In a season of splashy, big-name shows, it’s easy to overlook George Ault, whose work is neither colorful (like that of Gauguin, Philip Guston, or Blinky Palermo) nor particularly recognizable (like Canaletto or David Smith). As Alexander Nemerov—Yale professor and curator of “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—puts it, unlike his contemporaries, Ault is “retiring to a fault.” His subdued, quiet landscapes are a world away from the brash wartime patriotism of Norman Rockwell. But for those who take the trouble to look, Ault’s work shows a subtle, nuanced attitude towards the turbulence of his time.
Ault was hardly a prepossessing character either—Nemerov describes him as “hermetic, curmudgeonly, and even misanthropic.” The artist struggled with depression and alcoholism before drowning himself in 1948, becoming the fourth and last of his brothers to commit suicide.
Ault’s paintings of Woodstock scenery are bleak and lonely, with precisely rendered features and a meticulous lack of activity. But they’re also fascinating and strangely animated. A ghostly, Gothic stillness adds subtext to a simple landscape of a barn, while a solitary street lamp can take on an almost mythical power.
The show, which was originally intended to focus on multiple artists rather than Ault specifically, compares his work with that of a number of his contemporaries, including Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and John Rogers Cox. Most of the works share an understated sensibility, speaking to the sense of disorder many felt during World War II. That brooding attitude is clear in Ault’s landscapes. Clouds seem to represent looming menace, while water stands in for restrained but still-flowing emotion. A description of one painting recalls words by A. E. Housman which Ault felt described his own state of mind: “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.”
“To Make A World: George Ault and 1940s America” is at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art through September 5. For more information, visit the American Art Museum’s Web site.