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 Ralston Crawford  (1906 - 1978)

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Lived/Active: New York/Ontario / Canada      Known for: structurescape, non-ob, marine painting

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BIOGRAPHY for Ralston Crawford
Facts/Data
Birth
1906 (St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada)
 
Death
1978 (Houston, Texas)

Lived/Active
New York/Ontario / Canada


1977


Often Known For
structurescape, non-ob, marine painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Ralston Crawford was born September 25, 1906 in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, near Niagara Falls.  He is best known for his images of American landscapes, which he executed in a Precisionist style.

In 1910 Crawfords family moved to Buffalo, where he lived until 1926. He favored the water in his youth, sailing the Great Lakes, and later visiting Caribbean and Pacific shores while working on a tramp steamer in 1926 and 1927.  Following these years as a sailor, he then turned to art.

From 1927 to 1933, he studied at numerous institutes, including: the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania; the Hugh Breckenridge School, in East Gloucester, Massachusetts; the Academie Colarossi and Academie Scandinave in Paris in 1932 and 1933; and Columbia University, in 1933.

Crawfords first one-man show was in 1934 at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore.  His experiences from his years spent on boats and near docks, shipyards, and bridges were evident in his works.  He was also intrigued by rural architectural forms, and moved to Pennsylvania to paint, living in Chadds Ford and Exton from 1934 to 1939.

Crawford was associated with Precisionism, an art movement stressing a machine-like style, which incorporated flat colors, sharp edges, little texture, and industrial images.  At this time in the thirties, many American artists were turning away from modernism, and the Precisionists regarded industrial subjects as symbols of order and reason, and a part of America's cultural heritage.

His Precisionist works were smoothly painted and had subjects that could specifically be associated with America, reflecting the highly technological aspects of the day, including bridges, railroads, race cars, highways, grain elevators, ships, and factory scenes.  Other subjects which fascinated him were bullfighting, New Orleans jazz, and the Easter procession in Seville.  Towards the end of the 1930s, his work became increasingly abstract, with figures becoming cropped and tilted, influences perhaps resulting from his interest in photography.

With the onset of the Second World War, Crawford joined the army and was stationed in Washington, D.C., then in China, Burma, and India.  He was sent in 1946 by the magazine Fortune to be a witness to the atomic-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, prompting him to create a color serigraph of the U.S.S. Nevada, meant to convey his concerns over some of the products of modern industry.

The destructive forces of World War II influenced Crawfords work, as might be seen in Nacelles Under Construction, depicting a part of an airplane engine under construction at the Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant in Buffalo, New York. He moved away from Precisionism in his art, and developed an increasingly fragmented, hard-edged style, perhaps an expression of his disillusionment with Americas war technology.

An inveterate wanderer, Crawford continued to travel extensively in the United States and Europe, painting and producing lithographs, lecturing, and teaching. He held a series of teaching positions, among them jobs at the Cincinnati Art Academy (1940- 41), the Albright Art School in Buffalo (1941-42), the University of Michigan, the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, and the University of Colorado. In 1947, he was guest director of the Honolulu School of Arts.

In 1950 he made the first of many trips to New Orleans, where he photographed black jazz musicians.  He frequently painted in series; while during the 1940s his paintings were related to World War II, in the 1950s his life and interest centered in New Orleans, utilizing motifs found in the St.Louis Cemetery there.  In 1971 Crawford was diagnosed as having advanced cancer and given only months to live. When he died on April 27, 1978 in Houston, his body was returned to his beloved New Orleans for burial.

The collections of several universities and corporations include his works, as well as many museums, among them The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and also the Library of Congress.

Sources:
AskART files
Additional information courtesy of Jean Ershler Schatz

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from a review in The New York Times, May 11, 2001:

"Ralston Crawford: Multiple Manipulations in Space, Line and Color"

By GRACE GLUECK

Fortunately, Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) never got over his youthful exposure to the sea and its surroundings. It was an exposure that brought this still underrated American painter not only spiritual satisfaction but also a permanent subject for his art.

Growing up in Buffalo, he traveled the Great Lakes with his father, a ship's captain, during school vacations. In his early 20's, he was a sailor on steamers to the Caribbean, Central America and California before studying art.

At the Barnes Foundation in the late 1920's, he learned to worship Cézanne and Matisse, but then "I started to think about what really counted with me," he has written. "I remembered the waterfronts, my own many voyages at sea, as very important experience." The sea made him feel, he went on, in direct contact with forces larger than he.

Much of Crawford's hard-edge imagery ships, bridges, docks, cargo, dams, hoisting machinery, vast expanses of sky and water relates to the sea and other aquatic bodies. But his work, which stood at the edge of abstraction and sometimes got into it, also incorporated landlocked but lively motifs: girders, as in a New York City elevated line; buildings; walls; New Orleans
cemeteries; jazz; bull-fighting; and auto racing.

Painting at first in the Cubist-inspired Precisionist mode, a kind of architectonic realism first explored by Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth and Georgia O'Keeffe, Crawford went on in later years to a more complex abstraction, producing some of his finest work.  Like Stuart Davis, a friend to whom he is often compared, he was a brilliant manipulator of space, line and color.

Of an age with the Abstract Expressionists, Crawford, like Davis, never wavered from his hard-edge style through the New York School years of emotive, gestural painting.  He regarded his work, however, as not unconnected with his emotions. "I am never concerned with pictorial logic to the exclusion of feeling," he wrote. "My paintings are complete when they express a synthesis of my emotions and ideas."

Crawford was not only a painter but a prolific photographer and printmaker as well, and the first two of these talents are saluted in two gallery shows: "Ralston Crawford: A Retrospective," a miniroundup devoted solely to his paintings at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries, and "Ralston Crawford: Phantom Forms," a small selection of his photographs at the Laurence Miller Gallery.
The 20 paintings in the Salander- O'Reilly show range from his Cézanne- influenced still lifes of the early 1930's to the Precisionist works done later in the decade to the more subtle arrangements of form and color produced in his later years. Included, too, are several outright abstractions that he created beginning in the 1940's.

Crawford's Precisionist style matured in the late 1930's when he made paintings like Water Tank (1938), a crisp rendering of the rounded, simplified form of a water tank played off against the sharply defined geometric shapes of a building top and the sharp jags formed by louvers of a ventilator.

But his signature Precisionist work is Overseas Highway (1939), based on the causeway that connects Key West, Fla., to the mainland. It is a poetic rendering, influenced by Surrealism, of a stark, empty length of bridge in deep perspective, rushing headlong over dark water and into a serene blue sky on its way to infinity. An optimistic statement (he painted three with the
same motif)

Biography from Hollis Taggart Galleries (Artists, A-D):
Born in 1906 in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, Ralston Crawford moved to Buffalo, New York when he was ten. At that time, Buffalo was a booming port city and Crawford often sailed with his father, a cargo captain, on the Great Lakes. After graduating high school he also worked for six months on cargo ships traveling to the Caribbean and the Pacific. Crawford began his artistic training in the mid 1920’s at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. While in school, he took a side job as an animator for the Walt Disney studios. In the fall of 1927, he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied with Hugh Breckenridge. Crawford was deeply impressed by the art of Paul Cézanne; he encountered his work in the collection of Dr. Albert Barnes, where he studied from 1927-1930. In the Barnes collection he also saw the Precisionist art of Sheeler and Demuth, whose abstracted, streamlined, colorful renderings of industrial subjects appealed to Crawford and encouraged his own examination of similar themes.

In the early thirties Crawford traveled in Europe and in 1933 continued his studies at Columbia University. The following year he had his first solo exhibition at the Maryland Art Institute in Baltimore and in 1940 his work was included in a Whitney Museum exhibition. In 1941 he was included in shows at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Flint Institute of Arts, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s biennial exhibition. Between 1940 and 1942 Crawford, in addition, held teaching positions at several universities, including the Cincinnati Art Academy and the Albright Art Academy in Buffalo.

During World War II he was drafted and served as chief of the Visual Presentation Unit of the Weather Division in the Army Air Force. Although denied his first choice position as a Navy photographer, he managed to use his art skills for military service. There he developed methods of visually representing weather, using easily recognized symbols to indicate rain, snow, clouds, and other meteorological conditions; his charts resemble those used today. In 1946, Crawford was hired by Fortune magazine to document the atomic bomb detonation test at Bikini Atoll on the Marshall Islands. He portrayed the blast and its wreckage in abstract imagery dominated by fractured, angular forms whose gray tones allude to the wreckage of the ship used as a test target, punctuated by much brighter colors to indicate the explosion.

After his trip to Bikini, Crawford taught first in Honolulu and then returned to the Cincinnati Art Academy as visiting instructor. In 1949 he taught at the University of Minneapolis, Minnesota and at this time revisited his railroad car subjects from years earlier. The following year, he returned to New Orleans, a city he had visited for the first time in the twenties. He began several important series, including photographs chronicling the experiences of black jazz musicians, and paintings, drawings and photographs that captured the traditions, architecture and vibrancy of this historic city.

While best known for his Precisionist paintings, Crawford was also an accomplished photographer. He completed several series of photographs of life in New Orleans and also photographed in Spain, and in other locations during his extensive travels. Furthermore, he photographed industrial subjects including dams and ships, many of which he used as the basis for later paintings, extensively abstracting them. His later career was marked by wide travel and regular work, including experiments with film and printmaking. According to his wishes, he was buried in New Orleans when he died in 1978; the funeral was accompanied by a full brass band.

1) Barbara Haskell, "Ralston Crawford" (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1986), 56.

2) Carter Ratcliff, “Ralston Crawford and the Sea,” March 9- April 20, 1991 (New York: Hirschl and Adler Galleries), 14.

© Copyright 2008 Hollis Taggart Galleries

Biography from The Caldwell Gallery - I:
Ralston Crawford was born in Canada in 1906 and came to the U.S. in 1910. He studied at the Otis Art Institute in Las Angeles in 1927 and then went on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art from1927-30. Crawford received critical acclaim for his Percisionist interpretations of structures seen in American industrial landscapes, such as barns, silos, tanks and bridges. Crawford served in WWII, preparing weather charts for pilots.

In 1951, Crawford traveled to Paris and produced litho prints of Spanish bullfights and the war ruins of Cologne. The St. Louis cemetery in New Orleans inspired his most important series of paintings, dating from 1951-61. Austere shapes with sharp outlines and flat color in a unique perspective best characterize Crawford's work. Crawford taught at many schools and universities and has held numerous one-man shows and several traveling retrospectives. He died in 1978.


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