Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ralston Crawford and Jazz at NOMA

Here's a question for you: which great American industrial-precisionist painter is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3? There were only two, Charles Sheeler and Ralston Crawford, and while Crawford was known to be fond of Nola he never lived here. He grew up in Buffalo, New York, and his most famous paintings are of Northeastern industrial scenes, but after visiting Spain and New Orleans in the 1940s his work reflected a more European style of abstraction. The influence of local architecture is evident in paintings such as Basin Street Cemetery, below, which looks nonobjective at first, but look again and tomb-like forms and sepulchral geometry set off by long shadows and stark crosses are all present. St. Ann Street, right, suggests a De Chirico experiment in contrapuntal minimalism, but up close the elements of 19th century New Orleans architecture are all there, reduced to their formal essence.

He was also fascinated by traditional New Orleans jazz culture, and after joining the faculty at LSU in 1949 he began a photographic documentation project that he pursued for the rest of his life. He was the first to systematically photograph second line parades as well as dances and performances at music clubs like the old Dew Drop Inn, where legendary figures like Joe Tillman, left, were often featured. Jazz greats like Papa Celestin and Billie and DeDe Pierce became his lifelong friends, and his rapport with musicians is evident in portraits taken in their homes as well as on stage. The compositional style of his paintings occasionally shows up in photographs like Advertising the Dance, top, where the arched windows and long shadows echo De Chirico's piazza series, but even his images of back street bars, barber shops and regular folks going about their daily lives can be fascinating. Crawford documented the twilight of traditional jazz in the 1950s and its revival in the 1960s, so it is appropriate that his will specified a jazz funeral. He is buried near E. J. Bellocq, the great photographer of Storyville, where jazz was born. ~Bookhardt

Ralston Crawford and Jazz: Paintings and Photographs by Ralston Crawford Through Oct. 14, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100 (Left: Dancer at the Dew Drop Inn)