The picturesque town of Woodstock, N.Y., which for many people younger than I am evokes memories of hippie “love-ins” and the emergence of the counterculture, has quite different associations for anyone interested in the history of American art. For like Provincetown, Mass., and (somewhat later) the Hamptons, Woodstock was once famous for the artists who lived and worked there. I have to admit to an interest in such places because I grew up in one-Gloucester on Cape Ann, north of Boston-and this led to my lifelong interest in art.
It won’t do, however, to romanticize such “art colonies,” as they were called. They were often the scene of great privation and suffering in the days before the art world was as flooded with money as it is today. Take the case of George Ault (1891-1948), a Woodstock artist whose paintings and drawings from the 20′s, 30′s and 40′s are the subject of a splendid exhibition at the Zabriskie Gallery. There’s hardly a sadder life story in the annals of 20th-century American art than George Ault’s. Yet in his art there’s no trace of the anguish, penury and disarray-some of it self-inflicted-that dominated his life for years.
On the contrary, it’s order, clarity and delicacy that remain uppermost in Ault’s work, whether the subject is drawn from nature or the man-made environment. This affinity for order and clarity won Ault a place among the artists who called themselves Precisionists, the best-known of whom was Charles Sheeler. Yet it’s mainly for his depiction of architectural subjects-old houses, urban rooftops and, in one major painting, the George Washington Bridge-that Ault qualifies as a Precisionist. Elsewhere in his work, there’s a lyric element and a somber, dreamlike quality that places his art well beyond the boundaries of the clean, well-lighted Cubist space of the Precisionist aesthetic.
This darker strain in Ault’s work has sometimes been attributed to the influence of Surrealism, but this strikes me as doubtful. He had no vocation for delving into the mysteries of the unconscious, and the automatism so highly prized by the Surrealists was completely alien to his aesthetic temperament. His way was a sensibility totally attuned to the objective observation of his surroundings. Ault is best described, perhaps, as an immaculate realist-a realist haunted by the trials of a hard life.
His story is marked by a dramatic pattern of highs and lows. It began in an atmosphere of privilege and opportunity: His father was a wealthy businessman and amateur academic painter who spent a good deal of time abroad with his family. As a result, Ault began his art studies in London at the age of 16, and it was in London that he had his first exhibition a year later, at the St. John’s Wood Art School. He also spent some time traveling in France. His first solo exhibition in New York came in 1927 at the Downtown Gallery, then and for some years thereafter one of the top galleries dealing in contemporary American art.
Thanks to the Depression, his life ended in wretched poverty exacerbated by alcoholism and family tragedy. A younger brother committed suicide, and their mother died in a mental institution. When his father lost his fortune in the 1929 Wall Street crash, Ault’s two remaining brothers also killed themselves. It’s hardly a wonder, then, that Ault followed that pattern with what appears to have been his own suicide at the age of 57. By that time, he had alienated almost everyone in a position to support his artistic endeavors.
The shining exception is Ault’s second wife, Louise, who was the principal mainstay of the long and troubled last half of his life in Woodstock. I knew Louise Ault in her later years as a widow, when she was supporting herself and preserving her husband’s unsold paintings and drawings with an ill-paid job selling postcards of the Old Masters at the Metropolitan Museum. Without her devotion, Ault’s work might easily have been lost to us. She even wrote a book about their life in Woodstock- Artist in Woodstock: George Ault, the Independent Years (1978). If she ever had any regrets about their life together, she never spoke of them.
The focus of Ault’s paintings and drawings was mainly on landscape, cityscape, interiors and still life. In a fine essay for the brochure of the current show at the Zabriskie Gallery, Eila Kokkinen points out that “Ault avoided the human figure in his paintings,” but she notes one exception: the picture called Nude and Torso (1945), in which, as she writes, “Louise stands with her back to the viewer …. Despite the objective portrayal, her figure projects a vulnerability and attitude of withdrawal.” The torso in this painting is a small sculpture, and its juxtaposition with the nude figure of Louise gives the work a subtle undercurrent of irony and allegory on the relation of art to life.
However messy his life may have been, Ault was very methodical in his work habits. In Woodstock, he devoted a notebook to his studies of clouds, and the skies in his outdoor pictures abound in wonderful cloud formations. He also had a genius for watercolor, as the masterly rendering My Studio (1928) attests. He was in many respects a far more accomplished artist than the museums and the art histories have ever acknowledged, and the current show of his work is one of the best I’ve seen. It remains on view at the Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through April 24.