AN EMPTY causeway stretches over a featureless blue sea. Reaching to infinity under white clouds, the perspective forces you to squint at the farthest point.
"Overseas Highway" made Ralston Crawford an overnight sensation in 1939. It symbolized hope to Americans just coming out of the Depression and became Crawford's trademark.
But as can be seen in his retrospective at the Phillips Collection, that road was just one that he traveled in his career 'til his death at 69 in 1975. While his painting was cool, precise and rational, his photography found humanity in the streets of New Orleans, where he sought to document the jazz world.
His industrial art encompassed grain elevators, factories, gas storage tanks. He followed in the footsteps of the American Precisionists, but ended up a step behind the times. His generation of artists was developing Abstract Expressionism, but he stuck with the remoteness of geometric shapes.
Maybe it was simply a difference in temperament. While the Abstract Expressionists preferred a bohemian sort of existence, Crawford always insisted on personalized stationery, even in the Depression.
"Few artists in this century have explored an unpopular style with such commitment and integrity," observes Barbara Haskell, curator at The Whitney Museum of American Art, in the show's catalogue.
There is a remoteness to his art -- but some of that is overcome in this show by including his photographic studies.
For Crawford, the two-dimensionality of the photo simplified the translation of an object into something purely geometric. Crawford at times gave equal value to both object and shadow. He may have carried this to an extreme with a photo he took of a shadowy corner in Spain. One wonders if it was worth the trip.
But the Holy Week processionals also fascinated him. The very effective painting "Semana Santa" moves with shrouded forms, which photos show to be conical hoods and waving banners in a religious parade.
The son of a ship captain, and a seaman himself in his youth, Crawford often chose shipboard and dockside subjects. Distancing from the subject is carried to the absurd in "Bora Bora II," with its solid uncurved blue horizon, four lines that represent rigging, and an indifferent section of gunmetal gray. But he redeems himself with the cacophonous joy of "Lobster Pots 3," lines of cages superimposed on blues, grays and ochres.
Contrast Crawford's painting of, say, Hoover Dam -- looking like a filing cabinet -- to his photo of the "Dancer at the Dew Drop Inn," with her painted eyebrows and bare midriff. It's clear that New Orleans brought something out in him that was otherwise suppressed. By the time of his death, Crawford had accumulated 10,000 finished prints of bartenders, musicians, dancers, pickups. And when he died, he had a jazz funeral down the streets of New Orleans.
RALSTON CRAWFORD -- At the Phillips Collection through May 25.