History And Context
John Graham and Stuart Davis, close friends throughout their lives, had a similar style and technique in their work. Graham referred to it as minimalism because they reduced a painting to the essential objects, shapes, and colors, minimizing unnecessary elements. His work is chiefly recognized as the bridge between European modernism and the growing presence of abstract art in America. Together with Davis, he explored modern art and his minimalist style, and when Graham painted Sailboat in 1927, many of his pictorial elements reflect the work of Davis.
In the painting, Graham has distorted and warped spatial relations, flattening the picture plane. By using flat, unmodulated colors, the image ceases to appear at all three-dimensional; instead it appears as if the boat is floating above the water and the tree hovers above the ground, anchored to nothing. Graham’s vivid palette of blues and greens adds vitality to the painting.
Duncan Phillips first exhibited this painting in 1929, when he gave Graham a solo exhibition at the museum. In the catalogue introduction he wrote that Graham is a “first rate artistic intelligence which will sooner or later find itself and return to life as a source of the best art.” Sailboat is a prophetic painting of Graham’s legacy to come.