U.S.A (No.74), Michael Crawford, acrylic on torn palette paper on paper, 22"x 30", 2012
A couple of years ago, I started seeing an elegantly disheveled gent—dressed in a blue oxford shirt, rumpled khakis, ball cap, and tennis shoes—riding his bicycle around Kingston. He looked every bit the collegian headed to class, albeit 40 years out of school. This remarkable fellow was none other than Michael Crawford, an artist best known for his wry, minimalist cartoons that started appearing in The New Yorker
in 1981. Crawford's wife, Carolita Johnson, who is also a cartoonist for The New Yorker
and cartoon editor of Chronogram
's sister publication Upstater
, describes his paintings and his cartoons as similar in style. "His cartoons were what I would call 'expressionistic,'" says Johnson. "They consisted of only the necessary lines and shadows required to convey the idea he wanted to express. Though he would often redraw or repaint the same image over and over till he was satisfied, he wasn't interested in being neat about it. 'Perfect' and 'neat' were not the same thing. In a painting, a face could be a few bold strokes of color, and the chiaroscuro of his cartoons, done in commercial markers, was painterly."
The humor in Crawford's work flowed back and forth between media and his life. Fellow cartoonist Roz Chast described him as possessing "a loose, sweet, jazzy style"; New Yorker editor David Remnick saw a "wild, improvisational streak" in Crawford's work. His wife, Johnson, was perhaps his most perceptive critic. "You'd look at a painting that looked perfectly serious and eventually realize you'd been duped, you'd just burst out laughing," says Johnson. "He was hard-wired to find the humor in, or the alternate, funny version of any situation. His sense of humor was irrepressible, and it showed in his life's work." Michael Crawford died at home, in Kingston, on July 12, at the age of 70.