During the 1930s, Ralston Crawford became famous as an artist of the infrastructural sublime. He painted soaring bridges, endless causeways, massive dams, huge grain elevators. His bright semiabstract works — always completely devoid of people — expressed confidence that heroic engineering and advancing technology would provide a way to escape and transcend the Great Depression.

That’s not exactly the artist you encounter in “Ralston Crawford: Air & Space & War,” the new special exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (through Sept. 19). In this examination of the artist’s work during and immediately after World War II, the dream of progress gives way to the reality of violence, smooth streamlined surfaces fragment into sharp shards, and meaning is increasingly elusive.

Bomber (1944), the painting that opens the show, chronicles a double catastrophe. The airplane of the title has crashed and is now in pieces. What is worse, it has crashed into a house.

The rubble that was the house and the wreckage of the plane merge in a field of destruction. The focus of the painting is a bicycle that appears to have partly melted in the mayhem. It provides a memory of human presence amid the ruins and heightens the sense of futility it evokes.

It’s not an anti-war painting, exactly. At the time he painted Bomber, Crawford was a member of the Army Air Force, in a job aimed ultimately at preventing crashes caused by weather.

The artist was at least a little bit in love with airplanes. Like many artists of his time, he loved the ability to see the world from above and find shapes and patterns not visible on land. Moreover, as many photographs, drawings, paintings, and lithographs in the show demonstrate, he was fascinated by the forms of the planes — wings, propellers, engine housings.

Still, it is clear that the experience of war complicated the artist’s view of technology. His work became more abstract, each element harder to parse, even as his palette remained vibrant, with large patches of bright yellow, blue, and brownish red. By including many of the pen-and-ink drawings from which he developed his paintings, the exhibition lets us see how the artist sought to transform the nuts and bolts of the mechanical world into oil paintings that embody emotion.

The show was primarily organized by the Vilcek Foundation, a New York-based arts organization that owns a lot of Crawford’s work, in conjunction with the Brandywine, and it includes many works lent by Crawford’s son, John.

This exhibition probably won’t establish Crawford as a 20th-century great. But it offers great insight into how one artist who emerged from the Philadelphia art scene of the 1930s tried to understand and depict a new world taking shape.

Crawford, who was born in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, in 1906 and grew up in Buffalo, came to Philadelphia to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the early 1930s, after art school in Los Angeles and a brief stint with Walt Disney. He later settled in Chadds Ford, studying with the eminent illustrator Howard Pyle and at the Barnes Foundation.

He is most often identified, along with two other artists with local ties, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, as a leader of the precisionist movement that recorded and celebrated industrial and agricultural landscapes. He died in 1978.

Abstract art in the making

The World War II years that are the focus of this show were among the least prolific of his career because he was serving in the Army Air Force and did not have much time to paint, though he did make many photographs and drawings, some of which were developed into paintings.

The show has about a dozen major canvases, each accompanied by many of these preliminary studies. Its greatest strength is that it shows abstract art in the making as Crawford painstakingly documents the real world and then distills its forms into works that are flattened, bold, and largely unrecognizable. You can look at his geometric compositions and just barely make out the ghost of the machinery.

During the war, Crawford’s main job was to develop ways to inform pilots and their commanders about weather conditions. Today, weather maps are a commonplace part of our lives, and the exhibition argues that he developed much of the visual language through which we understand the weather.

His word-free maps showing storms and fronts and systems are more painterly than the weather map on your phone, but there is an obvious connection. The original artwork on display here hints at the difficulty of explaining something as multilayered and dynamic as the weather on a flat sheet of paper. In a sense, his canvases during this time are also expressions of energy.

Many of the works in the exhibition grew out of a commission Crawford took on in 1944. A lighting manufacturer who was familiar with his work had installed nine miles of continuous fluorescent tubing in a Curtiss-Wright aircraft plant in Buffalo. This gave Crawford the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the plant, making photographs and drawings of many things that had nothing to do with the lighting.

It’s too bad that the painting that responded directly to this commission is not in the show, though there is a small reproduction on a label. The show does have five other more abstract oils that the aircraft plant inspired. Factory With Yellow Center Shape was painted three years later, and he was still exploring the shapes and forms he encountered at Curtiss-Wright.

In 1946, Fortune magazine sent Crawford to witness the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. “With documentary photographs, abstract paintings, and meteorological charts” the magazine’s headline said, “Ralston Crawford depicts the new scale of destruction.” Test Able, the painting shown next to this text, has some documentary elements, but Crawford was trying for more.

“Some aspects were for me of quite a beautiful character — in a positive way,” Crawford wrote to his dealer. “Others were of quite a horrifying nature. One cannot express in paint the meaning of the bomb.”

For me, the most affecting of his Bikini work is a pen-and-ink drawing on paper, interrupted by a bright shard of yellow opaque watercolor. It expresses a deep discontinuity in the world, a moment of fright.

Crawford’s other bomb paintings don’t, for me, convey the artist’s deep ambivalence. Indeed, some of them seem almost decorative and sunny.

One way to see abstraction is as a distillation of experience and emotion. But sometimes, Crawford’s abstract oil paintings seem to be trying to escape the realities he documented in his drawings and photographs.

It’s a lot to ask any painter, especially a technological optimist like Crawford, to express the force of an atomic bomb. Crawford didn’t quite pull it off, and he probably knew that.


Ralston Crawford: Air & Space & War

Through Sept. 19 at Brandywine River Museum of Art, 1 Hoffman’s Mill Road, Chadds Ford.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wed.-Mon. (closed Tuesdays).

Admission: $18; $15 for ages 65 and up, $6 for youths ages 6-18 and students with ID, children under 6 free. Reservations recommended.

Information: 610-388-2700 or brandywine.org/museum