Graham was born Ivan Gratianovich Dombrowski to a Polish noble family in Kiev. He studied law in Russia and served in the czarist military during the Russian Revolution. During the war, he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks and fled to New York in 1920. There, unencumbered by aristocratic obligation, he reinvented himself. He enrolled in the Art Students League, where he was a student of John Sloan and met fellow artists Adolph Gottlieb, Alexander Calder, and Elinor Gibson (whom he later married). Graham regularly visited Paris during the late 1920s and encountered the work of Picasso and other avant-garde modernists. His early style was eclectic, adapting to the trends he witnessed in Europe. Older than many of his peers, Graham was a role model and mentor to several rising talents, notably members of the New York School. His 1937 text, System and Dialectics of Art, influenced Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner as they matured as artists.