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.
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