George Ault and 1940s America

What does it mean for an artist to make a world?  Consider the case of George Ault, and more especially of Black Night: Russell’s Corners (Fig. 1), a painting he made in 1943 in Woodstock, New York, where he moved in 1937 and lived until his death eleven years later. Showing old barns at a junction a few hundred yards from the town center, Ault portrayed a scene of meticulous order. The carefully ruled clapboards, double doors, and windows of the white barn, the neat roofs of the red ones, and the two telephone poles at the left combine to structure this crossroads lit so brilliantly by the single light hanging where the two roads meet.

Elements of disquiet are there, certainly:  some windows of the red barn at left tilt strangely; the angled dead tree counters the straightness of the telephone poles; and the telephone wires disappear into the black night that gives the painting its title. But the sense of geometry wrested from blankness and emptiness remains. Ault “painted to make order out of chaos,” his friend John Ruggles recalled in 1949. “The words of A. E. Housman, ‘I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made,’ touched him acutely. Rebellious and disdainful of many things in life, he passed by means of his paintings from a world he did not make, into a world of his own.”1

‘I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made,’ touched him acutely. Rebellious and disdainful of many things in life, he passed by means of his paintings from a world he did not make, into a world of his own.”1

Ault’s wife, Louise, whom he had met in 1935 and married in 1941, knew well her husband’s sense of order. After becoming upset by some event in the world or in town, he could find peace, she wrote later, only “at his easel again, creating formal harmony—on his canvas bringing order out of chaos.”2  In 1942 Louise wrote of the Woodstock painter Henry Mattson’s “inward desire for order—the desire to bring order out of chaos—which is a primary impulse of the artist in expressing himself through his medium,” and she found the same quality in her husband’s art.3

In Ault’s case, the order started where he and Louise lived, not far from Russell’s Corners. Their first house in Woodstock contained the studio he painted in a careful watercolor soon after they moved to the town (Fig. 2). Both studio and house needed to be perfectly clean before he could sit down at his easel. Ault would do the chores himself, Louise recalled, shining the small house each morning to its “permanent brilliance” before starting to paint. Outside, Ault “knelt with grass-shears and trimmed on either side of the path, close and neatly, cutting back the wildness to leave a park-like strip,” Louise wrote, and he “began a project of stone-laying, searching the acreage for flat rock, laying a terrace between back-porch steps and well, a stone path up to the mailbox, another on to where the underbrush ended and opened upon a little glade, and down to the outhouse.”4 Ault’s watercolor of the studio expressed this rage for order twice: once in the actual studio and again in the painting recording it.

What explains the order of Ault’s work? Since the 1920s he had composed his scenes geometrically, mixing modernist abstraction with recognizable places (often in Manhattan, where he lived for many years), but the Woodstock pictures seem especially precise, as if he felt much depended on his ability to align every angle, to make every slope of roof and roadside edge just so, as if each element carried the immense burden of staving off chaos. Maybe the reason was Woodstock itself. A remote location even with Byrdcliffe, its artists’ colony, the town required a hardy person to shape a life’s work there, and some of the Aults’ friends there, the sculptor Alfeo Faggi (1885–1966) and the painter Georgina Klit­gaard (1893–1976), for example, attested to the fact.5 But to believe that Woodstock alone explains the order of his work is to shortchange the obsessiveness of Ault’s clarity.

Maybe the order arose from a deeply personal cause. Few other artists suffered so much personal misfortune as Ault. In 1915 his younger brother Harold killed himself in a suicide pact with his wife. In 1920 his mother died of anemia in a mental hospital. In 1929 his father died of cancer, the year the family’s savings were lost in the stock market crash. In 1930 and 1931 Ault’s two remaining brothers Donald and Charles killed themselves, one with gas, the other with strychnine.6 By the time he moved to Woodstock with Louise in 1937, Ault was a depressed, irritable alcoholic who had lost his gallery representation and alienated many of his artist friends and acquaintances. Perhaps his family’s suffering was the chaos he made order from in impeccably controlled pictures such as Black Night: Russell’s Corners.

Yet what if that order came about for more than personal reasons? Ault felt that an art based on individual experience was limited. He praised an article published in 1940 in Partisan Review that noted the “shallowness” of expression based on “private interests.”7 There had to be a sense of the wide world channeling through one’s work. Accordingly, what if an infinite black night, World War II, lurks as the universal abyss that Ault’s rural junction would stand up to and somehow, symbolically, try to control?  If that worldwide chaos could stop—if the universal emptiness could be suspended, if only for a time, in a perfect structure of balance and compass—then one might achieve, in the devastating uncertainty of 1943, a measure of peace.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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