Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Re: "To Make a World: George Ault and 1940's America"

"To Make a World: George Ault and 1940's America"
American Museum
Through September 5th

Part One

In some cases, it isn't necessary to see work that is not likely to look better in the third dimension than it does in the second, so I'm going to commit the hersesy of reviewing a show entirely from photographs and standing by it.  I acknowledge the possible wrongheadedness of such an approach.  At worst, it is hubristic, somewhat lazy, and arrogantly self-assured; it best, it's a very neat little shot in the dark that could very well hit home. 

I allude to the Russell's Corner's paintings of George Ault, a little-known lyricist/precisionist/primitive who moved to the town of Woodstock, New York to be with pretty much everybody else on the New York art scene of that day.  Edward Hopper wasn't there, but he had a sweet little setup on Washington Square and, during the summer months, Truro, Massachusetts.  Apparently one of his paintings is included in the show.  Goody.

Ault's paintings may be, as Washington Post critic-in-residence, Philip Kennicott claimed, more interesting than Norman Rockwell's; if not, they're so conceptually different that they might as well represent opposing sides of the moon.  Or Mercury.  Rockwell's work we know - and I'll get to it in a minute.  Ault's doesn't show rosy realities, indulge in can-do propaganda, or preach about anything.  That most certainly separates it from Rockwell, whose pictorial bromides stroked American's heartstrings as they trafficked, first in commercial satisfaction and, during the war years, in bellicose sentiment.  To say they're more interesting is to be boldly preferential.  I'm not sure they're more interesting at all.  But, yes, Ault's paintings are different and they certainly don't attempt to sell anything.

The conceit of the exhibit, curated by Alexander Nemerov, a passionate art-ideologue who's very big on subtext, is to show war-era and post-World War II America as a sinister place, seething with dark urges no country village can possibly address.  Its communities were metaphorically connected by a single strip of roadway and, for every soldier who went off to war and came back, that roadway wasn't just a place to drive; it was a way to get the hell out.  Given the rather bland look of the work itself - in which Kennicott manages to discover formal qualities that are lost on me - this is a tall order.  If you want to find subtext, Hopper, for example, is your man.  Before the advent of computers, writers wore out quill pens, typewriter ribbons, foolscap, and all sorts of other stationary store accountrements trying to get at Hopper's very plausible alienation.  Hopper painted a city that crushed as often as it enlarged; he was a rather
 impenetrable fellow himself; and he lived long enough to see the world torn apart at the seams not once, but two times.  As a young man, he created a poster called "Smash the Hun," which stands comfortably among WWI's efflorescence of motivational imagery.  We encourage you to kill, young soldier - preferably with something that'll do it quick and easy.

I can understand the moony excesses the Hopper oeuvre has inspired over the years - and will continue to inspire for some time.  He was a willing explorer of the side of the street that, while it caught sun-rays galore, was anything but sunny.

With Ault - whose pasted-on volumes do not speak volumes to me - the case is a bit harder to make, though let's put aside our skepticism and examine a series of paintings of a rural crossroads and see if they stack up.

As Kennicott suggests, Russell's Corners isn't a far cry from Grover's Corners - the mythical village of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which woke the dead and showed everybody's affinity to everybody else.  I'll give him that.  Perhaps the imaginary Grover's Corners had a little bend in the road, with a white-washed building on one side and a low-lying barn on the other.  Why not?  There were thousands of such places during, and after, the war years.  And enough nowadays for Americans who happen to be on a two-lane road to have a viable frame of reference.

I don't particularly care for Ault's minimalist approach.  It sacrifices spatial dimension as well as perceptual reality.  Not all lines - even if they describe a cinderblock house - should be as hard as Ault's.  Or Sheeler's, for that matter.  (A Sheeler picture is included in the show.)  As edges move into the distance, they get softer.  Ault's artificial geometrics make it hard for his atmospheres - which are supposed to be his strong suit - to get going.  When I look down his road, I can't go very far.  His night scenes are somewhat more effective, but they're still pasted-on rather than realized.  Hopper worked the entirety of a scene rather than from little play-toys that happened to be in the glare of a street-lamp.  Ault's reality looks staged, as if he assembled his little village in miniature and painted from that.  There's no air, no illusion: just hard lines and constipated forms.  If I ran across one of Ault's paintings in a garage sale, I would buy it.  It is more or less garage sale material.  A miraculously undiscovered Hopper - unsigned, of course - would give me sweaty palms, an urge to upchuck, and a moist twenty-dollar bill.  Hopper doesn't look any more like garage sale material than a Faberge egg.

This is what Kennicott has to say about Ault's formal approach, which is interesting, but, in my view, mislaid.  More talented artists have tackled similar things (see Part Two of this essay) and done better.  You could agree with what Kennicott is saying about them, but not Ault.  Ault's soul is that of a primitive and - at least in the paintings on view at the American Museum - he was committed to that vision.  Forgive me, but no primitive artist is capable of "powerful chiaroscuro contrasts" that lead to "rhetorical power" of any kind.  It is possible that he was influenced by cinematic lighting, but who wasn't?  Movies came of age during the 1930's, when they provided escapist entertainment, narratives about urban myths and, occasionally, David and Goliath struggles with a capitalist giant.  By the time America entered the war, however, movies became a part of the war machine.  No powerful chiaroscuro in them, unless it helped defeat "our enemies".

Like other painters on view in the show, Ault was clearly interested in how the poetry of the 19th-century landscape was fading fast, halfway into the new century, which may explain the compelling mix of wooden architecture and electric light. The formal order and clarity, especially the strikingly lit telephone wires that break the image into angular planes, may be a nod to the formal tendencies of avant-garde art that were otherwise of little interest to Ault. The powerful chiaroscuro contrasts of light and dark that give the paintings their rhetorical power may also be Ault’s exploration of how cinematic lighting techniques were changing our vision of what night looked and felt like.

I'd like to suggest that Nemerov and Kennicott - both extraordinarily intelligent men whose intellectual resources are somewhat wasted on such work - look around for better artists.  We all should. 

Meanwhile, here's a shortlist (I mean it to be one word) of compelling image-makers who were very much active during the 1940's and were able to salt a picture down with "chiaroscuro" to beat the band.  They possibly lacked rhetorical power, but who needs that when you can make an image that rivets you to the spot and keeps you there for a while?  Please note that I am ommitting that era's "heavy hitters", whose shorter list might include Reginald Marsh, Grant Wood, Charles Burchfield, Isabel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, and even John Sloan.  I've already mentioned Edward Hopper.  One might, with good reason, wish to include Raphael Soyer, who was predmoninantly a humanist for whom the landscape was secondary.  I've put him in with these others for that reason.  From what I know of the man, he wouldn't have taken umbrage.  

Francis Speight
Aaron Bohrod
Raphael Soyer
*Harry Leith-Ross
Nicolai Cikovsky
Martin Lewis
Emil Kosa
John Noble
Alexander Brook
Louis Lozowick
Ross Dickinson
Francis Coburn
Joseph Hirsch

*included in the show

Part Two

I just went to see the exhibit, not to get a "second look" at Ault's work - though I was able to do that - but to see, for the first time, a distinguished collection of American imagery that is not widely known.

Among these were the aforementioned Harry Leith-Ross' Flag Station, a tone poem that is far better managed than any of Ault's work - though the show's curator may have been exercised by its narrative element, as exemplified by a solitary figure who is waiting for a lover, boyfriend, or doting father.  It doesn't go out of its way to evoke a wartime mood; that mood is embedded in the moment. 

Anton Grot's production drawings for the movie, Mildred Pierce - a canny inclusion - are operatic gems that anticipate, in feeling, the stormy progress of an American success story.  And while they are tied to a narrative structure, they, like so many drawings of their kind, have a fulsome life of their own and can be considered independent works of art.

Paul Sample's Movies, Center Island, is gently satiric, but effectively contains the bottled-up energies of soldiers who might be under fire the next day.  It is nothing other than what it is - no subtext here, Mr. Nemerov - but what it's more than good enough as it is.

Louis Bouche's Summer of '45, Woodstock, New York is a colorful paean to country leisure and is characteristic of his mature, but good-hearted, vision.  It's a pleasure to follow his spirited brushstrokes around and through an outdoor space, in which a cabin's siding, pulled-up chairs, the patterns of shirts and blouses, as well as a benign-seeming natural world, joyfully collide. 

The exhibit's most striking picture - hung to great advantage among lesser things - is Edward Biberman's Tear Gas and Water Hoses.  It shows the still-upright victim of a gas-attack, which has already laid colleagues low.  He is holding his ground amidst the barn-like shape of a production facility, which is half-dissolved by columns of water, plumes of smoke, and such people as have been caught in between them.  It has a sombre presence that is lacking in the more stridently political (but equally effective) pictorial diatribes of William Gropper and Ben Shahn.  It can also rest on its artistic merits, which are considerable.  The figure Biberman has singled out is reminiscent of Homer's seamen, who are aware of what they're getting into, but keep readying the boat.  Under the circsumstances, what else can they do?

Getting back to the mainstage, as it were, I was brought up short by Nemerov's biographical prose.  He insists on Ault's "radiant light" - such as he appears to see in one of Ault's night scenes.  Having finally seen this light, I cannot credit the radiance at all.  It is schematic light seen in passing and not understood, except in a symbolic, stick-man sort of way.  Nemerov's prose gets loopier still.  "In his paintings, night poises on wires and eaves."  Sorry, old boy.  Night does all sorts of things, but it doesn't poise, even in a picture.  "Posing's" the better word, but I still don't believe night can do, or has ever done, that.  Perhaps we should wait for The Apocalypse and check it out then.  Nemerov also claims that Ault's work is always "tipping and dropping to strangeness and sadness."  Why stop there?  Why not add "lilting and lofting?"  Or "beeping and bumping?"  I'll admit that Ault's work can be "strange" and "sad", but must we alliterate it so much?  I haven't seen the video of Nemerov talking about the exhibit.  Perhaps he comes off as a plausible curator there.  But he sho' don't in his prose-writing.  Some entries are even illiterate, as when one attempts to describe Paul Sample's painting.  Its caption says that the "makeshift screen anticipate (my italics) the frolics" of a Broadway musical.  Somebody should have remembered that subject and tense have to agree.  Otherwise you don't sound like a curator anymore.  You sound like one of them grunts who can't think of nothin' but them coconuts.  And I mean the one's that ain't on the trees.

All in all, I would recommend the exhibit - largely because the chorus carries it pretty well and does it convincingly.  Of Ault's sadness and strangeness, there is scarcely enough to go around.  The modest dimensions of his work reflect the scale of his talent.  He was a moderately interesting chap who found the tenets of minimalism to his taste and, while he didn't live very long, he had time enough to establish an artistic personality.  Which he did.  I just don't think it worthy of such interpretive excess.  Or the real estate of a major American museum.    
For more information, go to the American Museum's website at: http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2011/ault/

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