Ralston Crawford: Photography into Painting/ Painting into Photography
William C. Agee, Evelyn Kranes Kossak Professor of Art History, Hunter College
February 01, 2007
“You will make illuminating discoveries.” (Ralston Crawford, 1949)
I have never hesitated to call Ralston Crawford a major American artist, and today, thirty years after his death in 1978, I am all the more convinced of his high stature. That he is not more widely accorded this deserved position may be due in part to his date of birth, 1906, that placed him squarely in the midst of the Abstract Expressionists. Crawford’s lucid, hard-edged painting, was a world apart from post-war painterly expressionism; he seemed to many like a solitary soul, at odds with his times, even though he had eloquent champions such as Donald Bear and James Johnson Sweeney, leading critics of the day. Had he been born ten years earlier, a part of the generation that valued precision of line and form, it might have been a different story, for it is only recently that we have come to understand that no matter his age Crawford was part of a long and venerable tradition of crisp, linear painting in America that began with John Singleton Copley and extended through Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, Ellsworth Kelly, and Donald Judd.
Crawford never settled on one style, image, or even technique or medium, making him doubly hard to place, for he was all things, a painter, printmaker, draughtsman, and photographer. He was too restless, curious, absorbed in the world around him, to stay still for very long, either in his art or in his being. He traveled the world, literally the whole world, from Maine to Bora Bora, “exploring the terrain as a historian would.” (Virginia Tillyard, 1986). There was always something more to see and to do, something just over the horizon, for it was no coincidence that he was born the son of a ship’s captain, spending years on the open sea, discovering faraway places by water and by land. He is best known as a painter, but Crawford could never be limited to just one medium, any more than he could stay in one place; he used drawing, printmaking and photography and motion pictures as well as painting to record his experience, indeed to explore and discover what that experience had been. What he saw and what he felt were fixed firmly in a large and diverse body of art, including literally thousands of negatives. The full range of his work added up to an enormously rich and varied treasure of visual and emotive experience and memory, compiled over almost fifty years of making art, forming and fueling his aesthetic and psychic nourishment.
I once thought of the photographs primarily as simple aides-memoirs, initial guides for his paintings, then more or less put aside. Turns out that this is far from the truth, for they are central to his art, and their relation to it, be it painting, drawing or printmaking, is complex, intricate, unpredictable, and even ambiguous, given to multiple uses, never filling just one role. To be sure, judging solely by this exhibition, his photographs stand on their own as high quality, original works of art. Many of these images would be memorable in their own right even had he not been a painter. Each image has its own meanings and rewards and merits our close attention. But beyond this, they all should be understood as a part of the cumulative and continuous whole that comprises his art, a single unity in which one image builds on, enriches and informs every other image, be it a painting, drawing, print or another photograph. Each is part of a process in which work builds on work, one inflecting another, fusing with another, evolving over the years, recalling the concept of durée, described by the philosopher Henri Bergson early in the twentieth century, and surely well-known to Crawford in his student days with Dr. Albert Barnes in the 1920s.
Any given photograph might well serve as an immediate source for a painting, drawing or lithograph; but it might also be put aside and only used later, sometimes many years later. That photo itself might have been a result of countless shots, taken from various and multiple angles, distances, and perspectives, under varying conditions of light, as the artist zeroed in to find the essential pictorial architecture that defines any given painting or print by Crawford. Further, that one photo might have undergone numerous croppings and exposures, printed in different sizes, and tones, until he got what he wanted. In turn that same photo might then combine with a drawing to form the genesis of a painting, or a lithograph, or both. Or a photo such as Third Avenue El, c.1954 [ill. no. 24], a striking and compelling image of urban life, might be but a single step in an ongoing series of paintings, drawings, and other photographs that developed over a long period, here part of an extensive and fruitful series in all media that he began in 1944 and continued until late in his life. There was enormous variety of shape and color in this series, and the stark patterns of light and dark of the city and the El could be transformed by the most intense, high-keyed, raucous series of color planes imaginable that transformed a painting into a veritable lush tropical paradise.
Often Crawford went back to photography to explore anew old themes and forms he had long loved, as in the c.1975 San Francisco, Fisherman’s Wharf [ill. no. 9], finding a new and ever more lively visual experience he had been exploring since the late 1940s. Indeed, most of his later photographs—and paintings—had been built on themes, especially ships and docks, that he had explored since his youth, in the 1930s, when he first made his name as a Precisionist painter. Doubtless this urge to unveil ever more motifs within an old subject had compelled him at least in part to take up photography in 1938. This back and forth methodology seems to suggest that he challenged himself to make photographs with the same distillation and visual intensity of a modern abstract painting, something Alfred Stieglitz had surely posed for himself in the early years of the twentieth century after seeing the art of Matisse and Picasso. Conversely, Crawford might have asked himself could he then make a painting as lucid as a photograph of the same theme, a question Arthur Dove set for himself in light of his close experience with Stieglitz’s art.
Crawford, well-versed in art history after his studies with Dr. Barnes, almost seems to have posed the former question, but with a twist: could he make photographs that could rival well-known paintings by other artists, past and present, as a way of enriching his sense of the possibilities within his own art. What might he learn from this procedure? Where, once again, might this take him? This seems to be the case when we compare, for example, his photographs of ships and wharfs that acknowledge the abstracting work of Stuart Davis of similar themes that Davis had begun in the early 1930s. Or, the mood of Empty Street, from the 1950s, seems to offer a rigorous formal and emotional challenge and redefinition to Edward Hopper’s deserted urban vistas. In turn, Utah Cliffs [ill. no. 32] bears an uncanny resemblance to the rock formations of Cézanne’s late paintings of Bibémus Quarry, and the precipitous drop into space, etched by the jagged line of rock in Utah, Rock Edge, c.1974, brings to mind the dense, craggy formations in Clyfford Still’s paintings of the mid-1940s.
To be sure Crawford brings his own vision to them, one tempered by the deep emotion that he invested in all his art, for he never explored a subject unless it moved him on some emotional level. His photograph Ship Detail, c.1947, a beautiful composition of the highest formal clarity, is infused with his deep love and knowledge of the sea and of the ships on which he had been raised and had spent so much time as a young man. This and other photographs, among them Shelter, c.1974, are based on an airtight grid-like armature that will bring to mind the rigors of Mondrian, of whom he was well aware; but here, the image is disrupted by a cardboard box, a homeless shelter, a poignant reminder in the seventies of the growing disparity between rich and poor in this country. So, too, Crawford took numerous photos of the life and people of New Orleans, a city he loved deeply, images which will live as a poignant reminder of a way of life, of a great city itself, now virtually lost in the aftermath of twin disasters, a hurricane and an incompetent, corrupt government.
Crawford’s art, all of it, all the way out, painting, drawing, photography, printmaking, combined a rare formal clarity and rigor with an epic sense of life’s great and terrible themes, life and death, war and peace, progress and destruction, spirituality and the secular, the human and the technological. It was all part of the vast spectacle of a world he loved—“I find life handsome,” he once said—a world he took great delight in discovering. Through his art, he sought in its ceaseless change and multiplicity, even its chaos, to distill a harmony and order, a peace and oneness with the self and the world, that is nothing less than exemplary.