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On view


Artist: Ralston Crawford (American, 1906 - 1978)

Date: 1936
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 40 x 32in. (101.6 x 81.3cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Ralston Crawford'
Credit Line: Anonymous Gift
Object number: 77.140
Text Entries

Buildings epitomizes the boldly simplified geometric style and industrial subject matter with which Ralston Crawford’s early career is identified. Executed during the 1930s, when American scene painting dominated American art, it represented an aesthetic posture dramatically at odds with prevailing tastes and revealed Crawford’s allegiance to an art of order, discipline, and purity.(1) Its sharply demarcated forms and smooth paint handling link it to Precisionism, which had pioneered in the 1920s under such artists as Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. Yet while the choice of architectural subjects and the concentration on sharp-edged, geometric forms had unquestionably been inaugurated a full decade before Crawford’s experimentation with these issues, his embrace of them grew less out of the example of these older colleagues than out of his independent study of Cézanne. Moreover, perhaps because Crawford’s style developed after Precisionism had already been fully launched, his vocabulary was far more aggressively simplified and his forms more broadly handled than those of the other Precisionists. Yet, however much Crawford simplified his forms into flat color shapes, tightly fit together in shallow-spaced compositions, he never strayed from the subject’s visual appearance. Characteristic of his work during the 1930s is the silhouetting of brown, rust-red, or gray forms against a clear blue sky. As in Buildings, his elimination of detail and reduction of forms to smooth, uninflected areas of single hues created a visual interlocking of flat color planes reminiscent of Synthetic Cubism. This conjunction of an abstract, structural art with an accessible subject matter distinctly related to the American experience caused his work to be universally acclaimed when it was first exhibited.

While Crawford exploited the inherent geometry of the American industrial landscape as a means of approximating the abstract forms and flattened space of Cubism, his choice of subject Went beyond formalist considerations. For Crawford, industrial structures embodied a stable and assured civilization; they stood as affirmative symbols of the emancipation that was possible with technological achievement. The calm monumentality of Buildings be- speaks Crawford’s unswerving faith in the industrial future. By 1945 Crawford’s work had moved beyond the Precisionist style of Buildings to a more radically abstract treatment of space, shape, and color. While pictorially successful, this latter style did not generate the notoriety of his earlier mode and Crawford remained identified in the public’s mind with Precisionism until after his death in 1978.



1. Similar paintings from this period appear in Barbara Haskell, Ralston Crawford, exhibition catalog (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1985), figs. 20, 32, 36, and 37.

© Ralston Crawford Estate / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY