The Drama of the World at Night

To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America

an exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., March 11–September 5, 2011; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, October 8–December 31, 2011; and the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia, February 18–
April 16, 2012.
Catalog of the exhibition by Alexander Nemerov
Smithsonian American Art Museum/Yale University Press, 152 pp., $45.00
Smithsonian American Art Museum
George Ault: Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, 19 5/8 x 25 inches, 1946

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America” is on the face of it a welcome and overdue event. It presents as a kind of hero and dominant presence a painter who has been a slightly peripheral figure in our art. On a first, quick look, one can see why. With his views of New York City buildings, rooftops, and streets when no one is around, and his scenes of barns and fields set in the Woodstock area, in the Catskills, where he lived in the last decade of his life, George Ault (1891–1948) can seem to be merely one more artist of the American scene during the period from the 1920s through the 1940s. The streamlined, geometric clarity he gives to his images of city buildings dovetails with the work of Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others, and, imbuing his pictures of places, whether in a city or the country, with a note of stoic isolation, he recalls even more Edward Hopper.

For his admirers, though, Ault is a vital artist because of his particular high-strung, all-or-nothing quest to get his forms and colors as tautly aligned as possible. Looking at his small canvases, where paint has been applied with a spartan economy—and where the slight awkwardness of the forms appealingly reminds us of folk art, which Ault admired—we find, moreover, an artist whose feeling for light is unlike anybody else’s. Hopper can make sunlight on a wall appear warm yet elegiac, a reminder of time and time’s passing. Ault is a master of a sunless and unwarming, yet sometimes slyly dramatic, light. In some of his Catskill landscapes he renders the bone-chilling gray-and-white light of a winter’s day as convincingly as any artist has.

His richest theme is the world at night. He can wittily capture the confusion when, in the evening, electric lighting inside a room becomes part of what we see when we look out the window. He makes a line of lights on a nighttime city street, unattached to any source of power, into a row of ping-pong balls floating in air. In his most mysterious and extraordinary works—four canvases of Russell’s Corners, a crossroads with some barns and a single hanging light in Woodstock—Ault does justice to that moment we have all experienced at night (and surprisingly few artists have shown) when overhead power lines, reflecting light from somewhere, become what might be called sky drawings.

Made between 1943 and 1948—and all, thankfully, in the Smithsonian’s exhibition—the Russell’s Corners paint- ings present a black nighttime setting, with no one around, touched here and there with areas of red and white (for the barns and light). Each painting shows the Corners from a different vantage point, and as…

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