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Ralston Crawford

Ralston Crawford

1906-1978
Born: St. Catherine's, Ontario

Ralston Crawford was a painter, lithographer and photographer who combined geometric forms, complex abstractions and sharp focus to highlight his interest in America’s growing industrialization and rapid modernization. Crawford’s work became a defining force in the Precisionist movement.

Crawford was born September 5, 1906 in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. He moved to Buffalo with his family in 1910, where he attended Lafayette High School. After graduating in 1925, he spent time as a seaman on a tramp steamer, traveling to the coasts of the Caribbean and Central America before making his way to California.[1] Settling in Los Angeles in 1927, Crawford studied at the Otis Art Institute.[2] During this time he also worked at the Walt Disney Studio, where he worked with Walt Disney to draw Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.[3]

After two years in Los Angeles, Crawford moved to Pennsylvania to pursue a career as a fine artist, a breakaway from the commercial art he had been doing.[4] Over the next three years, he continued his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia, and the Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA.[5] It was during this training that he was exposed to the work of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Monet, whose avant-garde styles would influence Crawford’s own gradual exploration into geometric abstractionism. Crawford continued his training, studying from 1930-1932 under the Tiffany Fellowship.[6] He then went abroad, spending a year studying throughout Europe.

Returning to the United States in 1933, Crawford held his first one-man exhibition the following year at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore.[7] His next one-man exhibition, held in 1937 at the Boyer Galleries in Philadelphia, was a success.[8] In 1939, Crawford painted Overseas Highway, a depiction of the Florida-Key West highway. He incorporated strong Precisionist movement influences, using hard edged, clearly defined geometric forms, strong spatial definitions and perspective, color and light to provide an optimistic appreciation for such industrial designs. The painting has been described as an early success for Crawford, and a defining moment for his contribution to Precisionism:

“Combining many techniques, it was a breakthrough for the painter. Overseas Highway feels fresher and more modern than his Precisionist forbearers, as if the art world is being launched along with the viewer into a cool new feature, headed toward the horizon at high speed, the Depression behind, an uncertain but bright future ahead.”[9]

The painting was reproduced in Life Magazine, and brought Crawford critical acclaim and national recognition.[10]

While his notoriety as an artist continued to increase, Crawford also spent time working as a professor. From 1940-1941, he worked as a visiting instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He also taught as a visiting instructor at the Buffalo School of Fine Arts in 1942 and later at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the University of Minnesota from 1948-1949.[11]

With the onset of World War II, Crawford found himself enlisting to the Air Force in 1943. While his military service brought his professional artistry to a standstill, he still utilized his artistic skills. He was appointed Chief of the Visual Presentation Unit under the Weather Division, and was responsible for preparing pictorial presentations of weather patterns, air flow and storm structures.[12] These maps were both practical and aesthetically pleasing, garnering attention and multiple graphic art commissions for Crawford, in particular with Fortune.[13] After illustrating several covers and interiors for the publication, he was invited to cover the first test of a nuclear bomb on Fortune’s behalf.[14] On July 1, 1946, Crawford was the only artist observer to witness the two nuclear detonations at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.[15]

The detonations and Crawford’s subsequent works signaled a shift in his art. He began to gravitate toward geometric abstraction, bringing to the forefront the power of the technology he witnessed, as well as the potential devastation it can cause:

“In contrast to his earlier work, the fractured, spiked forms of paintings such as Test Able bespoke a world whose stability and assurance had been irrevocably lost.”[16]

Crawford’s ongoing development of his artistic style was not limited solely to painting. He oftentimes dabbled in other media, including lithographs, silkscreens and repurposing his photography for image-making for his paintings.[17] While he experimented in other media all throughout his career as a means of innovation, he began to explore these alternative art forms more intensely following the war.

Most notably, he began to embrace photography as a tool of observation and documentation for the jazz culture in New Orleans. He had previously traveled to the area in 1926 and 1938, but by the early 1950s Crawford had begun to embrace New Orleans as a second home of sorts.[18] He would often travel to engage with the music, the culture and the artists, capturing it all through his photography. He would regularly find himself in the city’s jazz clubs and back rooms, mingling with black artists and patrons. Despite these interactions being socially unacceptable at the time and sometimes even illegal, Crawford still managed to capture the living jazz movement and sound, and its lasting impression on the city overall.[19]

All of Crawford’s works, from his lithographs to his weather maps, his paintings and his photographs, were all exhibited extensively throughout his life. His works have been exhibited nationally, including in the National Academy of Design in New York (1947), the Cincinnati Art Museum (1949), the San Francisco Museum of Art (1961), and the Zabriskie Gallery in New York (1976).[20] His works have also been included in many public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.[21]

Crawford died in 1978, after a long battle with cancer. He was given a traditional jazz funeral service and buried in New Orleans.[22] His work, specifically his photography, has been featured in multiple retrospective exhibitions following his death. His work was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1986, the Zabriskie Gallery in New York in 2007, 2008 and 2010, and the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2012.[23]



[1] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived Zabriskie Gallery Exhibition Catalog, 1976.

[2] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived New York Times Obituary, 1978.

[3] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived Buffalo Spree magazine article, 1986.

[4] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/

[5] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived New York Times Obituary, 1978.

[6] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived Zabriskie Gallery Exhibition Catalog, 1976.

[7] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived New York Times Obituary, 1978.

[8] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived press release from The Phillips Collection, 1986.

[9] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/

[10] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived press release from The Phillips Collection, 1986.

[11] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived Zabriskie Gallery Exhibition Catalog, 1976.

[12] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Unknown archived publication.

[13] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/

[14] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/

[15] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/

[16]  “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived Whitney Museum of American Art Exhibition Catalog, 1985.

[17] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived Buffalo Spree magazine article, 1986.

[18] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/

[19] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/

[20] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived Zabriskie Gallery Exhibition Catalog, 1976.

[21] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived New York Times Obituary, 1978.

[22] “Ralston Crawford”, Burchfield Penney Artist File, Archived New York Times Obituary, 1978.

[23] “Ralston Crawford”, Menconi + Schoelkopf Artist profile, http://www.msfineart.com/artists/ralston-crawford/