Nets with Red, 1956

Miami Beach 2014
Menconi + Schoelkopf
Oil on canvas
Ralston Crawford Nets with Red, 1956 Oil on canvas As a devotee of the nautical life and as a modernist painter, Ralston Crawford was repeatedly drawn to the fisherman’s net. Trolling for material down at the docks, the artist encountered this perfect subject matter: its ropes denote individual lines, while its form is overall planar, and it must have been attractive as an artifact of manual labor and of the sea. That its form is also transparent gave him further opportunities to play with interactions between foreground and background that were, by the 1950s, occupying much of his thought.  Very little is invented in Crawford’s work. Even in his most abstracted works, observation was the critical first step. One or many sketches in various media would often precede a painting, each step seeing a reworking of elements and simplification of spaces. Industrial, man-made scenes were accordingly very compatible to this approach. Crisp, clean lines and planes occur seldom in nature, but quite often in factories and on highways. And the country’s rapidly growing industrialization that grew apace with the artist’s career was an important theme in his work. Crawford had cut his artistic teeth in the Precisionist work of the 1930s, when the paintings of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler shared such industrial themes. Both of these older artists used sleek lines and sharp edges to emphasize speed and the “immaculate” cleanliness of steel. Crawford’s mature work also abutted planes along crisp, straight lines, but by the 1940s and 1950s he was emphasizing simplified planes. Carefully weighted values allow the planes to sit next to one another without emphatic boundaries, giving Crawford’s work a more majestic, voluminous quality. This, in turn, freed-up the artist to use thick black lines rather than the razor-sharp rays of his forbears.  The present work is a case in point. The thick lines of the netting vary in width, a use of line not unlike Stuart Davis’s. The simple palette and careful arrangement of forms evoke a pictorial space that both recedes and approaches the viewer. The open planes of gray pour out into one another, as the black lines of the net playfully alternate between enclosing and overlapping the regions of color. A combination of calculation and whimsy, observation and abstraction, Nets with Red represents a tour de force.