Born into a shipping family in which both his father and uncle captained cargo vessels, Ralston Crawford was exposed to images of marine life and industry from an early age. Following excursions to the Caribbean and off the coast of California, Crawford studied art at several institutions including The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Initially influenced by the bold use of line and color used by modern European masters such as Cézanne and Matisse, Crawford soon aligned himself with the Precisionist movement of the 1930s and his subjects focused on abstracted, hard-edged industrial scenes most often associated with artists like Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis.
"Stylistically, Crawford's work was more appropriately linked with Precisionism, whose architectural subject matter and aesthetic concentration on sharply defined, geometric forms and smooth paint handling mirrored his own pictorial choices. He shared as well Precisionism's insistence on an ordered pictorial discipline and the purging of spontaneity and emotional excess. Just as Sheeler identified his pictures as 'attempts to put down the inherent beauty of the subject with as little personal interference as possible,' so Crawford acknowledged that 'my own inclination toward classicism disallows the permissibility of disrobing.'" (B. Haskell, Ralston Crawford, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1986, p. 51)
Drawing from his immediate surroundings, in the 1930s Crawford was drawn to distinctly American localities including rural barns, small town train stations and factories. 1934 proved to be a notably significant year for Crawford, marking the artist's first one man show, as well as the year he began a long series of work devoted to the study of coal and grain elevators. Paintings from this period would serve as important precursors to his mature style, which comes into fruition with works such as Flour Mill #2 of 1937. "These pictures are structured out of large, unmodulated color shapes. While the subjects are clearly recognizable, Crawford established a sense of pure abstract structure by severely reducing details and orienting his forms parallel to the picture plane." (B. Haskell, Ralston Crawford, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1986, p. 27) Flour Mill #2 embodies this aesthetic of recognizable yet abstracted relationship of color, planes and form. The isolated structure, the starkness of the composition and modeling of forms adds a forlorn stillness that permeates the scene, underscoring Crawford's fascination with Surrealist theory at the time, making Flour Mill #2 a highly developed Precisionist masterwork.
"Dominating the works Crawford showed at Boyer's in March 1937 and his first one-artist show there that December were paintings of unflinching simplicity from which he had eliminated all extraneous detail in favor of large simple shapes silhouetted against a clear blue sky. Although Crawford pictorially respected cylindrical volumes such as those in Buffalo Grain Elevators [National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.], he depicted the majority of his geometric forms as flat shapes. Already in these images of marine apparatus, industrial buildings, and Pennsylvania barns, he displayed his proclivity for treating the different sides of architectural forms as separate planes of colors. Smooth, uninflected areas of single hues accentuate the visual interlocking of these flat planes. Within a basic palette of gray, rust-red, brown, and blue, Crawford introduced startling color accents that created rich harmonies of clarity...His sharply edged geometric forms, tightly fit together in shallow-spaced compositions, expressed the rigor of structural art while retaining an accessible subject matter distinctly related to the American experience. This union of abstraction and recognizable imagery placed Crawford squarely within the mainstream of early twentieth-century modernism..." (Ralston Crawford, p. 37)