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Joel Sheesley

On World-Making

George Ault and 1940s America.

"Nobody really realized what they were up against …. We just had a lot of hope, but still you'd be scared to death while you were doing it." This is the way my father, Byron Sheesley, concluded a 1994 interview with The Daily Star in Oneonta, New York, in which he chronicled just one harrowing mission of his 35 as a B-17 pilot flying over Germany. Scared to death sums it up well. The average crewman was considered to have a one-in-four chance of survival when the standard tour of duty was only 25 missions.

What then was the hope that my father was talking about? Certainly there was some personal element—a gut feeling that you were, somehow, going to make it through. And there was also a national kind of hope, a belief in America and the good intentions of the Allies. And there was a kind of hope that reached beyond the personal and political, beyond atavism and the bonds of nations acting as good neighbors; hope based in a sovereign god. But whatever hope glimmered, it shone in the face of an ominous deadly fear that everything opposite these intimations of faith might at any moment gobble the whole thing up in dark fury.

The tenor of a nation brought fully conscious to the reality of this situation is what Alexander Nemerov explores in To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America. The book served as the catalogue for a 2011 exhibition with the same title, organized by Nemerov, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "To make a world" is an apt title. It invites us to consider a number of worlds open for remaking during the war years of the '40s: the political and geographic reshaping of the world map, the reshaping of the American homefront during a time of scarcity and anxious waiting, and the reshaping of the arts in the face not only of the horrors of war but also of the expansionist euphoria of the conquerors. It also suggests a "world apart," a world that must be made in the face of dissolution and chaos.

George Ault (1891-1948) is a fine artist to cite in this world-making. Ault is sometimes associated with artists of the "Precisionist" movement, a group led by painters such as Charles Sheeler, whose conceptually processed observation of nature results in works with an abstract, theoretical, and sometimes symbolic rather than natural appearance. Precisionists start with observation but then produce works that suggest a thorough mental re-sorting of nature, a mechanical, rational comprehension of its secrets—in short, the making of a world. Geometry and some degree of simplification dominate. In Ault's case we also see touches of Surrealism and Primitivism at work. It is apparent when we look at paintings by George Ault that the world he has painted is a meticulous and orderly reconstruction; a bringing of refined order out of the chaos of experience.

Nemerov builds on this notion of the artist as order-bringer. For Ault, life experience itself was certainly the opposite of order; in fact, a kind of reigning disorder. In 1915, his younger brother killed himself; in 1920, his mother died in a mental hospital. His father died of cancer in 1929. In 1930 and 1931, both of his older brothers also died of suicide. Ault's first marriage ended in divorce. He moved, with his friend Louise, from New York City to Woodstock in 1937, and married Louise, in 1941. By the time he left New York, he was considered an alcoholic, depressed, and generally embittered. "Chaos" does not seem too extreme a word to describe Ault's personal life, now set against the backdrop of a world at war. If anyone longed for the palliative order of art, it was George Ault.

Why then do we not see Ault's work only as the outcome of his own demons, as a product only of his own personal failures and fears? Nemerov seeks to bring Ault into the wider world by presenting his work in the light of a number of American artists of the same time period who made paintings of similar subject matter and, in some instances, used stylistic devices similar to Ault's. Among the "lights" Nemerov presents are Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Charles Sheeler, Rockwell Kent, Norman Rockwell, and a number of others who are less well known today. Ault is thus seen not as a hermetic recluse (though he was reclusive) but rather as an artist in touch with his times and in touch with the major symbols and metaphors of his day.

But Ault was different, too, and it is in the difference that Nemerov finds the core of his intrigue with George Ault. "To make a world" implies a basic tenet of artistry, that art works are a constructed reality. Recent fascination with this concept of construction in the postmodern sense has detached artists from any essential link to their works and posited them as managers rather than makers of art. We think of artists as having unlimited choice in what they will do in a sort of instant or already created realm of artistic possibilities. There is a sense that nothing can stop them in an incessant and unlimited reshuffling of images and texts which they do not and cannot invent. They constantly modify their stylistic terms with chameleon-like adjustments to changing circumstances. Nothing is essential; all connections are superficial accommodations, matters of choice not destiny.

This cannot be said of George Ault. The world that he makes is his world. But it is also our world seen from his position. That Ault chose his style is a highly suspicious notion. It seems rather that Ault's style is the inescapable sum of all the dire circumstances of his own life, of his passions, of his particular absorption of whatever sense he could find in the world around him. It is the sum of his limitations, perhaps of the gracelessness and indelicacy of his own hand, as he endeavored to make a finely ordered world. We are included in that sum, and all in all it is probable that none of us are there by choice.

Nemerov senses this destiny in Ault's work, especially in five paintings Ault made of a place called Russell's Corners. Four of the five paintings feature the Corners' intersection of roads, farm buildings, telephone poles, and electric wires, as much as they can be seen, in the dark of night. The buildings hug the edge of the road in testimony to a time when the road was not paved and such proximity to the slower traffic that traveled on it made sense. Shadows and the buildings that cast them blend together and create interlocking abstract shapes. The whole extending landscape is lost in thick darkness. One light, suspended over the intersection, illuminates what is visible given each painting's different orientation to the scene. The light reflects from and illumines the things that have been built, but it does not touch the darkness itself. Here Ault's reclusive diffidence finds its most auspicious moment. He balances the simplified geometry of buildings and poles with the magical way that traces of light travel down the electric and telephone lines. The scene is serene yet haunted.

As a once frequent traveler, often at night, on country roads in upstate New York, I have come upon such places as Russell's Corners. Illumined by a single light source, the side of an old farm building jumps out of the night and stands dangerously close to the road. The light itself has a tendency to momentarily obscure rather than guide the path it means to light. One pauses and then drives through the intersection before ever grasping the situation itself. But that is not what Ault has done. He has walked to that intersection and studied it methodically. He has observed an order to be found in the mix of blazing light and the thick darkness that surrounds it. And he has made a composition out of the way in which human structures and the unformed inky blackness hold each other in check.

Nemerov wants to find particular meaning in that sole light source in each painting. He posits that it is a Christian light, a kind of devotional candle burning in the darkness. But he also realizes that it is a light as understood by someone for whom God is dead. He suggests that it is a Nietzschean light, a gift of Zarathustra given in disdain for those who receive it. Or perhaps it is the light of Ault himself burning out in pain.

These compositions Nemerov eloquently connects to the civic ambiance of America at war in the 1940s. He gracefully weaves discussion of the art of diverse painters, poets, and filmmakers, some blatantly patriotic, some romantically wistful, some like George Ault himself, peering into the night, into an essay that opens up a widening angle on the visual culture of the decade. Nemerov's inclination is to champion Ault's vision above the others, but in discussing them all he illuminates the breadth of American visual response to the war and gives us an intriguing vantage point from which to consider it.

As for my father, he never would have taken to George Ault's way of picturing America at war. My dad, who found refuge in Norman Rockwell's sentimental pictures, had faced his version of Ault's anxiety in the skies over Europe. No doubt he saw both the darkness and the blazing light. He reported, not naming whether in horror or exhaustion, that he vomited after almost every mission.

Joel Sheesley, whose paintings have been widely exhibited, is professor of art at Wheaton College.

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