New YorkVilcek Foundation
Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs
May 13 – November 13, 2019
For an exhibition to present an artist’s career through the lens of chronological growth, punctuated by discrete successes and shifts in style, often betrays the true condition of artistic production in favor of neat market-driven fictions. Art-making involves backward research, sustained observation, and divergent threads; in short, growth is cumulative and sometimes recursive, but rarely straightforward.
It was refreshing, then, to visit the Vilcek Foundation’s Ralston Crawford exhibition, Torn Signs—the namesake painting of which is presented less as a crowning achievement and more as a nexus of possibility within a diverse practice. The exhibition foregrounds Crawford’s projects in other media (photography, printmaking, and film) alongside the larger scale oil paintings for which he is known.
Torn Signs (1974–76), situated quite literally at the center of the exhibition, bridges two distinct series in Crawford’s oeuvre. Though its title traces its roots to the “Torn Signs” series of photographs from the mid ’60s, its development owes as much to the “Semana Santa” series, made almost a decade after the Torn Signs photographs. The composition is full of jagged edges cascading toward vanishing points out of frame. White, crimson, navy, black, and yellow fields all vie for a dominant spot. The pleasure of this type of work lies in its ambiguity: brushstrokes hold together long enough to convince me that I am looking at some thing, yet the illusion never coheres into a recognizable image.
Crawford rose to fame in the late ’30s with his Precisionist paintings of American industry and landscape (his 1939 Overseas Highway was reproduced in Life that same year). Like Charles Sheeler, he took up photography as both a referential aid for his painting and a medium in itself. The two photographic series presented here, of torn scraps of posters in Manhattan, and of the procession of penitents in Seville’s Semana Santa, show an eye carefully considering its vantage point, composing and recomposing quickly and often.
The rough palimpsest of city walls was a fertile ground for many photographers in the middle of the last century, from Walker Evans’s Torn Movie Poster (1930) to Brassaï’s pictures of graffiti or Aaron Siskind’s studies of peeling paint. But while Evans’s camera seems concerned with the tear’s disruption of recognizable figures in the poster, Crawford’s lens focuses on the edges and tears themselves, the way they crop and reconfigure their own planes. As evidenced by the large number of prints of the same subjects, Crawford was unafraid to spend a good part of a roll of film on the same segment of a poster, making miniscule adjustments in angle and distance between shots.
The Torn Signs painting bears an obvious resemblance to a 1966 photograph of the same name, yet it also borrows compositional elements from a 1972 photograph, Los Penitentes, Seville. Crawford was struck by the procession of penitents in Seville during his visit to the Southern Spanish city, and his artistic production in the years leading up to the Torn Signs painting focused largely on that imagery. The capirote, a type of conical hood worn by members of religious fraternities during Holy Week processions, features prominently in paintings like Blue, Grey, Black (1973) and Procession #2 (1973). In Crawford’s photographs of the processions, the dark fabric of the hoods becomes a powerful compositional tool, cutting the picture plane into stark diagonals.
Though the Spanish pointed hood predates those worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan, its import into American painting, especially following the Klan’s high profile murders in the ’50s and ’60s, fundamentally transforms its symbolism. With its tricolor palette, the 1975 painting Seville could easily be confused by contemporary eyes for a menacing scene of approaching Klansmen.
So often, American abstraction is divided into two camps: expressionism is pitted against geometry, spirit against hard edges. Yet, the two are not mutually exclusive; painting has long acted as a mediating agent between inner passions and observed truths. To paint is to reckon with the uneven space between what is felt and what is expected—that an essential shape should remind us of a deeper evil, that language should disintegrate into the very paper upon which it is printed, speaks to that fundamental opposition.
Crawford, who had personally witnessed the bombed out shells of German cities following World War II, as well as a test of the atomic bomb in the Bikini Atoll, lost his early optimism for the positive power of technological advancement. The works of the ’70s, made in the wake of a leukemia diagnosis and culminating in Torn Signs, are no less concerned with edge than the early Precisionist work, yet their edges ditch the strict logic of engineering for a more personal one.
I kept finding myself drawn to one passage in Torn Signs—the meeting point between quadrants of black, blue, and white. In the subtle inflection of the lines, I kept looking for answers. Are the black triangles hoods or shadows? Which shape is the foreground, the background? Why are the brushstrokes fighting to maintain the line? The strength of an exhibition that focuses so deeply on one precise moment of artistic production is that contradictory answers are present on the adjacent walls. The threads that make up that point of convergence unravel in each subsequent piece.