Last fall, I sat in the dusky, slide-show light in the rear gallery of the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum, and found myself mesmerized by five paintings, for five slides were all we saw during the forty-five minute lecture, of barns at night done by an artist new to me named George Ault. Had I seen these pieces simply hung on the wall, they might not have made such an impression. After all, if you’ve been to WAAM, you’ve seen barns painted, photographed, done to death. But the longer I studied Ault’s scenes that combined utter blackness with a moonlit snowy rooftop or a cluster of red and white barns around a solitary street lamp the more intrigued I became by their starkness and strangeness. Our lecturer, Alexander Nemerov, a young Yale professor with a choirboy haircut, spoke with passionate intensity as he made his case that these paintings of locations a short walk from WAAM were masterpieces of 1940s American art that expressed the somber mood of our country during World War Two. He quoted poetry. He analyzed the paintings in detail for us to appreciate, for example, how the telephone wires painted like golden tracers of reflected street light that abruptly vanished into the blackness might well reflect Ault’s own feelings of failure at connecting with the world through his art. By the time he made these paintings, Ault was in his fifties, an alcoholic, a misanthrope, a neurotic who’d spoiled his earlier success by alienating friends and gallery dealers. In 1937, told he should see a psychiatrist, he’d decided almost overnight to move to Woodstock, leaving behind years of Greenwich Village life. With a younger woman, who later became his second wife, he’d rented a $10/month cottage on Glasco Turnpike which had an outhouse and a lean-to like kitchen on the side of the house. He wanted to do nothing but paint, and he did, leaving us these works that Nemerov had chosen as centerpieces for an exhibition he’d curated at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America. But not until I brought Nemerov’s book home to study the paintings some more did I understand their obvious appeal. Ault filled each canvas with blackness, the same blackness I see outside my cottage windows at night, the fertile darkness that comforts me as I write. During the day, I’m always bargaining with distractions. At night the words flow as if nothing else matters. My imagination runs wild. Duties subside. That blackness is the creative void. To me, George Ault was painting joy.
It’s easy to interpret the night as a metaphor for death, of course. Certainly, Ault had one of the grimmest lives in the annals of the Woodstock arts colony. Born in 1891 to a prosperous business family in Cleveland, he studied art in London and Paris as a teenager after his father transferred to England. By the 1920s, he was in Greenwich Village as part of the modernist vanguard handled by a gallery that also showed Marden Hartley, Stuart Davis, and Georgia O’Keeffe. By then, he’d shed the Impressionism of his academic training to develop his own style that would be grouped under Precisionism. There wasn’t a brush stroke hair out of place in his eerie realism. He became known for urban scenes such as one of the brick warehouses along Hudson Street on a vacant, blue-sky afternoon with the feeling of a desolate Sunday. He showed at the Whitney Studio Club which became the Whitney Museum. Yet his success didn’t protect him against the unfolding catastrophe of his family.
In 1914, his favorite younger brother died in a joint suicide pact with his wife. In 1920, his mother died in a mental hospital. His father succumbed to cancer in 1929, the year the stock market crash wiped out the family fortune. His two remaining brothers killed themselves in 1930 and 1931, one by gas, one by strychnine. By the time he was 40, Ault had only a sister as a fellow survivor. That he was an isolated alcoholic by then may be less significant than that he was still alive. I can’t imagine the psychic weight of losing three brothers to suicide. Several years ago, I lost a dear friend, my former wife, when she jumped from an apartment window to escape a severe depression. Ever since then, at moments of despondency, I’ve seen the Kingston-Rhinecliffe Bridge railing flash in my mind, an image not in my mental bank before. A viable option? I’d like to think not, but losing her to suicide has shaken my faith in the willpower to live. For the first time, I’ve understood what nihilism means. Sometimes I wonder what keeps any of us going — are we just fooling ourselves with delusions and lies? Life turned darker after her death. And Ault lived through this negation three times over.