New York

George Ault

Downstairs from Krasner, an exhibition of Nocturnes by the American George Ault reflected a greater degree of artistic as well as institutional attention. The points made by this exhibition are so clear and interesting that they almost overwhelmed the rather modest work, except that the clarity emanated directly from the work itself, work unaccompanied by an impressive catalogue, by previous information or expectations (at least on my part), or by artistic reputation. It was the kind of exhibition in which paintings of less intrinsic value were interesting for the contrast they supplied, for the diversity of interest, and the breadth of exploration which they revealed.

The exhibition consisted of 38 small drawings, watercolors, and oils, scenes of the city and country at night, executed between 1911, when Ault was 20, and 1948, the year of his death. Together these works revealed various ways of depicting and departing from reality: romantic, Precisionist, Surrealist, primitivist, quasi-abstract, as well as realist. The best work combines many of these characteristics, and all involve more than one. These various modes are united by Ault’s continuing exploration of light as well as by a consistently precise rendering of whichever mode interested him in a given painting. The appropriateness of the nocturne asa vehicle of his interests in light and precision becomes increasingly apparent as the exhibition progresses: at night the sources and effects of light are most explicit, peculiar, and precise.

The precision is present from the beginning in three paintings which evoke Ryder except for the clear geometry of such forms as the triangular sail of a boat illuminated by the moon (An Inlet of the Sea, 1920). It seems that looking at things at night, when buildings are reduced to single volumes and planes, leads to abstraction. By 1924, Ault painted the severely simplified Sullivan Street Abstraction as well as The Pianist (a strange geometric figure lit as if by Georges de La Tour). Abstractions of the city continue into the ’40s; buildings are solid opaque cubes and street lights white circles. But the preoccupation with light—the designation of a light source in even these very austere paintings—reveals Ault’s basic disinterest in abstraction; he still wants to show how light hits objects. The abstractions have a peculiar kind of abbreviated but depicted space in which the black sky becomes another geometric form. But they haven’t the complexity of the more realistic paintings which also have an interesting abstraction of their own. Ault was influenced by de Chirico to attempt some rather personal versions of Surrealism. These are interesting for isolated cloud forms which reveal his closeness to Dove and O’Keeffe, a closeness even more apparent in his simpler pencil drawings.

The realistic paintings were most significant, but almost everything else was interesting if only to clarify when Ault was mediocre, good, or brilliant, and why he ended up where he did. Ault’s various modes of depiction are combined in January Full Moon, 1941—a painting of a barn in the moonlight and snow. The side and peaked end of the barn form one flat black shape which merges with the shapes of two lower buildings on either side, and thus extends completely across the painting. This shape is topped by a single plane—one slope of the roof—which is white like the snow. The snow around the barn is broken by shadow, the dark sky by three clouds; both snow and clouds have explicit but not realistic undulating lines, a flat, symbolic quality which is again similar to Dove and O’Keeffe. The quality of the light is actual—it is moonlight and you know it—and the space also is real. The barn is a geometric abstract shape, more dense and assertive than any in the Sullivan Street abstractions. The snow and clouds are a little soft like the light—the shape of the barn, its contrast with the white parallelogram of the roof is powerful.

Finally, there are three paintings Ault did of Russell’s Corners during the last five years of his life. Each is a different view of the same country crossroads: a few farm buildings and a single outdoor light. It is a harsh source, within the paintings (unlike the light in January Full Moon), and often it illuminates a single face of a structure, making it look like a geometric shape and also like a stage flat. The space in these paintings is, like the light, clear and stark and different from either in the painting of the barn. Opulence is replaced by crystallization. What seems to be photographic detail is, in fact, naive and flattening in its precision. The deep black of the sky is simultaneously opaque and transparent; infinite space is, in the dead of night, pretty flat. (The paintings create the illusion that the next time you are in the dark you will be able to see everything.) Ault is trying to paint exactly what he sees, and he goes beyond reality simply by conveying a sense of how clear painting can be and of how intense the concentration is which achieves it. The exhibition ultimately implies that Ault, in order to reconcile his interest in a strict representation with abstract geometry and some kind of romanticism, settled on the solution of painting at night. These four paintings, the best in the exhibition, reveal that by attempting the first—the representation—at night, he could finally almost take the other two for granted.

Roberta Smith