This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2011 - "Ralston Crawford and Jazz" at the Sheldon Art Galleries is a breathtaking survey of the artist's works after 1949, when the city and culture of New Orleans took on an increasingly powerful influence for him.
Like his fellow Precisionists during the earlier interwar period, Crawford's paintings had always featured a hard-edged, abstract quality informed by straight photography. But in New Orleans after World War II, the relationship between paintings, prints and photographs would be intensified by the theme of jazz.
Crawford not only documented the city's thriving jazz clubs, musicians and dancers, his technical approach to art is inflected by an improvisational style akin to jazz; he riffs among media, playing them off one another, creating jaunty, syncopated variations on his abstract themes.
The exhibit, curated by the Sheldon's Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, is divided into sections focusing on street and nightclub photographs, portraits, New Orleans environs, New Orleans cemeteries and "The World Beyond" (in which the "jazzy" approach is applied at sites other than New Orleans). The open flow from gallery to gallery maintains the thematic and stylistic connections among these bodies of work.
Also included are the 1960s-era New Orleans Living Legends record cover designs that feature Crawford's photographs, and a looped selection of Crawford's films, which are lovingly made, elegiac abstractions. Accompanied by a terrific catalog with an exceptional essay by Lahs-Gonzales, "Ralston Crawford and Jazz" is an eye-opening assessment of an extraordinarily rich moment in mid-century American culture.
Ivy Cooper is the Beacon visual arts reviewer and a professor of art at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.