St. Ann Street, 1954

Miami Beach 2014
Menconi + Schoelkopf
Oil on canvas
Ralston Crawford St. Ann Street, 1954 Oil on canvas Ralston Crawford was a perpetual traveler. Perhaps best known for his 1939 painting, Overseas Highway, his crisp lines and dynamic forms are frequently employed in the depiction of means of travel. Ships and planes were favorite themes, but so too were the discovered destinations. For a painter whose work is often so pointedly about flattened, non-objective forms, there is a strong sense of documentation of the new in many of his works. It isn’t documentation in the reportorial sense, but rather in that new places were able to provide for him a new array of forms and experiences to descramble into those flattened, cool forms.  One such place of obvious inspiration was the city of New Orleans. An admirer of jazz and some of the more eccentric rituals of The Big Easy, Crawford immersed himself in the culture on multiple trips. He took scores, if not hundreds, of photographs of the men and women at jazz joints and parading through the streets, and, as with Stuart Davis, the music’s funky flavor inflects the paintings. But much of that flavor is strictly evocative in Crawford’s work – only a few canvases in a long and prolific career feature people. The musicians that figure so prominently in many of his photographs and indeed in much of his experience of the city are strictly absent from his paintings. St. Ann Street shows that evocation of swinging New Orleans jazz in full effect. Crawford was not the sort to issue manifestos on the translation of sound into vision, but the connection is there nonetheless. The rhythm created by repeated vertical bars is cooled into a visual syncopation by the irregular tapering across the horizontal edge. Without expressly illustrating the musicians themselves, Crawford’s New Orleans paintings are infused with the fat brassy blare of the very street parades that so clearly occupied his attention. But for a handful of dockworkers in the 1930s, Crawford’s gaze fell almost exclusively on static objects. Nonetheless, the paintings his process produced were profoundly dynamic. Paul Strand had, early in the century, shown how a photograph could capture almost entirely abstract compositions, and by the 50s, the photographer Aaron Siskind would be grouped as an honorary Abstract Expressionist for the all-over treatment of his close-up photographs of stones and pieces of wood. Though Crawford was also an adept of the photograph, the work of Strand and Siskind are comparatively airless and formal compared to St. Ann Street— they don’t swing. Painted with flat, unmodulated yellows and grays, the planes of St. Ann Street vibrate and push against one another. It is part of Ralston Crawford’s great gift that he was able to stare intently at a static scene and to produce such a vibrant, breathing painting.