Published: February 29, 2012
Few artists have led a sadder life than George Ault (1891‱948). Burdened with family tragedies, alcoholism, ill health and poverty, he nonetheless persevered to produce some of the most eerie, evocative and original American works of his era.
The fact that Ault is little known today is due in large part to his inability to get along with dealers and critics, as well as living his final years in isolation in upstate New York. Over the course of an unfortunately abbreviated career, Ault created works notable for their variety, power, clarity and order †infused with a sense of melancholy.
Especially in depicting manmade environments, Ault’s oeuvre invites comparisons to Precisionism. Architectural subjects †old houses, angular buildings, urban rooftops †are stark and precise, but convey more emotion than works by his compatriots, including Charles Sheeler.
In his last decade, when he drew on nature and rural scenery, Ault’s work took on a dark, dreamlike quality †a sense of sadness and foreboding †presaging his untimely end. In part, this reflected his admiration for visionary romantic painter Alfred Pinkham Ryder. As art historian Eila M. Kokkinen observed, Ault’s “moody temperament found an affinity with Ryder’s tempestuous, moonlit night visions.”
A few late paintings reflect the influence of Surrealism, but in the main Ault was more concerned with painting what he saw and felt than with exploring the subconscious. Distinguished art critic Hilton Kramer noted that Ault “had no vocation for delving into the mysteries of the unconscious.”
Added Kramer, Ault’s “way was a sensibility totally attuned to the objective observation of his surroundings. &†He is best described, perhaps, as an immaculate realist †a realist haunted by the trials of a hard life.”
A touring exhibition, “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America,” on view at the Georgia Museum of Art through April 16, showcases the artist at his best and should go a long way to resurrecting his reputation. Organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), where it has already been seen, as well as at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the show is guest curated by Yale art professor Alexander Nemerov, who wrote the challenging exhibition catalog.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of an ink manufacturer who was an amateur painter and art patron, Ault moved with his family to London in 1891. He studied the Old Masters, attended art schools, and, after sojourns in France introduced him to Modern art movements, he developed a kind of Anglicized Impressionism.
Back in the United States in 1911, Ault settled in Hillside, N.J., and was married briefly. He created light-filled, atmospheric landscapes of New Jersey, juxtaposing geometric forms of buildings with organic forms of nature and luminous views along the Hudson River from Manhattan’s Riverside Drive. The same light touch characterized summer scenes of Provincetown, Mass. In an abrupt shift, in the summer of 1923 Ault painted hard-edged, Marsden Hartley-like abstractions, but soon abandoned that style.
In the early 1920s, Ault’s life was upended and he became an alcoholic after his mother died of pernicious anemia in a mental institution, three brothers committed suicide, and his father, having lost everything in the stock market crash, died of cancer. Only Ault and his sister survived. The artist, by then living in New York, became a loner, drinking heavily and alienating friends.
As an escape from his troubled personal life, he sought order, clarity and delicacy in his art, evolving a disciplined approach to painting cityscapes that employed crisp geometric lines and bold colors to delineate architecture and deserted streets. Unpeopled, these paintings resemble the lonely ambience of Edward Hopper’s urban scenes.
Although painted with Precisionist attention to structure and clarity, Ault’s work was distinguished from that movement by its romantic, poetic quality and the frequency of nocturnes. As museum director John I.H. Baur put it, Ault’s “interpretation of the geometry of New York has a certain awkward lyricism that avoids the cold facility of much Precisionist art,” in part due to his affinity for American folk art and his admiration for Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. In spite of critical acclaim for his paintings, Ault sold few and frequently feuded with art dealers.
In 1935, Ault hooked up with Louise Jonas, whom he met while she sunbathed on the roof of their apartment building at 50 Commerce Street in Greenwich Village. In 1937, to escape the rat race of the city and find a less expensive place to live, they moved to Woodstock, N.Y., a serene village in the Hudson Valley with a thriving art colony.
Living close to poverty, they rented several rundown houses on Glasco Turnpike in Woodstock, while Louise (whom Ault married in 1941) earned money writing for area newspapers. His self-portrait of himself painting in his tidy studio †he was a cleanliness freak †emphasized its spare setting.
As Nemerov points out, Ault’s Woodstock paintings are “quiet, ordered, careful worlds &†[His] precise alignments and geometries of barns, telephone wires and streetlights symbolically calm disastrous and unpredictable events.”
Ault turned out precisely delineated, lonely structures and roads that seemed headed nowhere; some emphasized sunshine and shadow, while others focused on the play of moonlight on snow-covered barns. Dead trees are a constant in the Woodstock works, injecting a disquieting element into otherwise tranquil settings. Frequent snowscapes emphasize the power of nature, such as “Brook in Mountains,” and the isolation of rural life, in “Hunter’s Return” and “Festus Yayple and His Oxen.”
The onset of World War II troubled Ault deeply; he sensed the world was spinning out of control and worried about the fate of his beloved France. For a time, he undertook a series of enigmatic, Surreal landscapes that variously showed Louise sunbathing on a riverside beach or seated nude on rocks on the coast of France or depicted a French cable station, based on a photograph in The New York Times.
On occasions when he returned to New York City, Ault continued to paint hard-edged, geometric views of industrial sites and rooftop vignettes of Washington Square and other Manhattan architectural subjects.
An enigmatic backside portrait of his nude wife, posed in their chilly Woodstock home, alongside a small plaster cast of a classical torso given to him by his father, suggests both Ault’s affection for his doughty companion and the vulnerability of their impoverished, isolated existence.
The crowning achievement of Ault’s career †and the centerpiece of the exhibition †is a series of five oils Ault painted between 1943 and 1948 of an ordinary crossroads close to the town center of Woodstock and near where they lived. Russell’s Corners was and is a junction where two lightly traveled roads meet, illuminated by a single overhead light. On short walks from his house, Ault observed the site repeatedly by day and night.
Then he applied the technique of “visual memory and training” he learned in England, “retaining,” as Kokkinen says, “the features in his mind, and returned to the studio to work on the painting without preliminary sketches.” She speculates that he thereby “permitted himself a freedom of imagination and was not trapped into academic realism in an effort to be accurate.”
In “Daylight at Russell’s Corner,” Ault presented the intersection as it was, flanked by a cluster of snow-covered red barns and a white structure, pristine and peaceful. The scene took on a more ominous tone after dark, with the solitary streetlight illuminating outlines of the structures, whose placement Ault altered somewhat for compositional purposes. The standouts, “Black Night at Russell’s Corners” and “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners,” are at once eerie and disturbing, with hints of hope emanating from the glowing light.
Nemerov interprets these mysterious images as reflections of unease on the World War II home front, arguing that Ault’s isolation in Woodstock stimulated powerful visual images evoking the uncertainty and melancholy of those perilous times. A display of paintings by 22 of Ault’s wartime contemporaries, including Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Charles Sheeler and a terrific unknown, John Rogers Cox, echo America’s 1940s anxieties.
In the last couple of years of his life, Ault sold some paintings and was able to live more comfortably, but he continued to be plagued by alcoholism and a debilitating heart ailment. He executed a number of enigmatic, highly abstract paintings that suggest a quest for new imagery and an adventurous visual vocabulary. They reflect an inquisitive mind, aware of the rise of Abstract Expressionism in America and its potential for new fields to conquer.
A fascinating show of Ault’s drawings at Nelson-Atkins Museum, “Ault on Paper,” on view through April 29, ranges from realist student work to late abstractions, reflecting explorations of numerous styles. Standouts include an idyllic watercolor of rural France, created at age 17; hard-edged, Surrealistic landscapes in the 1930s and dreamy, otherworldly cityscapes and rural landscapes in the late 1940s.
On a snowy, winter night in December 1948, while taking his usual shortcut home on foot through the woods from a neighborhood watering hole, he slipped, or jumped, into a rain-swollen creek and drowned. A hasty coroner’s report ruled it a suicide, a conclusion disputed by Louise, who said no water was found in his lungs, and others who knew him. At a time when he was beginning to make some money, had recently completed his Russell’s Corners masterpieces, and was vigorously experimenting with abstractions, it seems unlikely Ault deliberately took his life.
In the wake of his untimely death, Louise †his intrepid helpmate out of central casting †worked tirelessly to encourage museums to acquire and dealers to sell Ault’s paintings. Her letters spell out the merits of his art and make a compelling case for their dissemination, but there were few takers.
Today, aided by this interesting and revelatory exhibition, there is renewed interest in the achievements of this neglected American master. As art historian Susan Lebowsky once observed, “Unencumbered by the dictates of style or commerce, Ault forged a unique and poetic vision that still endures.” Ault’s body of work †different, thought-provoking and moving †deserves a prominent, permanent place among the masterworks of mid-Twentieth Century American art.
The catalog is lavishly illustrated with works by Ault and his contemporaries, and contains provocative, intellectually stimulating interpretations by Nemerov. Published by SAAM in association with Yale University Press, it sells for $45, hardcover.
The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia is at 90 Carlton Street. For more information, 706-542-4664 or www.georgiamuseum.org .
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