An artist takes flight

The Brandywine River Museum of Art presents ‘Ralston Crawford: Air & Space & War’

4 minute read
Ralston Crawford’s 1945 ‘Plane Propeller on Tarmac. (Courtesy of the Vilcek Collection.)
Ralston Crawford’s 1945 ‘Plane Propeller on Tarmac. (Courtesy of the Vilcek Collection.)

The Brandywine River Museum of Art has emerged from its pandemic hiatus with a riveting offering. Every art exhibition is the culmination of extensive research and curatorial scholarship, but Ralston Crawford: Air & Space & War is an exceptional combination of art, science, scholarship, and the excitement of discovery.

Art, industry, and war

American modernist painter, photographer, and printmaker Ralston Crawford (1906-1976) was born in Canada, but he lived and worked for most of his life in the United States. In the late 1920s, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia) and at the Barnes Foundation (Merion, Pennsylvania). After his marriage to Margaret Warner Stone of Wilmington, Crawford lived and worked from 1935 to 1939 in Exton and Chadds Ford, exhibiting alongside other Brandywine artists, refining his style as the excitement of abstract forms came to the fore of the American art world.

Crawford made his artistic presence felt in the 1930s with his abstractions—precisionist paintings and silver gelatin photographs of grain elevators in Buffalo, Pennsylvania, barns and of bridges, factories, and dams everywhere. His art distilled the familiar, the industrial, the often overlooked into works of hard-edged elegance able to retain and communicate their industrial essence. But in the 1940s the artist had a unique wartime experience, and his military service is the runway from which this exhibition takes off.

During World War II, Crawford joined the U.S. Army Air Force as an artist, working for the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion (aka the “Ghost Army”) at a time when artistry and science were truly partners. His exceptional eye and ability to communicate reality in abstract forms were the basis of the wartime work that pivoted the artist in the new directions (one of which we still utilize) documented in this unexpectedly thrilling exhibition.

Aviation and the artist

Air & Space & War is fueled by the extensive research begun in 2013 by Emily Schuchardt Navratil (curator of the Vilcek Foundation) working with John Crawford, an accomplished sculptor and Ralston’s son. There are 80 of the artist’s works here, beautifully installed in striking color-coded galleries under the eye of Brandywine curator Amanda C. Burdan. The exhibition’s introductory wall text states that it “explores the dramatic impact of aviation” on the artist, whose personal experiences of flight and fascination with airplane construction shifted profoundly during the war. Crawford’s early career excitement about the artistic possibilities of industrialism (including aviation) was replaced by a growing pessimism about its destructive power and focus on violence.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, each with paintings, studies, photographs, and drawings. Long walls are pierced by smaller alcoves, each with a major painting surrounded by the studies (photographs or drawings) that informed and inspired the work. The teal-blue alcove, for instance, houses the powerful painting Bikini, Tour of Inspection. Crawford was the only artist invited to observe and document the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll, something that affected him profoundly.

During the war, Crawford also documented the huge Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Plant in Buffalo, and this constitutes another major exhibition section. There, he photographed planes—more than 17,000 were built at that site—and their components, along with the plant’s more than nine miles of continuous fluorescent lighting, returning to these images after the war to create the studies for 11 major paintings, five of which are on view.

Ralston Crawford’s 1946 ‘Bikini, Tour of Inspection. (Courtesy of the Vilcek Collection.)
Ralston Crawford’s 1946 ‘Bikini, Tour of Inspection. (Courtesy of the Vilcek Collection.)

Crawford’s work was frequently published in Fortune magazine, and there are issues of the periodical from 1944 to `946 on display. And in 1951, he traveled to Cologne, Germany, where he photographed the haunting ruins of that city in the aftermath of the war.

One of the most fascinating sections of the exhibition deals with that ubiquitous force in all our lives: the weather. Crawford served as the chief of the Army’s new Visual Presentation Unit (Weather Division), and in that capacity he created artistic representations of weather patterns. Utilizing both past events and forecasts, these works (in gouache and airbrush) feature the graphics, directional arrows, overlays, and other iconography that are still visible in today’s weather maps. Some items were classified during the war, and one features the War Department’s “No objection to publication” permission stamp.

Proud to be of service

In spite of the war’s dampening effect on the artist’s optimism, his son John states that Crawford was proud to be of service and took his military work seriously, knowing that his abilities were being utilized and his artistic gifts appreciated.

Ralston Crawford: Air & Space & War includes 39 works from the Vilcek Foundation, 28 works from the collection of John Crawford, and loans from the Whitney and Hirshhorn Museums and Harvard University (among others), and there is an amply illustrated scholarly publication. The exhibition will travel to the Dayton Art Institute (October 2021), and in 2023, some of the works will also be on view at Vilcek Foundation headquarters in New York.

Image description: Ralston Crawford’s black-and-white photograph titled Propeller on Tarmac (1945). It’s a close-up on the riveted metalwork of a grounded plane’s propeller, with the runway and a cloudy sky visible beyond.

Image description: Ralston Crawford’s abstract painting titled Bikini, Tour of Inspection (1946). A rectangular canvas has various complicated shapes in shades of blue, orange, yellow, brown, gray, and white.

What, When, Where

Ralston Crawford: Air & Space & War. Through September 19, 2021, at Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Rd., Chadds Ford, PA. 610-388-2700 or

Timed tickets must be purchased and are required, except for museum members. All visitors over age 2 who are not fully vaccinated against Covid-19 are required to wear a face mask.

The entire museum (including the café) is wheelchair accessible, with accessible parking and a barrier-free entrance. Wheelchairs are available, and personal care attendants receive free admission. Service animals are welcome.

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