“Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War” is the second major solo exhibition of artwork by the American Modernist presented by the Vilcek Foundation. This landmark exhibition will be on view at the Dayton Art Institute from October 30, 2021, through January 23, 2022.
Crawford in the 1940s
While Crawford is best known for his precisionist paintings of the 1930s, this exhibition focuses on Crawford’s work in the 1940s—a watershed decade for the artist. Crawford served in the Weather Division of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. At the time, he continued working as an artist, taking on a commission at the Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Plant in Buffalo, New York, and documenting the nuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll for Fortune Magazine.
The perspective that Crawford gained from these experiences—both an aerial view of the world from flight, and an inside glimpse into military technology and machinations—had a profound influence on the artist’s life and work.
Vilcek Foundation Curator Emily Schuchardt Navratil led the development of the exhibition, which debuted at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in June 2021. “The works in this exhibition—many on view for the first time here—trace the transformation of Crawford’s art and outlook, away from his early optimistic view of industry, toward a disillusion brought about by the visible and invisible destruction of war,” says Navratil. “Crawford’s perspective was forever altered by his experiences in the ’40s, which he carried with him for the rest of his life.”
Crawford’s Roots in Ohio
The Vilcek Foundation is particularly excited to bring the exhibition to Dayton, Ohio, given Crawford’s connection to the region. In 1940, the American Modernist took a position as a visiting art instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. While serving in the Air Force Division of the U.S. Army, Crawford spent time at bases in Ohio. “It was in Middletown, just southwest of Dayton, that he captured the aerial views that forever altered his perception and perspective,” notes Navratil.
The Vilcek Foundation Art Collection
The Vilcek Foundation art collection connects the foundation with cultural institutions around the world, facilitating academic and artistic dialogue. The collection includes several collecting areas, most notably American Modernism.
“Our first Crawford acquisition, in 2007, was the shocking and grim 1944 painting Bomber,” said Vilcek Foundation President Rick Kinsel. The foundation also holds the largest private collection of works related to the Curtiss-Wright commission, comprising dozens of Crawford’s original photographs, drawings, notes, and paintings. “In addition, we have been quietly collecting works related to Crawford’s experience as a witness to the atomic bomb test, including Bikini, Tour of Inspection (1946) and U.S.S. Nevada (1946).”
The Crawford works from the Vilcek Collection form the core of “Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War.” The full exhibition features generous loans from important institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Cincinnati Art Museum, as well as from one of the artist’s sons, John Crawford.
A full catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War (2021), is available from Merrell Publishers. The catalogue includes essays from Kinsel, Navratil, and Crawford, as well as from Jerry N. Smith of the Dayton Art Institute, and Amanda C. Burdan of the Brandywine River Museum of Art.