Saturday, March 12, 2011

Discovering Painter George Ault

SeveralpaintbrushesThe first major art exhibit dedicated to the 20th-century painter George Ault in nearly a quarter-century opened yesterday at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.  Entitled To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America, the show highlights his efforts to present calmness amidst the turmoil of World War II.

Ault, who died in 1948, is identified as a precisionist painter who used geometry and clear-cut images to represent his times.   Similarities of his art are seen in the work of Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler, whose paintings are included in the exhibit.

Although neither a major art figure nor well-known today, Ault produced a number of evocative and even haunting works while living in New York City and later in Woodstock, New York. 

No doubt his paintings were influenced by various personal trials:  the suicide of three brothers; the institutionalization of his mother; family financial difficulties; and his own alcoholism, depression and challenging personality.

His View from Brooklyn, completed in 1927, is representative of his pre-Woodstock period.  It shows the New York skyline as seen in the distance from a perfectly proportioned long, red building.  The ground surrounding the building and the roof of the building are covered in snow while the sky is gray and ominous with large, billowy clouds.   Another somewhat comparable period work is Greenwich Village Rooftops.  Neither is included in the exhibit.

Ault was misanthropic and had an acute aversion to crowds.  So in 1937 he relocated to Woodstock, the arts colony about 100 miles north of the city.  Along with his wife, Louise Jonas, he spent the last eleven years of his life there and produced some of his most memorable paintings. 

Guest exhibit curator and Ault scholar Alexander Nemerov of Yale University spoke about this time in the painter’s life at an opening-night lecture on March 11.  Among his insightful comments were that Ault began to recognize that “art based on one’s personal life is hardly art at all.”  And, that his later paintings represented “an effort toward seeking order out of chaos.”

Ault was clearly affected by World War II.  Perhaps his perspective on the war was best represented by a series of five paintings of a Woodstock intersection called Russell’s Corners, which he completed between 1943 until shortly before his death.

Four of these are nighttime paintings:  Black Night at Russell’s Corners; Bright Night at Russell’s Corners; Night at Russell’s Corners; and August Night at Russell’s Corners.  Each presents an eerie tableau of barns, with a bright light in the center of the canvas and with intersecting power lines.  Clearly stark, these images also convey a sense of quiet despite the war and its aftermath.

Another painting representing a similar theme is January Full Moon, which features a barn surrounded by snow.  In addition to using night, somberness and serenity, each work exploits geometric designs.  

Although these paintings form the centerpiece of the exhibit, other Ault works and those by 22 additional artists—some of which reflect war-time themes—are included among the 47 paintings.  The exhibit runs until September 5, 2011.

For more information and images on the Ault exhibition see:

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