What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, September 2, 2011

George Ault's "Russell's Corners" Paintings

I want to post my response to Sanford Schwartz’s wonderful review of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America" (“The Drama of the World at Night,” The New York Review of Books, August 18, 2011). But in order to do so I’m going to have stretch the jurisdictional boundaries of my blog because the connection between Ault and The New Yorker is, shockingly, almost non-existent. As far as I can determine, in the magazine’s entire history, Ault is mentioned just twice. Robert Coates, in a review of an exhibition at the Whitney Museum called “The Precisionist View in American Art” (“Camera Eye,” The New Yorker, February 4, 1961), writes:

Though the better-known figures constitute the main body of the collection, they by no means take up the whole of it, and one of the great values of the affair is the number of less well-known or now overlooked artists who have been sought out for inclusion. I’d cite especially such pieces as Elsie Driggs’ fine “Pittsburgh,” with its smoky-gray cluster of roofs and chimneys; the George Ault “From Brooklyn Heights,” a harbor view, and his “Sullivan Street Abstraction;” and, almost in toto, the small group of abstractions by Morton Schamberg, but most particularly his “Still Life, Camera Flashlight” and “Machine.”

And, in a follow-up to his piece on the Whitney show (“Backward, O Time,” The New Yorker, February 18, 1961), Coates says:

In the face of all this it was a pleasure, at the Whitney, to see revived such once familiar but now lost-in-limbo figures as Charles Demuth, George Ault, Niles Spencer, and Joseph Stella.

That’s it - that’s the full extent of The New Yorker’s notice of George Ault. On the other hand, Sanford Schwartz has been a long-time admirer of Ault’s work. In 1989, he wrote a piece about him called “Summer Nights at Russell’s Corners.” It’s included in his great 1990 essay collection Artists and Writers, which is where I first read it. I loved it, still do. “Summer Nights at Russell’s Corners” introduced me to Ault’s four great nighttime Russell’s Corners paintings: Black Night at Russell’s Corners (1943), Night at Russell’s Corners (1946), Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946), August Night at Russell’s Corners (1948). Schwartz included two reproductions, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners and August Night at Russell’s Corners, in his book. Even though they’re in black-and-white, they clearly show the thin lines of light on the power lines that are, as Schwartz points out, an aspect of Ault’s “great theme – a piercing, seemingly sourceless light.” Schwartz says, “He gives us the light that’s reflected on telephone or power lines at night – light that resembles strands of a necklace.” Schwartz’s “Summer Nights at Russell’s Corners” ends memorably:

Ault fine-tunes your eyes. He makes you aware of delicate light effects that happen, as it were, behind your back. When you drive down a country road at night and see, from the lights of a distant oncoming car, telephone wires turning into thin white lines, you may say to yourself, “An Ault!”

Schwartz’s new Ault piece, titled “The Drama of the World at Night,” is a beauty. It evinces the same deep appreciation for the way Ault depicts light that Schwartz’s earlier piece showed. Schwartz describes Ault as an “artist whose feeling for light is unlike anybody else’s.” Again, he draws our attention to the thin gleams of reflected light in the Russell’s Corners pictures. He says:

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.

But, in “The Drama of the World at Night,” Schwartz’s focus is not so much on Ault’s representation of light as it is on his representation of darkness. He says, “His [Ault’s] richest theme is the world at night.” In a superb passage of descriptive analysis, he says:

Made between 1943 and 1948 – and all, thankfully, in the Smithsonian’s exhibition – the Russell’s Corners paintings 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 Ault returned to the theme over the years, he eliminated more of the details, so that the last painting is primarily black. Yet no one picture feels finer or deeper than the others. They are in part about darkness but they aren’t emotionally “dark.” They express, rather, the wonder of there being this shifting drama of piercing light and enveloping obscurity happening in the middle of nowhere, without anyone’s having quite planned it. If he made no other works Ault would still be a remarkable figure.

That “they express, rather, the wonder of there being this shifting drama of piercing light and enveloping obscurity happening in the middle of nowhere, without anyone’s having quite planned it” is brilliant! It gets at why I find these Russell’s Corners paintings so affecting. Russell’s Corners is for most of us the type of nondescript intersection we barely register as we zoom by on our way to somewhere else. Ault saw it differently. Reading Schwartz’s stimulating pieces, looking at the Russell’s Corners pictures (there’s an excellent slideshow of Ault’s work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website), I’m reminded of something John Updike said in the Foreword to his The Early Stories 1953-1975: “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me – and to give the mundane its beautiful due.” That’s exactly what George Ault did in his marvelous Russell’s Corners paintings; he gave the mundane its beautiful due.

Credit: The above artwork is George Ault's Bright Light at Russell's Corners (1946); it appears in The New York Review of Books (August 18, 2011) as an illustration for Sanford Schwartz's "The Drama of the World at Night."

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