal truth.
People, average people, the product of our civilization in which thwartings and repressions of most vital human faculties have reached the highest peak, these average people cannot see the main issue of any question but are able to see only trifling fractions, nothing but details. In fact they concentrate their effort and attention frantically on irrelevant details like ostrich to protect themselves from seeing the whole truth.
To understand modern art one must consider its best examples. It is idle to say that abstract painting is passe, rivers do not flow backwards.
Pure form can tell more about the content than any story could possibly do.
Form at one and the same time speaks of the drama of the phenomenon in question and of the drama of the universe.
A painting does not have to look like a house, a cow or anything else, it does not depend on these things, it is a self sufficient object, a law unto itself.
The record of all human intercourse is perpetuated through the medium of symbols. The fact that the child cannot read the symbols of printed matter does not stop his teachers from teaching him these symbols. The fact that the masses of society cannot read advanced abstract art (anymore than they can read higher mathematics) does not signify that the artist should stop producing this art for the benefit of this very society.
Page 51: 46. — Is art statatic or dynamic?
A great work of art is always static. A dynamic state is the natural state of things and there is no accomplishment in falling in with eternal motion, the heroic feat is to arrest motion by stupendous effort and to contemplate.
Page 51 47. — Should art be objective or subjective?
Art is a subjective point of view expressed in objective terms. Only industry is objective.
Page 52: 48. — What is form?
Page 55++: 56. What is the relationship of art to technique?
Art is essentially a creative process. Technique, therefore, plays but a little part in it, namely the part of discipline and study. It is legitimate to keep on developing one’s technique as long as one uses it to learn more and more about the object or about the medium itself, but the moment technique begins to be an aim in itself, it serves only the purpose of disguising ignorance and lack of ability. Then technique becomes an impediment to the artist and a dishonest camouflage to the public.
Artist’s work presents a super-mathematical exactness (point-value) of form and shapes, only the edges of his forms and shares are careless and spontaneously inaccurate. Craftsman’s work shows an absolute falsity of forms and shapes but the edges are meticulous and exact.
Understanding of space and form expands consciousness, technical development stultifies it.
Page 62: 63.— What is subject matter and what is its history?
Subject matter is the literary content, which, along with nature, has served in the past as appoint of departure for creative work in art. SEE photo
Page 66-67: 68. — What is the relationship of genius to suicide?
Artist no more than anyone else enjoys poverty. On the contrary artist need comfort and freedom from distracting worries to be able to move freely with wealth of leisure and materials. Artist as a creator can neither accept the fate of poverty, nor produce the inferior art which would be saleable, nor indulge in humiliating intrigue.
Page 67: 69. — What is the relationship of genius to university?
The difference between universities and other educational institutions, is that university is not a teaching institution but an institution of learning. Professors are not in a university to teach, Professors are there to make declarations, frequently declarations totally unrelated to their subject.
Page 75. 75. — What is American Art?
Page 81. 80.— What is the relationship between the theory and practice in art?
It seems that writers on art and artist all verbally agree that form and creation are the essence of art, but when it comes to practice, the concrete examples, the artists and writers make the same mistake, they miraculously forget about all form and creation. The majority of artist in their work show no sign of understanding of form or space. The same with writers….
Page 83-84. 85.—What is the difference between sculpture and painting?
Sculpture is essentially an old art which achieved its highest point of realization in ancient times, an art more direct and consequentially requiring less transcription. Painting is a essentially a modern art because its basic element – SPACE – was first consciously used only in the most recent times, since the Impressionists. Painting as a whole up to the time of Impressionists was representative, illustrative, anecdotal and decorative, with few exceptions, it was an applied art.
Painting as art is not one hundred years old …
Page 92. 92.— What is the relationship of art to decoration and photography?
The purpose of photography is to imitate nature. The purpose of art is to create. Photography concerns itself with delusions, art concerns itself with reality of things. …
Page 93. 96.— What is thre real influence of Cezanne on modern painting? And of Picasso?
Everything painted after Cezanne bears Cezanne’s influence. …
All paintings painted after Cezanne are after Cezanne and not before. All paintings painted after Picasso are after and not before. Some paintings bear an honest influence and others do not, some bear an intelligent influence and others do not but all bear an influence, either openly or camouflages. It is needless to say that an open influence is a result of studios character and a camouflaged one is a result either of lack of honesty or intelligence.
Cezanne and Picasso are themselves products of preceding influences. Picasso is so much greater than any painter of the present or the past times that it is probable he is also the greatest painter of the future. He has painted everything and better; he has exhausted all pictorial sources….
Picasso drops a casual remark and a score of artists make a life’s work of it. Picasso is devastating, he picks out an object and discloses its actual reality, germination and destiny. In his painting you can trace an object back to its cell-origin and forward to its ultimate logical destination.
Picasso came at a particularly opportune time: his profound training, his genius, his uncompromising courage and vision, his lucky fortune (or his unconscious ability to attract lucky fortune) have provided him with rich patrons and fame a the necessary moment which have allowed him to give full play to his genius. His greatest paintings were painted when he could dispense with all financial worries and use paint materials unsparingly.
There are artists more modern than Picasso. His, is a purely romantic basis. Picasso signifies the end of the old hand-made world. His art is a gorgeous funeral to the departing order.
Page 97. 98. – What is posterity?
Posterity is an unknown quantity, posterity is an accident. One cannot say that time will determine the value of a work of art because times is not existent and is used only as a measurement of space. Due to the accidental nature of posterity, its exaltation of a particular work of art has no more significance than its condemnation. Saints observe no clocks.
Page 100. 100. – What is success, fame, recognition?
All human fame is 90% accident and 10% ability. Out of a hundred talents born, one achieves fame and recognition during his life time, nine some time after their death and 90 are lost, their names and their works.
How many men of great talent on their way to remarkable achievement in the present day are ruthlessly destroyed by critics, dealers and public while mediocre, insensitive hacks who by intrigue and industrious commercial effort have gained recognition and success will go down in history with their inane creations. Success, fame and greatness coincide very seldom.
Page 104++ . 107. – What is Space?
See photos – always two dimensions!!
… Furthermore, the third dimension is not a new dimension but a dimension made up at an angle, to the already established: a) longitude and b) latitude. The first dimension plus the second dimension determine all things, without them things are unthinkable, the third dimension is nothing else but one of the two elementary ones repeated. So the third dimension is not an element as the first and the second but a by-product. Consequently Space is two-dimensional and can appear three-dimensional only the operation of the plane and due to the optical delusion resulting from the binocularity.
Page 109. 109. – What is time?
Time as an independent element does not exist. Time is a characteristic, an adjective, a coefficient of space. Time is a modus to measure and record the changes taking place in space.
Page 109-110. 111. – What is mysticism?
Human for ages were trying to devise a means of getting in touch with their unconscious as the source of all constructive power. At times they succeeded in various degrees. The means to contact one’s unconscious were afforded so far by two elements: mysticism or faith and art. The terminology varied but the procedure was the same – concentration. The powers of the unconscious were referred to as: god, soul, divinity, Satan, angel, saint, psyche, spirit, ghost, etc., and whose manifestations were classified as miracles.
Page 111. 113. — What is vision?
Vision is capacity to see, to retain and to deliver directly without going through the tedious processes of petty calculations. In the past, manifestations of vision were considered as something mystic or divine. It may be said now however that vision is a highly potent condition of consciousness not unlike the condition of matter when it is dynamite or radium.
Page 111. 114. – What is reportage?
Reportage is the task of observing incidents of external life and recording them as photographically as possible without insight into the inner depths of the past, or the causality and origins of the present, without vision of the incidents’ destination and without creative transposition of the facts. Reportage or journalism in literature or painting is the channel into which the minor talent flows.
Page 151 – Quotations:
“The spirit of mystification often lies at the bottom of great discoveries” Jean Cocteau
“We see what we know” Goethe
“Art is a lie that reveals the truth” Picasso
“The people who occupy themselves with art are on the post part impostors” Picasso
**** END of NOTES ****
David – I was thrilled to find your post. I’m reading Ninth Street Women so found out about John’s influence and I wanted to read his words. THANK YOU for sharing your pages and notes. I am sincerely grateful. Lyn
Thank you for the kind words and yes — John Graham’s book is rather remarkable. In it’s day it was an widely read and important book. Today it’s hard to find except in a libraries archive. Good luck with your studies.
Thank you for sharing these observations and theories of John Graham. I’m just now reading the Dore Ashton book in which he is mentioned (at length), but I’ve been fascinated by him for many years. I’ve read about him numerous times before and, like you, am forever looking for more information about him. Recently I checked the price on amazon, com of System and Dialectics of Art, and of course it is unaffordable. (Luckily I have an excellent copy of John Graham: Maverick Modernist, which I truly cherish.) I’m really happy I found your website.
Thank you for taking a look. As noted, this book by John Graham, although ‘famous’ in its day I could only find in the rare books collection of the NYC Public Library. The copy I looked at was boxed since the binding was long gone. Page by page with cotton gloves. But, a good and interesting read!
Unable to find this book, I’m extremely grateful for your notes. They confirm my beliefs and will inform me on my quest to paint more abstractly. Thank you!
Glad it was helpful. And yes … it’s hard to find. As noted, I could read it only in the Architecture Reading Room of the NY Public Library. You could try to find a local copy at:
no wonder the painters read Graham–he inflated their pride
thanks for sharing the pp from the book