Modern Avant-garde

John D. Graham
Matthew Nowicki

People from the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also contributed greatly to the development of modern art in the US. John D. Graham (1886-1961) was a Ukrainian-American modernist painter, collector, curator, art theorist, and mentor. He was born Jan Dąbrowski into a family of Polish nobles in Kyiv, where he lived until the First World War. During the war he distinguished himself during fighting in Moldova and Ukraine as an officer in the Tsarist Russian Army. He fought as part of the legendary cavalry Circassian (Caucasian Muslim) regiment of Grand Duke Michael. Graham then also served in the footguard of Czar Nicholas. He came to the US as a refugee from Bolshevik Russia and started his artistic career in New York. Graham created a new figurative style of painting that was inspired by the work of the classical masters. Graham subsequently became a pioneer of modern art in the US. The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art has praised him as “his titanic effect upon the direction and development of American art surpassed that of many critics and influential artists”. He championed modernism as a curator and collector. In the 1940s and 1950s, Graham became a mentor to a younger generation of artists, who developed a new style called abstract expressionism. Graham’s impact on the development of this style in America is especially clear given his role as an intermediary between the European avant-garde and the budding US art scene. His writing on art theory proved highly influential, particularly among the New York School, an informal group of musicians, dancers, poets, and painters active in the 1950s and 1960s. Later, Graham contributed to the rise of minimalism, an art movement that came to dominate American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s. His works can be viewed in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.

Muzeum of Modern Art, NYC
Museum of Modern Art, NYC, Source: Shutterstock

Maciej Nowicki or Matthew Nowicki (1910-1950) was a prominent Polish-American modernist architect. He was born in Siberia but his family originated from the Eastern lands. His father came from Suwałki region, an ethnically diverse region that is now divided between Poland and Lithuania. His father Zygmunt graduated from a teacher-training college near Kaunas and was one of the founding fathers of the peasant political movement in Poland. After the First World War, Nowicki’s family moved to Chicago, where Zygmunt served as a general consul of Poland. Maciej Nowicki started his art career in Chicago studying at the Museum of Art, where he first received awards for his work. After coming back to Poland, Maciej became a young modernist visionary within the architecture scene. His pre-war buildings in Poland include the Tourist Hostel in Augustów in the Suwałki region. The development of Nowicki’s modern architectural worldview is visible in his competition entries. This includes a mosque in Warsaw for Lipka Tatars, the spa building in Druskininkai (now in Lithuania) and finally the Polish pavilion for the World Expo in New York. After the Second World War, Nowicki migrated to the US, where he became a member of the “Workshop of Peace” team that worked on the United Nations Headquarters. He was also chosen as chair of the Faculty of Architecture at North Carolina State University. His most extensive work is perhaps the J.S. Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was built in 1952 after his death. It was the first structure in the world to use a cable-supported roof and was the direct predecessor to today’s domed stadiums. Nowicki, together with Albert Mayer, an American planner and architect, became well known for their substantial contribution to American new town development. Nowicki prepared the master plan for Chandigarh, a new modern city in India that was added to the World Heritage List by UNESCO in 2016. Unfortunately, Nowicki died prematurely in 1950 at the age of 40. He was involved in a plane crash over Egypt whilst flying from India to New York.