Monday, October 17, 2011

`The Candle Cures the SEEMS'

Roger Boylan has discovered a painter of one great painting, perhaps two, and that is more than sufficient. He describes George Ault’s Bright Light at Russell's Corners (1946) as haunting, chilly, and perfectly conceived,” neatly distilling its genius. Ault is a geometrician, a deft arranger of lines and planes, black and white. His night is not some melodramatic maelstrom of darkness. It has the “chilly” perfection of a schematic diagram, without being thematically schematic. The painting invites precisely the metaphoric readings it most easily eludes, and Ault’s coolness cloaks a feverish existence.

As Roger suggests, the artist’s life was anything but deft. In his recently published To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America (2011, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Yale University Press), Alexander Nemerov says Ault’s “wish for order stems from a deeply personal cause,” and explains:
“Few other artists suffered no much personal misfortune. In 1915 his younger brother Harold killed himself in a suicide pact with his wife. In 1920 his mother died of anemia in a mental hospital. In 1929 his father dies of cancer, around the time that the family’s savings were lost in the stock market crash. In 1930 and 1931 Ault’s older brothers Donald and Charles killed themselves, one with gas, the other with strychnine. By the time he moved to Woodstock [N.Y.] with [his wife] in 1937, Ault was depressed, `erratic,’ and an `embittered alcoholic’ who had lost his gallery representation and alienated many of his artist friends and acquaintances…”
In 1948, Ault, age fifty-seven, drowned in a stream near his home in Woodstock, probably a suicide. In his final eleven years of suffering, he did his best work, including four nighttime paintings of Russell’s Corners and January Full Moon (1941). Roger writes:
“Fortunately, he left behind one or two near-perfect canvases, including [Bright Light at Russell’s Corners]. All the sound and fury of his life matter little now.
Henry Vaughan fancied night as “thy dark Tent,” suggesting shelter, a counterintuitive notion. Closer to the truth for most of us is an October 1802 passage from Coleridge’s notebook. His son Hartley’s candle is Ault’s Bright Light:
“Hartley at Mr Clarkson’s sent for a Candle—the Seems made him miserable—what do you mean, my Love!—The Seems—the Seems—what seems to be & is not—men & faces & I do not [know] what, ugly, & sometimes pretty & then turn ugly, & they seem when my eyes are open, & worse when they are shut--& the Candle cures the SEEMS.”
[Go here for a lecture on Ault by Nemerov (the son of poet Howard Nemerov and nephew of photographer Diane Arbus). Dave Lull passes along this exerpt from Nemerov's book.]


MMc said...

Patrick, it's so interesting to me that you wrote about Ault. I only just discovered him myself a few months ago and been taken with his work since then. I'm perplexed and disturbed I had never heard of him before. I consider myself pretty well informed, but he was under my radar for whatever reason.
By the way, I am especially enjoying your posts now that you are back in Houston.
Best to you,

Terry Teachout said...

I saw "Bright Light" at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that time I'd never heard of Ault. It looks even better in person than it does in reproduction.