By Doug MacCash for The Times-Picayune
The New Orleans Museum of Art’s “Ralston Crawford and Jazz” exhibition, a collection of 150 New Orleans-inspired photos, drawings, paintings, prints and short films by the master mid-century abstractionist opens with a reception from 5 to 9 tonight (June 22), featuring a lecture, live music, cooking demonstration and art-making activities. Details follow the story.
To find Ralston Crawford’s burial vault, head to the farthest left-hand corner of St. Louis Cemetery Number Three. There, beyond the boulevards of traditional 19th-century-style tombs, you’ll find an angular modernist mausoleum. Crawford’s resting place is on the outdoor balcony, facing the French Quarter. It’s the perfect spot for one of the 20th-century’s great modern artists, who had a passion for New Orleans culture – particularly jazz. Crawford’s life spanned 1906 to 1978. Carved beneath his name is the inscription “Didn’t he ramble,” the jazz funeral standard.
Just blocks from the cemetery, the New Orleans Museum of art is hosting an exhibit titled “Ralston Crawford and Jazz.” It’s an artistic and historical treasure trove, crowded with scores of photographs, drawings, paintings, prints and even short films made by the New York-based artist during frequent Crescent City sojourns, mostly in the 1950s and 60s. The show is a revelation to those of us who think of Crawford only as the artistic chronicler of America’s pre- World War Two industrial landscape.
In the 1940s, factories, freight yards and cargo docks blossomed from coast to coast. Blending elements of realism and cubism, Crawford became internationally famous for his stark, geometrically abstract renderings of ship’s bows, storage silos, water towers, train tracks, bridges and other icons of the smoke stack-era. In text books, they call the hard-edged style “precisionism.”
But two of Crawford’s sons, Neelon and John, who were in town for the exhibition opening, said that interpreting the industrial landscape was only one aspect of their father’s career. His artistic analysis of New Orleans, which he first visited in the 1920s, was also of great importance among his life’s achievements.
Many art historians view the sort of improvisational abstraction practiced by Crawford, Pablo Picasso, Stuart Davis, and other artists of the era as the visual equivalent of jazz music. But Neelon and John pointed out that their father wasn’t trying to directly translate music onto canvas. For him, the spirit of jazz was just a beloved inspiration. With brush in hand, jazz remained his muse, not his model. Indeed, you won’t find a single painting or drawing of a musician or musical instrument in the NOMA galleries.
That’s not to say that Crawford didn’t document the musicians he admired. The beautifully composed photographs that he shot of players such as Oscar “Papa” Celestin, Waldron “Frog” Joseph, Christopher “Happy” Goldston and Joe Tillman, in legendary clubs including the Dew Drop Inn and Paddock Lounge, indicate his intimate observation of the New Orleans musical scene. Sometimes, his sons remembered, Crawford would get news of an impending jazz funeral, leave New York and head immediately to the Crescent City.
Neelon said that from the time he was four or five, his father sometimes took him along on New Orleans trips. As a teenager, he said, he recalls a late night spent at a Bourbon Street club where he found himself fighting off sleep, until Billie and DeDe Pierce took the stage to re-energize him. Plus, Neelon and John said, when dad’s New Orleans musician friends visited Manhattan, they sometimes stopped by for dinner, occasionally performing impromptu songs. John said that he once returned home from school to find Billy Pierce visiting. When she played the piano, he said, he felt the music was just for him.
Crawford also turned his camera to the New Orleans cityscape, where he discerningly documented storefronts, vintage architecture, second-line parades and other subjects. Crawford’s cityscape photos appeared on a series of “New Orleans Living Legends” record album covers, which are on display in the show. Don’t miss Crawford’s half century-old photo of the 809 Club, featuring an alluring publicity shot of Chris Owens.
One place where Crawford’s precisionist style clearly intersects the New Orleans gestalt is in his severe cemetery paintings and drawings, where he uses the geometry of the tombs and their details as purely abstract shapes. For Crawford at his compositional finest, search for the small 1953 drawing titled “New Orleans Tomb.”
And don’t miss the selection of short films that Crawford created in 1960s New Orleans. His dreamy film collage titled “The River” is a masterpiece of intersecting angles and shadows. The subject is a slow ferry ride across the Mississippi during which the boat windows, railings and passing warehouses overlap into a precisionist symphony. Incongruous touches such as the portrait of a young girl and a mysterious religious procession filmed in Spain add a measure of surrealist mystery to the motion picture.
In other short films, Crawford mines the subtle visual effects of rippling water, gently wafting curtains and wind-blown paper for brilliant formal effect. The guy who rides into the distance on a motorcycle in one of the films is Crawford.
Neelon and John said that when their dad passed away he was laid to rest with the brass band accompaniment he’d always wanted.
The exhibit continues through Oct. 14.