For artists, is there anything more to do or to say with the now familiar manners of expression that have characterized abstraction’s long evolution, leading many a contemporary abstract work to be measured against the innovations and influences of its genre-defining forbears?
Lately, in my ongoing research about contemporary drawings, paintings, and sculptures that have been produced in various abstract modes, I’ve bucked up against artists who have carved boats out of large blocks of Styrofoam; hurled paint at sheets of clear acrylic; “drawn” with malleable, thick-gauge aluminum wire; carved totems from fallen tree trunks with chainsaws; conjured up monumental forms with little more than plain pencils on paper; or concocted mixed-media assemblages using everything from old candy boxes and shopping carts to toilet seats.
About two years ago, while doing my research rounds, I stumbled into an exhibition of mostly forged-metal sculptures by the American artist John Crawford at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. There, I came across the work of someone with evident, unabashed passion who was exploring abstract art-making’s fascination with the expressive power of pure form. Now, Crawford’s latest solo presentation of new and recent sculptural pieces provides another opportunity to get to know the work of an artist whose emphatically hands-on approach is as echt as the products of his skillful, metal-handling techniques. John Crawford: Sculpture is on view through July 17 at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, a funky riverside town north of Manhattan whose antiques shops, historic buildings and smattering of galleries have made it an unexpected meeting point of hipsterdom and Hamptons-style chic.
“I prefer to work directly, so I must be on good terms with the processes I use,” Crawford told me in an interview prior to the opening of this latest gallery show. Referring simultaneously to his materials and working methods, as well as the impact of the works on view, he added, “In the same way that abstraction is a language, the process is, too. For me, the medium isn’t the message, but it is a very important part of it. There wouldn’t be a message without it.”
Crawford, who was born in 1953, began discovering meaning in the raw materials of his art soon after earning his undergraduate fine-art degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in the mid-1970s. In a past, in-person interview, he told me that, at RISD, he experimented with a range of materials, including wax and cardboard, among others. He went on to develop a group of wood-and-metal sculptural objects for his senior-thesis exhibition, all of which had been inspired by his emerging interest in wood-and-metal farm tools. Of the two materials, it was steel that would really seize his imagination.
After leaving school, Crawford worked on a fishing boat and oil rigs. Then he made a bold move and headed to Italy with a specific if unusual objective in mind, at least among many of his peers. He set out to find an apprenticeship opportunity that would provide firsthand experience in the handling of steel. In speaking about such techniques in relation to his own work, Crawford points out that they include forging, which involves “heating steel to an orange-hot, malleable state but not liquefying it” (which is casting) and welding (“joining pieces of metal together by liquefying their abutting edges”). Today, in his Brooklyn studio, Crawford also does what is known as machining, or the use of such powerful, electric-powered tools as lathes and mills to cut cold steel, producing smooth surfaces or precise cuts.
In a small town in the province of Lucca, in the Tuscany region of west-central Italy, Crawford became an apprentice in a workshop run by two skilled blacksmiths who were also brothers. The setting and the rigorous, on-the-job training it offered could not have been more different from those of the art school he had left behind. The artist told me, “I swept the floors. I started from zero. I began by trying to make the most basic tools, like mason’s chisels, by copying the ones these skilled craftsmen had made. It was not easy.”
In exchange for his labor, the blacksmiths allowed Crawford to use their facilities to make art, but the work of the ferriera came first. Among the young apprentice’s routine tasks: keeping three carefully controlled, coal-fueled fires going and the grinding of finished hoes and other tools the masters had crafted. He recalled, “I handled hundreds, thousands of finished pieces, and with each one, my muscles literally got to know their forms.”
Crawford quickly came to realize that the knowledge, skill and sensitivity his teachers brought to their work had been passed down through many generations and were deeply rooted in their people’s understanding of and relationship to their work on the land. He said, “One time I traveled with one of the brothers to a town in the hills, where he found an old hoe that was probably 40 years old in another blacksmith’s shop. He immediately recognized that it had come from a nearby village, and from its shape and craftsmanship, he could even identify who had made it. It turned out that his own uncle had made it, so he bought it and took it to the old man, who, when we walked up to him, recognized his own handiwork from yards away.”
During his seven-year apprenticeship and early art-making period in Italy, Crawford’s job with the blacksmiths evolved until he was able to help them make specific kinds of farm tools — shovels were not as easy as they looked — and he savored the intensive, physically demanding work. He came to deeply appreciate the utilitarian character of the simple, attractive forms of the tools the workshop produced. Even today, in conversation, he seems to express a sense of longing for works of art — sculptures, in particular ⎯ that convey something more than the art-for-art’s-sake aura of objects hermetically sealed in their self-contained aesthetic zones.
After returning to the United States in the 1980s and establishing a base in New York, Crawford became interested in antique, African, forged-metal objects that were once used as currency, as well as in natural, organic shapes. In the 2000s he traveled to Nigeria, Togo and Benin and spent time in an artists’ residency program in the Niger Delta.
Decades of experience in the handling and shaping of steel, copper, and other metals, along with evocations of the subjects that have long held his interest characterize the works on view in Crawford’s current gallery show. Built up of repeating, modular units that bring to mind leaves or arrow heads, such pieces as “Tower 9” (2013, forged copper) and “Tower 4” (2006, forged steel) are tall, lanky and plant-like, shooting up from small, chunky, metal bases. Pedestal-displayed works include “Baby 2” (2011, forged and machined steel), a gently tilting stack of solid steel balls that resemble a wayward limb from the Michelin Man, and “Bifurcation-Spheres” (2014, forged steel), an agglomeration of welded-together steel balls of various sizes that recalls a complex molecular structure. Others include “MBT 1,” “MBT 3,” and “MBT 5” (all dated 2011, all forged steel), a trio of mini-towers made up of stacked, chunky, Y-shaped modules in which the “mouth” of each unit “bites” the “tail” of another (hence the abbreviation for “mouth bites tail” in the titles of these related works).
“Steel has the broadest formal range of any material,” Crawford said. With it, he said, “you can make a needle or an aircraft carrier; it works in compression or in tension. It forges, casts, machines, welds, carves and patinates.” An interest in “unpretentious structure” and simple, expressive form, the artist observed, has long run through his thinking and art-making, “whether it has appeared in the farm tools I learned to make in Italy; natural forms, such as plants, crystals or radiolaria [single-cell aquatic animals]; or in the purposeful language of African art or European art up until the Renaissance.”
As much as Crawford has developed his own understanding of the broader language of art and what might be called the atmosphere of art-making during a decades-long career, he was also steeped in the world of art from an early age. His father was the painter and photographer Ralston Crawford (1906–1978), who was known for his Precisionist images and sharp-edged abstract interpretations of factory buildings, bridges and other industrial structures. Ralston Crawford once noted that even if his abstraction’s source subjects were not obvious to viewers, each image he created evolved out of something he had seen.
I asked John Crawford what the language of abstraction means to him. Referring to how viewers or readers can project their own meanings onto abstract works, he said, “The biggest stories and parables are abstract. They can be read by different cultures and in different times.” In the 1980s, he noted, he came up with the terms “suggestive abstraction” or “animated abstraction.” They refer to what he began to recognize as his ability, through abstract art, “to make a collage of references that I could modulate ⎯ a sculpture, hovering between architecture and a farm tool, or between a figure and a crystalline structure, which can express something else, and that something is what I seek.”
John Crawford: Sculpture continues at John Davis Gallery (362 1/2 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through July 17.