Shape and Shadow Modernism

Arguably, the major shift from classic Modern to Mid-Century Modern graphic design occurred in the postwar 1940s when Fortune magazine, among others, briefly transitioned from rendered covers to geometric shapes and shadows. I wrote in 2011 about Walter Allner’s significant contribution to this burgeoning conceptual simplicity, but here are some earlier examples by Ladislav Sutnar (below, bottom), Lester Beall (below, second from bottom) and most notably Ralston Crawford (below, top), which usher in a schematic approach to graphic form that at times was reductive and complex.

We all know about Sutnar and Beall. Sutnar applied his reductive interests to his proto-pop paintings. Beall was a codifier of European abstraction, but Crawford was a fascinatingly forgotten exemplar of the Mid-Century era. Here is what Vivian Raynor, New York Times art critic, wrote of Crawford in 1985:

Born in 1906, he belonged to the same generation as the first Abstract Expressionists and would seem to have been a candidate for their movement, given his preoccupation with abstract values and with the painting as an end in itself. But militating against this was the artist’s own disposition, which was cool and fastidious, together with his essential classicism and above all his insistence on abstracting from observed reality.

Crawford was too young to be a Precisionist, but the work of his early maturity was influenced by the movement and the acclaim he received for it typecast him. So when the hard-edged abstraction challenged Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, no one seems to have spotted the connection between Crawford’s later, more geometric, art and, say, Ellsworth Kelly’s abstractions, also based on natural forms. Likewise, the affinity between his landscapes of the early ’40s and the empty highways that were Allan d’Arcangelo’s contribution to Pop went unnoticed in the ’60s.

Barely recognized in design history, Crawford’s work for Fortune adds more information to deciphering the design language of the late 1940s and ’50s.