Installation image of the "Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs" exhibition at the Vilcek Foundation.

A Preview of the Vilcek Foundation’s Inaugural Exhibition “Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs”

By Zoe Fortin

Between the upcoming 24th Annual American Art Conferenceand a week of auctions, it’s another busy month in New York. One particular highlight is the exhibition Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs, which opens May 13 at the Vilcek Foundation. We toured the show with curator Emily Schuchardt Navratil and below, you’ll find three reasons you should book your (free) tour now.

1. The Vilcek Foundation’s collection and new exhibition space are of museum quality

Located only a block from Central Park near bustling Madison Avenue, the Vilcek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. Inspired by the couple’s respective careers in biomedical science and art history, as well as their personal experiences and appreciation for the opportunities offered to them as newcomers to the United States, the Foundation’s mission is to raise awareness of immigrant contributions in America and to foster appreciation of the arts and sciences.

Opening May 13, Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs is hosted in the Foundation’s spacious new space on 70th Street. With two floors of exhibition spaces and an outdoor patio which will open later this year, the Foundation celebrates this month its first public exhibition. Its collection is organized in four parts: the Contemporary Art Collection, the Native American Pottery Collection, the Pre-Columbian Collection, and the American Modernist Collection, which forms the basis for the inaugural show and reflects the Vilceks’ love for the art of this country.

2. Ralston Crawford is a pivotal figure in American Modernism

Born in 1906 in St. Catherines, Ontario and raised in Buffalo, New York, Crawford (1906 – 1978) received early praise for his Precisionist paintings of industrial landscapes and in that regard, he is often associated with American artist Charles Sheeler (1883 – 1965). In the 1940s however, Crawford’s subjects became increasingly abstract, as seen throughout the Vilcek Foundation’s exhibition. Crawford received his early artistic training at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but his mature style was most significantly influenced by his exposure to the work of Cézanne and Matisse at the Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia, where he was a student of Albert Barnes and Charles Sheeler from 1927 to 1930. As you explore the Vilcek Foundation’s exhibition you may recognize Cézanne’s cubist forms and Matisse’s bold palette in some of his works.

Abstract composition by Ralston Crawford
Ralston Crawford, American, 1906-1978. Blue, Grey, Black, 1973 Oil on canvas, 50 x 36 in. Vilcek Collection. © Estate of Ralston Crawford / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Another well-known fact about the artist, explained Emily Schuchardt Navratil, is that Crawford loved to travel. After joining the army, Crawford was stationed in China, Burma, and India. And in 1946, he was the only artist invited to witness the atomic-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, which he documented for Fortune, reporting on the “devastating character[1]” of what he saw. Crawford’s travels took a happier note, however, when he visited Spain, a place he first traveled while on his honeymoon in 1932, an aspect of his life that is well documented in the works on view at the Vilcek Foundation.

3. Vilcek Foundation’s exhibition will give you new insight into the artist’s work

The exhibition presents two of Crawford’s seemingly disparate series: Torn Signs, inspired by tattered New York City street advertisements, and Semana Santa, photographic snapshots of Holy Week in Seville, Spain. Developed over the last two decades of his life, the two series reflect some lesser-known aspects about the artist, such as his use of photography.

Torn Signs, Emily Schuchardt Navratil pointed out, is Crawford’s longest running series, with at least 70 photographs, drawings, and paintings related to the theme. And it gives today’s viewers a particular window into the artist’s process. First, the exhibition outlines how Crawford documented his movement and recorded information on the back of each photograph, allowing us to reconstruct and follow his path in the streets he once photographed. The juxtaposition of the two series, first suggested to the Vilcek Foundation by John Crawford, one of the artist’s sons, also highlights how Crawford used photography for inspiration in paintings executed in later years. For example, the rounded lines in Signs (1973 – 76) recall the black shape in Signs, New York (1969).

Two works by Ralston Crawford
Left: Ralston Crawford, American, 1906-1978. Signs, New York, 1969. Silver gelatin print, 13 1⁄2 x 13 1⁄2 in. Vilcek Collection. © Estate of Ralston Crawford / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Right: Ralston Crawford, American, 1906-1978. Signs, 1973–76. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Vilcek Collection. © Estate of Ralston Crawford / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

As you look closer, these connections between the two series become more and more apparent. We hope you’ll enjoy your visit just as much as we did: the Vilcek Foundation’s Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs exhibition is open May 13th– November 13th, 2019. Admission is free, but you must register in advance at vilcek.org.

Cover image: Ralston Crawford, American, 1906-1978. Torn Signs, April 15, 1974-1976. Oil on canvas, 54 x 72 in. Vilcek Collection. © Estate of Ralston Crawford / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

[1] Ralston Crawford: Paintings of Operation Crossroads at Bikini, exhibition brochure, The Downtown Gallery, 1946