With his father and uncle both employed as sea captains, Ralston Crawford was exposed to images of marine life and industry from an early age. His family then moved from the coast of Ontario to Buffalo, New York when he was four years old. As a youth, Crawford worked as a sailor on steamships and traveled to the Caribbean, Central America, and California. He later studied art at several institutions including the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Initially influenced by the bold use of line and color used by modern European masters such as Cezanne and Matisse, Crawford soon aligned himself with the Precisionist movement after relocating to New York City in 1930. His subjects were often abstracted, hard-edged industrial scenes, most often associated with artists like Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis. After travels abroad to Paris, Spain and Italy, the artist returned to the city to continue his studies at Columbia University.
In the mid-1930s, while living and painting in Chadds Ford and Exton Pennsylvania, Crawford becomes drawn to distinctly American localities including rural barns, small town train stations and factories. In 1934, he receives his first solo exhibition at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore, and he then begins a long series of work devoted to the study of coal and grain elevators. During this time, his work continues to receive favorable reviews by The New York Times and the New York Sun.
Recognized as one of the great innovators of Precisionism, Ralston Crawford grew well beyond his early visions of America flexing its newly industrialized muscles. Working and reworking in various media, Crawford at mid-century produced semi-abstract compositions, always maintaining a strong practice of observation. He pioneered the use of photography both as a tool for the painter and as an abstract medium itself. His experiments with silkscreen and graphic arts helped him to clarify a slick, almost Pop quality, although his work reflected his interest in the cycles of entropy and renewal of the American industrial landscape. Crawford is also known for his innovative photographs of jazz musicians, for which he had to obtain a permit to visit the segregated venues where they performed. The crisp Modernist paintings of Ralston Crawford are in important public and private collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the artist died at 71 in 1978, he had influenced several generations of American artists.