Coming this June, the Brandywine River Museum of Art will present Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War, a remarkable exploration into U.S. aviation and military history through the art and personal experiences of American Modernist Ralston Crawford. Organized by the Vilcek Foundation, this landmark exhibition will feature an extensive collection of nearly 80 works by the artist, including drawings, photographs, paintings and lithographs from the 1940s that narrate his involvement with World War II.
Highlighting Crawford’s encounters with aviation and war from many angles, the collected works illustrate the influence of the artist’s own military service in the U.S. Army Air Force, as well as the commissions he undertook at the Curtiss-Wright Aircraft Plant in Buffalo, and his assignment to document nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S. Joint Army/Navy Task Force at Bikini Atoll for Fortune Magazine in 1946.
“Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War traces the dramatic evolution of Ralston Crawford’s art in the 1940s, which was influenced by aviation—from his personal experiences in flight, to his exposure to the construction of airplanes and his knowledge of the destruction they wrought in war,” said Emily Schuchardt Navratil, curator for the Vilcek Foundation. “Crawford’s insight into warcraft as a result of the Curtiss-Wright commission and his experience—from knowledge of aircraft, of military exercise and of propaganda—forged the themes that he would explore for the rest of his artistic career,” added Vilcek Foundation President Rick Kinsel. “His mature works vibrate with tension, rendering elements of war, culture, and ritual, with horror and awe—and beauty.”
In the late 1920s, Crawford studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the Barnes Foundation in Merion, and then later lived and painted in Exton and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania in the late 1930s. He was also a visiting art instructor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1940. In World War II, he served in the Weather Division of the Army Air Force, heading the Visual Presentation unit—where he created pictorial representations of weather patterns for airplane pilots—and continued working as an artist throughout the war. During that time, he was exposed to “endless plane tragedies,” which he recorded in works like Bomber, 1944, and Air War, 1944. As the exhibition will illuminate, these experiences had a profound impact on Crawford and marked a major turning point in his life and art.
Ralston Crawford: Air + Space + War was organized by the Vilcek Foundation in collaboration with the Brandywine River Museum of Art and the Dayton Art Institute. The exhibition will be on view at the Brandywine River Museum of Art from June 20 through September 19, 2021. Following its debut at the Brandywine, the exhibition will travel to the Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio, in October 2021. A selection of works from the exhibition’s initial presentations will also be on view at the Vilcek Foundation headquarters in New York in 2023. This is the second major exhibition presented by the Vilcek Foundation. In addition to works from the Vilcek collection, as well as several works on loan from John Crawford, one of the artist’s sons, the exhibition will include important loans from the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Harvard University and other esteemed institutions.
A fully illustrated catalogue of the exhibition is available from Merrell Publishers, featuring essays “Ralston Crawford’s War Years” by Rick Kinsel; “Ralston Crawford: From the Air” by Emily Schuchardt Navratil; “Weather + War + Fortune: Ralston Crawford’s Visual Storytelling” by Amanda C. Burdan, curator at the Brandywine River Museum of Art; “Ralston Crawford in Context” by Jerry N. Smith; and “Collage: Ralston Crawford, Photography, Lithography + World War II” by John Crawford. The catalogue includes 270 photographic reproductions of works from the exhibition, from the Vilcek collection, and from John Crawford’s personal archive.