Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss
Critically acclaimed in the 1930s, the provocative paintings of New York artist Francis Criss (1901-1973) are virtually unknown today. His cityscapes and portraits from that decade are a rare blend of Precisionism and Surrealism and often address America’s changing social and industrial climate. They share the austere geometry and pure, flat colors characteristic of the work of the artist’s contemporaries George Ault, Charles Demuth, and Charles Sheeler, who were associated with the precisionist movement. Yet Criss’s combination of figuration and abstraction suggests a close link to such diverse artists as the American modernists Peter Blume, and Stuart Davis as well as the Italian surrealist Georgio de Chirico. As one critic observed, his pictures capture "that terrific moment immediately before or after something shocking or cataclysmic takes place."
During his lifetime, Criss, a London native who trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, The Barnes Foundation, and the Art Students League, most often found himself grouped with the precisionists. He exhibited with them in Whitney and Corcoran Biennials, among other prestigious exhibitions during the 1930s. Together, these artists contributed to the quest for a national identity by establishing links between America's past and present. They selectively adapted the American realist tradition to the clean lines and sharp edges of the burgeoning urban-industrial environment. As in the work of the precisionists, Criss’s sharply defined, smoothly brushed forms in unmodulated colors were detached from the transitory aspects of time, atmosphere, and sentiment. However, at the core of his aesthetic was an unusual synthesis of Precisionism and Surrealism imbued with social commentary.
Critics and art historians have found Criss’s combination of figuration, abstraction, and fantasy difficult to categorize. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that he is rarely included in discussions of the celebrated artists with whom he was once so closely associated. Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss provides an opportunity to restore Criss’s place in American modernism through an in-depth assessment of the artist’s cityscapes and figurative work from this rich decade in his career.
Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss was organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and is supported by The President’s Exhibition Fund.