On Grey Crawford
by Hubertus von Amelunxen
In an essay on photography in America in the 1970s, Max Kozloff asked: "Where have all the people gone?" (1) He was referring, among others, to the images by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Bernd and Hilla Becher. He was not familiar with the equally uninhabited art of Grey Crawford, as scarcely anyone else was at the time, or even today. Crawford’s photographs of installations of glass and metal plates in the Mojave Desert in Southern California between 1975 and 1977 were published in a small print-run entitled El Mirage and are collectors’ items today. (2) Although influenced by Land Art artists and the so-called Minimalists, like Robert Smithson, Richard Serra and Carl André, these black-and-white and colour photographs are experimental sightings determined and choreographed solely by the camera and thus singular, like the minimalist prototypes by Lewis Baltz of around the same time, or Bernd and Hilla Becher’s water and gas reservoirs. In the mid-1970s he also photographed the extensive, astonishing and unusual Umbra series of black-and-white photographs taken in Southern California, unique both in their genesis and in the ‘logic of the dispositive’. (3) Furthermore, the particular light, the wastelands of suburban architectural fragments, and the strong, sharp shadow falloff in this series are turned into irritating alienations of urban landscapes by being supplemented with geometrical elements by means of masking. Precise deep black rectangles, beams, lines as if drawn by Fred Sandback were added to the images in the dark room in an orchestration that both heightens and at the same time hollows out the visual composition.
Grey Crawford grew up on the West Coast, in Southern California, and had classical training in photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology and then at the Claremond Graduate School, only to then set out on his very own path in that art. From the early 1970s to today, i.e., for almost half a century, Grey Crawford has produced an extensive and genuinely experimental oeuvre irrespective of the art market and commissions, solely out of artistic curiosity. And that oeuvre is extraordinary. The art of photography is not as young as video art or the analogue-numerical arts. Although photography was invented almost two centuries ago, it was only granted recognition as art a few decades ago; in 1966, the artist Mel Bochner was not permitted to present his final thesis on photography at the School of Visual Arts in New York. This refusal of any genuinely aesthetic significance promoted an experimental handling of photography, above and beyond its commercial determination and utility character. Where no canon channels – let us recall Walter Benjamin’s saying that photography had already overturned the judgement seat that intended to artistically assess it – it is up to curiosity to use the medium of photography as an experimental arrangement, to explore the dispositive of the photographic. After the avant-garde new beginnings in Europe, from Pictorialism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Bauhaus to Surrealism and later Fluxus, straight photography still dominated in the USA in the 1970s. Be it that of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Richard Avedon or Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, American photography remained bound to a strict formalism. Opposed to this, without being truly perceived at the time, was the playful treatment, the experiment, of the ‘fried photographs’ of Gordon Matta-Clark, his perspectival photomontages, the "documenting” slides of Land Art by Robert Smithson and others, the narrative interventions of Vito Acconci, Hollis Frampton’s analytical-aesthetic use of the medium between film and photography, and finally in 1975 the unhappy labelling by William Jenkins, at the Georges Eastman House in Rochester, of the extremely heterogeneous photographs of Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore and Harry Wessel as the New Topographic Movement. In this narrow canonisation, any form of school-formation, be it subjective photography, auteur photography, New Topographics or the so-called Dusseldorf School, primarily established an economic basis for the photography art market emerging at the time, at the expense of the singularity of experimental pictorial invention.
If the works of Grey Crawford are to be situated historically, then in this time context. The uniqueness of this art, however, lies in its coherence and continuity, without it ever complying with any objectification in the mercantile sector. From the California Contact Sheets (1971?) to today’s large-format colour diptychs, Grey Crawford’s photographs preserve their experimental aesthetic, be that with filmic references, performative installations and actions, or abstract compositions. Added to this is the particular spatiality determined by the ‘light and space’ of Southern California, in which the art of Ed Ruscha, Lewis Baltz, James Turrell, Robert Irwin, Karl Benjamin und John McLaughlin was also born. Links could be found to all of them. McLaughlin’s meditative, strictly symmetrical paintings (‘sharp edge painting’) and the ‘ironic’ fragmentation of Lewis Baltz are important references that do not diminish the singularity of Grey Crawford’s art. It is described appropriately in the statement by John McLaughlin that art arises from a "collage in the mind”.
Hubertus von Amelunxen
1 Max Kozloff, "Where Have All The People Gone? Contemporary American Photography” (1980), in idem. The Priviliged Eye. Essays on Photography, University of New Mexico Press Albuquerque, 1987, pp. 197-204.
2 Grey Crawford, El Mirage, August 9th Press Claremont, 1978. See the new expanded edition: Grey Crawford, El Mirage, Hatje Cantz Berlin, 2018.
3 First published by Timothy Persons (ed.), Grey Crawford, Finding Bones, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, 2017.