'To Make a World' at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., up through September 5.
For this ambitious exhibition of works by American painter George Ault, curator Alexander Nemerov, professor of American art at Yale University, has drawn from an impressive cast of supporting artists, from the famous to the truly obscure, to shore up his contention that Ault’s eerie landscapes capture the zeitgeist of 1940s America.
The show centers around five paintings that Ault made of a rural crossroads in Woodstock, New York. Black Night at Russell’s Corners (1943), arguably Ault’s best work, depicts a red barn, dead tree, and white garage lit by a single street lamp, giving the viewer the sense of entering a lonely, foreboding intersection from a dark country road. The shapes and shadows are unnaturally precise, harking back to American primitive painting but with a 20th-century surrealist inflection. Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is an admirable painting too, but it does not offer the slightest difference in emotional pitch from Black Night, even though it was painted after the war’s end. If the icy ambivalence of this later work captures an authentic slice of postwar trauma on the American homefront, it’s purely by accident, because Ault’s vision hadn’t budged.
The selection of works by Ault’s contemporaries provides some great moments. Edward Hopper’s ominous Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942) depicts a factory town at first light, while Charles Sheeler’s Amoskeag Canal (1948) portrays an abandoned New Hampshire textile mill. Unpeopled and stark, these two paintings lend Ault’s canvases greater authority, but they are fundamentally more nuanced and engaging. Edward Biberman’s Tear Gas and Water Hoses (1945) shows workers watching the violent dispersal of a picket line. Its flat geometries bear some resemblance to Ault’s style but the political theme reaches a level of specificity that Ault wouldn’t have touched.
Even if it’s a stretch to argue that Ault’s paintings fully embody the mood of 1940s America, this worthy exhibition includes plenty of compelling works from an enormously complex decade.