Painting to Enjoy

Ralston Crawford (1906 – 1978), Buffalo Grain Elevators, 1937, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D C.

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Continuing my look at paintings from the Ashmoleans’s ‘America’s Cool Modernism’ earlier in the year is this important semi abstract landscape, Buffalo Grain Elevators. Many critics would see this is the archetypal modern American painting aimed at distancing the new art from its European forebears. However the gothic element also harks subconsciously back to the medieval cathedrals of Western Europe.

From the middle of the nineteenth century Buffalo became the centre for transportation of the great grain growing areas, and with it the need for storage facilities. The grain silos became emblematic of the region. The structure of the painting, dominated by the silos shows Crawford’s geometric style with a limited palette, dominated by the greys of the silos and metallic structures. The absence of people is also symbolic but also echoed in what appears to be limited involvement by the artist. Crawford’s work would become progressively more geometric and abstract later in his life. The bold shapes and saturated colours give this a very modern (American) feel as with Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth, who we met earlier.

But then there are all manner of reminders of European medieval gothic. Do the three silos represent The Trinity, look how they dominate the frame as if rising to the heavens. More subtle maybe is the roof of the lower building like a church nave, but especially the electric wires and transport arms resembling flying buttresses supporting the towering silos. In her resumé in the catalogue, Julie Boulage, the American curator, sees the grain silos, with their daily bread, as the new industrial temples standing before the infinity of the vast saturated sky.