“To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America” At the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Sept. 5 What the Smithsonian gets wrong about an American misfit

George Ault, “Black Night at Russell’s Corners” (1943)

George Ault was born to lose. He could paintthe hell out of the side of a barn emerging from inky blackness in the synthetic glare of a streetlamp, but rendering human figures and faces either held no interest for him, was beyond his skill set, or both. Sustained, direct observation was his métier; when he invented or worked from memory, he revealed a homegrown-looking Surrealist influence. His painting seemed modern, full of sharp edges, straight lines, and flat colors, but Ault hated modernity, and eschewed the factories depicted by more successful Precisionist contemporaries like Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth. Ault called skyscrapers “the tombstones of capitalism,” and while he did make city pictures, his best work deals with rural subjects—albeit rendered in a chilly, austere style.

Although he saw some early successes in the 1920s, he ultimately would be ruined by alcoholism, failing eyesight, and bad genes. Ault’s mother died in a mental institution; his three brothers all killed themselves, two of them after losing the family fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. Ault spent the last 10 years of his life broke and totally dependent on his wife in an artists’ colony in Woodstock, N.Y., in a tiny rented house with no electricity or indoor plumbing. He made some fine paintings there, but he certainly didn’t make friends and had a hard time finding patrons. When he didn’t paint, he drank, agonized over the Nazi occupation of Paris, and painstakingly arranged and rearranged his personal library. In 1948, a few days after Christmas, Ault joined his brothers: He went for a drunken swim in the icy waters of Woodstock Creek and never came back.

Ault should present any museum curator with a quandary. His relatively small, uneven body of work may share some of the characteristics of other American modern art circa 1940, but it’s pretty much a self-contained statement. Like the man himself, Ault’s art is singular, outsider-ish, and anti-social. Some of his pictures are quietly magnificent, but few of them play well with others—they look like odd birds in a group show, even when hanging near works treating the same subjects in similar ways.

This hasn’t stopped curator and Yale University professor Alexander Nemerov from throwing Ault a party. In “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America,” Nemerov shows works by Ault next to works by 22 of his American contemporaries, including Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Rockwell Kent. Included are Ault’s five great Russell’s Corner paintings, four of which depict a rural crossroads enveloped in a supernaturally dark night.

Nemerov deserves credit for assembling an entertaining and thoroughly researched picture of 1940s visual culture, and for bringing together weird works by many lesser-known artists. Standouts include two startlingly crisp, dreamlike paintings by Indiana artist John Rogers Cox, depicting alien-looking clouds hovering over barren farmlands; and Byron Thomas’s “Pine Trees” (1946), an obsessively elaborated painting of tall trees silhouetted in the moonlight, reminiscent in their quirky shapes and curlicued branches of early Henri Rousseau. Paintings like these make a certain amount of sense next to Ault, and begin to define an eccentric strain of distinctly American painting.

But the connections Nemerov attempts to draw—between Ault, events during his lifetime, and other people’s paintings—range from tenuous to ridiculous. The leaps he makes in order to explain Ault’s pictures are free-associative, dependent on affinities and not facts, and tell us far more about Nemerov’s passion for World War II-era Americana than they do about the cranky, dissolute, reclusive artist or the paintings he left us.

Nemerov’s main thesis is that Ault’s work from the ’40s conveys a deep, abiding sorrow over World War II. Admittedly, it’s not hard to see the melancholy. “January Full Moon” (1941) is possibly Ault’s best work, and it exudes sadness and mystery despite its simple subject, a snow-covered barn in moonlight. The roof of the barn is jarring: The deep blue translucent sky and toned down bluish clouds all sit well in the background; the sharp wedge of the barn’s white roof pushes itself into the foreground. Beneath this sharp floating shape, the barn is shrouded in deep shadow, a looming, ominous mass in the empty snow covered landscape. It might as well be a tomb.

But the specificity of Nemerov’s claims are hard to swallow—especially given the evidence he uses. In the show’s catalog, Nemerov lists residents of Woodstock who went to fight in the war in order to persuade us that even in a remote artist’s colony, Ault—cranky, stand-off-ish Ault—would’ve felt the effects of the war as the neighbors he presumably didn’t talk to and avoided getting to know went to fight in it.

Nemerov also makes odd pop culture connections, comparing “Brook in the Mountains” (1945), an invented landscape showing an eerie, stylized waterfall, to the tears shed by Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland in the 1944 musical film Meet Me in St. Louis. The exhibition itself includes production drawings and a still from the 1945 noir film Mildred Pierce—because, as Nemerov explains it, both the movie and the nighttime Ault paintings share precisely recreated empty spaces and black skies.

Nemerov doesn’t say whether Ault saw or admired either film, nor does he argue that his paintings in any way attempted to emulate Hollywood sentiment or noir conventions—so the two movies may matter, but they probably don’t. This is the method Nemerov relies on throughout the show to present images that are fascinating but off-topic—like Rockwell Kent’s illustrations for Bituminous Coal ads, featuring a golden genie looming in the blue-black night sky over a speeding railway train. Yes, both Ault and Kent show nighttime scenes with artificial light, but otherwise they’re universes apart. It’s one thing to offer background or context; it’s another to offer digressions based solely on personal research interests.

Perhaps the oddest example of this is Nemerov’s comparison of “Nude and Torso” (1945), Ault’s painting of his wife Louise—nude save for a pair of blue socks, facing away from the viewer, her head turned just enough for us to see the contours of her cheek and jaw and her hair tightly braided—with Edward Biberman’s “Tear Gas and Water Hoses” (1945), a painting about a strike on the Warner Brothers lot.

Both paintings were created in the same year; both contain figures facing away. But how about the art-historical references Ault is actually making? The pose here appears to echo a first-century Pompeiian fresco of the Roman goddess Flora, also shown with her face turned away and her hair braided. The small marble torso of Aphrodite on the floor next to Louise reinforces the classical connection.

The statue was bought by Ault’s father in London, and appears in a number of Ault’s paintings, including “Sculpture on a Roof”—not included in this show, but painted the same year—which refers to George and Louise meeting on the rooftop of his New York building back in 1935. The light and space of both paintings, Louise’s parodic classical pose in “Nude and Torso,” and the use of the marble sculptural fragment link these pieces to modern Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico’s Pittura Metafisica—in other words, to Surrealism in Europe, not realist paintings by Edward Biberman or Andrew Wyeth.

The problem with showing Ault in the light of the popular culture of his day is that Ault lived in his own head, drawing on influences beyond what was going on around him. Ault, after all, spent much of his early life in Europe, studying art and having his first show in London. European culture and the canon very likely did matter to him; Hollywood, advertisements, and illustration very likely didn’t.

Nemerov has thrown a fine party; what he hasn’t done is chosen the correct guest of honor. Ault’s best work is certainly worthy of the spotlight that “To Make a World” shines on it—but there’s lots of material in the gallery and the catalog that has next to nothing to do with the artist. Nemerov’s attitude toward culture seems contemporary, expansive, and cross-disciplinary, and he’s applying that to an artist whose work and life seem hermetically sealed in comparison. As Ault’s curator, Nemerov turns out to be as much of a misfit as the artist himself.

Our Readers Say

An excellent review and reflection; I too felt that associations were being drawn that stretched a bit thin. Certainly stronger connections could have been made to the surrealist influences at work here. A Chirico scene of empty plazas would have resonated more deeply with Russels Corner, than one of GIs watching a movie during wartime, for example. Ault's works are strong and could have better anchored the show. As you say,it's a fine party; one that Ault would never have thrown for himself. Which makes me wish that the curator had been able to get it right.

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