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Ellwood Graham


Pudding Stone

Oil on masonite
33.875 x 23 x 2.125 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

Ellwood Graham settled permanently on the Monterey Peninsula in 1937, befriending prominent artists, scholars, and writers of the region’s bohemian enclave, including John Steinbeck, Doc Ricketts, and Henry Miller. After serving in the military during World War II, Graham landed in New York City. For a few years, he lived in Greenwich Village, immersed in its intellectual and artistic life. Around 1945 he began a series of what he called glyph paintings, incorporating evocative personal symbols within a matrix or gridlike structure. This direction in American art was just taking off in the work of other artists in Graham’s circle, including Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell.

The colorful pictographs in Graham’s Pudding Stone are intentionally open to multiple interpretations. Some are vaguely suggestive of esoteric or scientific symbols; others are cryptic yet ordinary: an eye, a clover. Most are like miniature studies for larger abstract paintings. Structure is also important. An iron red background color holds the grid together and bleeds through the painted glyphs, which are scratched and scraped, accentuating Graham’s loose and gestural approach to the composition.

The painting’s title makes reference to the legendary Paleozoic-era rock formations called puddingstones, found in glacial deposits throughout the lower Hudson Valley region, and consisting of rounded pebbles cemented together in a red ironstone matrix. In ancient Britain such stones were used to mark sacred sites and were believed to have numerous magical properties, including the ability to ward off evil.

The paintings of Graham and his circle are now considered to have formed the foundation for a later generation of artists, including Jasper Johns, who incorporated sign systems into their work. The Whitney Museum of American Art has two glyph paintings by Graham in its permanent collection, both dated 1950.

Susan M. Anderson

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