To Make a World” with Curator Alexander Nemerov

  • NONA MARTIN: Good evening. My name is Nona Martin, and I'm the manager of public programs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and on behalf of the museum, I'd like to welcome you here this evening. But first, please allow me to take care of a few housekeeping details. If you have a cell phone or anything that goes bump in the night, please turn it off. Setting it to vibrate will not do. The signals will interfere with our sound system, so if you could just turn them off, I'd appreciate it. Secondly, I’d like to mention that this program is in support of our exhibition that just opened today, “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America.” It's on view through September 5 of this year, but I encourage you to see it as soon as possible. It's a wonderful exhibition, and you'll be hearing a lot more about it in the coming weeks with this program and our upcoming public programs, too. Please consult our calendar for additional programs on this exhibition.

    I'd like to mention that after the program, Mr. Nemerov will be signing books and copies of the exhibition catalog in the G Street lobby. Please join us in having your catalog signed. If you haven't purchased one, they will be on sale in the G Street lobby in our museum shop.

    Now, let me just introduce Mr. Nemerov, who is the Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. He's the guest curator for the exhibition “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America” and the author of the book of the same title that accompanies the exhibition. Among his other books is one published in 2010 called “Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War” about a single night's performance of the play Macbeth here in Washington during the Civil War and “Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures” about the Hollywood producer Val Lewton and the series of melancholy horror movies Lewton made during the Second World War. Nemerov has a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and also in the work of George Ault in the 1940s. Here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, he was a pre-doctoral fellow and a research assistant back when he started his career in 1989 and 1992. So we'd like to welcome him back to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and please join me in doing that.

    ALEXANDER NEMEROV: Thank you, Nona, for that nice introduction. Thank you all for coming here. I'm pleased to speak with you this evening about George Ault, especially about Ault’s paintings of the 1940s, and really just a few of those pictures that you can see in this exhibition here as a way of saying something about Ault and the exhibition that Nona has mentioned in her introduction, the show called “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America,” which opened here just today.

    Let me start here with this picture that Ault made in 1941 called “January Full Moon.” When I first saw this painting back in March of 1992 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City where it's part of the permanent collection, I said to myself, “Wow, what is that picture?” It was instantly compelling to me. But as so often happens, days and months and years pass, and I don't know what to do with my insights or emotions in front of a work of art. These get forgotten, shunted to the side, or otherwise abandoned as being too inchoate, too unready, or is it oneself that is unready? Until somehow, for some reason, it becomes time—time to make sense of what one saw—this time coming not on schedule like clockwork as a matter of precision but rather unbidden, accidental, a little more rhythmic and organic in the way that it, the insight, the feeling, just somehow suddenly makes itself present again and says, “Now.” It makes sense of me. That's often how I work, needing years before some feeling starts to take shape. In this case, the case of Ault, the occasion was the show Betsy Broun, the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, asked me in 2008 to do—a show on any topic, she said, as first the invitation was extended to me—but relatively quickly narrowing itself in my mind to the 1940s and then, after a few more months, just to Ault. Sixteen years, then, after my first encounter with his art, Ault, that relatively unknown figure, I'm here to make a little bit more known to you tonight.

    So, yes, let's start with this picture you're looking at called “January Full Moon.” That barn, a barn on a nearby farm in Woodstock, New York, nearby to where Ault lived in Woodstock. Woodstock, where he had moved from New York City in 1937. That barn, you get the sense, is a universal barn, a barn to end all barns. A barn with the capital “B.” Divested of detail, it becomes a grand design, splitting the heavens and divining the sky. That sky, too, you'll see, comes down to it. The moonlight projects on the barn’s roof, lighting up the crust of snow and appearing to project the shadows of clouds, bringing these flitting emblems of otherworldly mystery down to Earth, where they make their enigmatic patterns on a structure built as though to attract them. Look at the snowdrifts on the ground. Cloud-like themselves, these snowdrifts—they're like memories of the sky the snow fell from so that the whole Earth, its structures, and the ground itself portrays the heavens and becomes universal. That barn then extending into the sky draws down the mysterious forces that make it rise up before the artist and us as a somber and ecstatic vision.

    What accounts for the quietude of this picture? Maybe it's a compensation for all that was not quiet in Ault’s life. By 1941 when he painted “January Full Moon” at age 50, all three of his brothers had killed themselves. Both his parents were long dead. His family's life savings all gone in the stock market crash in 1929. His unhappy first marriage had continued for many years and he was an embittered alcoholic, neurotic, and paranoid who'd gone to some lengths to alienate his artist friends and gallery contacts in Manhattan, where he'd lived and painted for many years and had made well-received paintings of that city so that when he moved to Woodstock in 1937, going there with Louise Jonas, a woman he'd met in 1935 and whom he'd marry in 1941, the year of this painting, after finally getting his divorce from his first wife. When he did all that, Ault was going there as an escape, a retreat, a last stand, really, to be alone with strange and wondrous sights and the paintings they inspired, visions for the afflicted.

    So we could say, but consider also this. Ault himself felt, and in 1941, no less, that art based only on one's personal life was hardly art at all. That year he agreed that art based only on private interests and individual experience was limited. He agreed that it was wrong, false, limiting, to say that an individual's vision of the world is only finely a mirror-like reflection of the pattern of their psychic life, as if everything a creative figure does is explicable in terms of their psychology. Instead, the artist would need to say something beyond his personal life, a view that Louise Jonas, who became Louise Ault in 1941, felt that pictures such as the one you've been looking at achieved. In his work of the 1940s, she later wrote, “I believed he had gone beyond himself.”

    But what is this beyond in “January Full Moon”? What, if not a personal chaos, does it try to calm? Well, maybe it's a world at war. In 1940, Ault’s hands would shake as he scanned the headlines of the “New York Times” and read of Hitler's armies spread out in victorious marches. When France fell that year, he read the news despondently, and the next day, working at one of his paintings, suddenly got up from his easel and went out the back door onto the porch where through the window Louise saw him, his face in his hands, sobbing. “January Full Moon,” made by a person so shaken by world events, who sensed around him, as Louise wrote, “the disintegration of our times,” is, in 1941, a calming of the universe and not just of a single soul.

    So are Ault’s other great Woodstock paintings, like this one of 1943, called “Black Night: Russell's Corners,” the first of five pictures Ault would make of a lonely rural junction not far from his house, all five paintings being here in the show. As an aspect of that calm, the calm of this work, look at how meticulously ordered the whole scene is: the carefully-ruled, clabber double doors and windows of the white building, the neat roofs of the red ones, and the two telephone poles at left combine to structure this crossroads lit so brilliantly by the single light hanging where the two roads meet.

    The order invites us to imagine the neatness of the studio in the little house where Ault painted it, imagine how each morning before he would paint, he would polish and clean everything to “a permanent brilliance,” as Louise put it. How when they moved in, he put his library in exact order, cataloging the precise location of each book in a notebook, and how outside their little house, he created neat paths and terraces of stones he'd found on the property, and how he trimmed back the wild, jungly Catskill vegetation to create a park-like strip in the back. As a further example of this order, think of this. Think that at their house, the Aults would sometimes host an elderly, Scottish house painter, known as the best house painter in town, who would put on a coat of paint, let it dry, sandpaper it down, put on another coat, let that one dry, sandpaper it down, and so on, until, as Louise put it, “the surface came smooth as porcelain.” So Ault’s own paintings have an exacting degree of finish, of order and geometry, chaos, you see—not just personal chaos but world chaos. In that year, 1943, chaos calmed by order is what they show.

    We look at that picture there on the screen some more, especially at all that black night of the title, “Black Night: Russell's Corners,” and consider that the darkness of the world is not quite held at bay. Instead, night always remains, poised on wires and eaves. Elements of disquiet are there: the central dead tree; the oddly tilted windows of the red barn at left; the knowledge, if we have it, that the road moving out of the bottom of the canvas, the Rock City Road, coming out this way soon starts climbing steeply to Mount Overlook, the mountain looking darkly above the junction, making it small. In wartime in 1943, everything is quiet and peaceful there. Yes, Russell's Corners was literally judged a safe space during the war. George Bellows’ widow moved her late husband's paintings from Manhattan to a building a few doors down from the ones Ault chose because she thought New York might be bombed. Yes, even though what you're looking at is a safe space, calm and peaceful in a time of war, Russell's Corners, for Ault, is only the most delicate order in a great darkness.

    You wouldn't think that a scene of such small-town quiet could possibly suggest a world at war, but Ault’s painting is like other representations of small American places—stilled, frozen, where the war, that war, became vivid, as if such local quietness were even the best medium for such awareness. Consider two American poems from that same year, 1943. The first is called “Moonlight Alert,” subtitled “Los Altos, California, June 1943” by Yvor Winters, a poem about sirens that wake the narrator. So different in that respect from the quietness we're to imagine in Ault’s scene but otherwise giving us a similar small-town view, making known the wartime fates of people far away. This is that poem, “Moonlight Alert”:

    “The Sirens, rising, woke me; and the night
    Lay cold and windless; and the moon was bright,
    Moonlight from sky to earth, untaught, unclaimed,
    An icy nightmare of the brute unnamed.
    This was hallucination. Scarlet flower
    And yellow fruit hung colorless. That hour
    No scene lay on the air. The siren scream
    Took on the fixity of shallow dream.
    In the dead sweetness I could see the fall,
    Like petals sifting from a quiet wall,
    of yellow soldiers through indifferent air,
    Falling to die in solitude. With care
    I held this vision, thinking of young men
    Whom I had known, and should not see again,
    Fixed in reality, as I in thought.
    And I stood waiting, and encountered naught.”

    “I stood waiting and encountered naught”—that sense of expectancy, that sense of seeing in the stillness of a small-town American night, Los Altos and Woodstock, a vision of people one had once seen and would not see again, the stillness of a moment in time and space instead of the blast of newspaper headlines, that stillness being exactly the privileged medium for a perception of world events. Even, finally, the comparable quietness of the two scenes, Winters’ poem and Ault’s painting. For the poem somehow fails, at least for me, to render the siren’s scream as an audible phenomenon, the shriek itself being swallowed in the silence the poem conjures. These qualities Winters’ poem and Ault’s painting, both of 1943, share.

    So Ault’s “Black Night” is like that second poem of that year, John Ciardi’s beautiful poem called “Night Piece for My Twenty-Seventh Birthday,” written while Ciardi trained with the U.S. Army Air Force prior to serving as a waist gunner on a B-29 in the Pacific Theater the next year. It's a poem about the angles and orders, the rules and quantifications, the coherence and rationality that military training implies, govern the universe itself that governed the World War, too, so that all around him from the windowsills to the stars, the gunner in training is to behold logical, understandable phenomena, the greatest mysteries even being a matter only of so much celestial navigation as when in his barracks he describes how:

    “Punctually, now by all we learned at school,
    The stars fade down the angles of their rank.
    First Venus, then Orion. Rule by rule
    The book performs. Law, like a marble bank,
    Locks to the gleaming tumblers, perfect doors,
    The sweep of polished pillars and tile floors.”

    So that Ciardi says:

    “Now every night beneath this placid moon
    I am assured the ordering of a fact:”

    And so that:

    “Under the taut and tabulated stars
    I stand in barracks shadow like a pool,
    Apprenticed to a sextant and the wars
    Where even murder must be learned at school,”

    The war itself, no less rational, is:

    “a precise arrangement of the spheres
    Hung in the sky to label all our years.”

    Yet before, which at last the fate of this lone person, Ciardi says, is unpredictable, unknowable. There at the threshold, where alone:

    “He pauses at the lintel of no mood
    Carved to a star’s computed altitude.”

    And thinks that:

    “sky, a shadow to be memorized,
    Charts the shadows we had not surmised.”

    “Black Night,” there on the screen, charts itself some of those shadows out there in that same year of 1943. Unknown fates, crushing forces, and Ault knows as much as Ciardi does that orders and angles, rules and regulations, painterly, no less than military, cannot fully keep the chaos at bay. Think, in that respect, of the contrast between Ault’s “Russell's Corners” and the most famous corners of that time in American literature, the fictitious town of Grover's Corners in Thornton Wilder's play “Our Town,” first performed in 1938. Think, especially, of the great moment at the end of the first act when Rebecca Gibbs tells her brother George about the address on a letter her friend Jane Crofut has received, and the address on the envelope is as follows: “Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America.” Then the address goes on, “Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.”

    Russell’s Corners are no less universal. Ault, too, is dealing in the cardinal points of the compass in the way a small town can summon, can beckon, the heavens, but his night is blacker than Wilder's. His night, beyond himself, is a wartime night, and out of it, from it, with it, we get a sense of wartime fates flocking and coming to gather at this crossroads of the wide world. Woodstock’s own first casualties, for example, 22-year-old Robert Warren Russell, who on December 24, 1942, in North Africa, seven months after enlisting, was killed. Robert Warren Russell, who is not the Russell of Russell's Corners but who somehow seems to belong to it all the same, as if in death he made his way back to his hometown place or, rather, as if Ault’s painting somehow acknowledges that this fate and other fates in the world are what it needs to draw down out of the thin night air.

    But here's a question for you. Do Ault’s paintings communicate this feeling, this empathy? Do they send messages, clear messages? Could Ault communicate with people from his own time and hours, talk across space, talk to you, talk to me? Or are his pictures finally so quiet and small, so lacking in storytelling, razzamatazz, and other ingratiating narrative come-ons to the viewer that we really can't slot them into our categories of the apprehensible, the understandable, the memorable, the important, the edifying?

    So consider this picture, which is one of the next two paintings Ault made of Russell's Corners, this one called “Bright Light at Russell's Corners,” made in 1946, the painting at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of its permanent collection. So, 1946—we're now after the war, and we're looking at the Corners from a different vantage from this new viewpoint along what's called the Lower Glasgow Turnpike. The white building is now a dramatic presence. We see more of it, not just the large double doors but a bank of ground-floor windows and a doorway, as well as the entirety of now of a second three window dormer. We're looking past that white structure to the full broadside of a red barn that had been excluded in the first painting, and we see, too, again the power lines, including telephone lines, this time from a different angle. Think of those telephone lines, my main emphasis now. Those telephone lines for what they tell us about communication, the word, his word, getting out. Look at them there looking like cat scratches on the darkness and realize that Ault really did not hold out too much hope he'd speak to you or to me or even to the people of his own era.

    So, for example, when a Pittsburgh couple, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Lawrence, saw this painting you're looking at the Carnegie annual exhibition in 1947 and purchased it. When they wrote Ault a sensitive letter to thank him, he was grateful and actually surprised. “It's not often that an artist gets such heartfelt appreciation from those who have acquired a work of his,” he wrote to the Lawrences, “It's usually just, ‘We like your picture very much,’ or, ‘It's awfully nice,’ and that's all one hears, and the picture disappears into the void.” He goes on to say, “I've sold many pictures during the past 25 years, and I haven't the faintest idea what has become of them or most of them.” In those telephone lines in this picture and in all the Russell's Corners pictures, Ault implies that his own powers of communication are faint, delicate, that his pictures are messages sent out into the void.

    So if Norman Rockwell in those years could paint a picture such as “The Gossips”—and I'm sure many of you can visualize it—it's the one with the rumor starting with a person at upper-left and making its way through the residents of a small town, one person to another, before arriving back in its precise, original form at the sender at lower right, a picture that Rockwell painted in 1948. If Rockwell could thus express complete faith in his own art's power to communicate messages with absolutely no signal drift, no noise, then Ault, some 100 miles away from Rockwell's Arlington, Vermont, studio, was no great American communicator. Instead, the emotion and message of his art is not loud and clear.

    What's more, for this is the point that's most important I think for us, he doesn't somehow even want it to get out, at least not in that forceful and loud way. So why is that? Well, think of a further contrast to Ault. Think, or rather, again hold in your mind's eye a painting—any painting, your pick—by Edward Hopper. It will not be difficult for you to envision just how big, bold, and blocky Hopper's forms are, how big, bold, and blocky his canvases are generally in their dimensions, how big, bold, and blocky Hopper's address to us is and to see how the work of that maestro of misanthropy, that pretender to indifference concerning the world's attitudes, fairly takes the viewer by the shirt and demands that he or she see, that he or she notice, the bloody great sizable statement of loneliness and world withdrawing sadness that the artist is all but obliged to hammer into our souls. So it seems to me.

    But then there's Ault, whose pictures like this one are always so small. “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners” is 19 and a half by 25 inches. “Black Night: Russell's Corners” is 18 by 24 inches. Even “January Full Moon,” the one with the barn, which feels bigger, is only 20 by 26 inches. By contrast, Hopper’s famous, and I do mean famous, “Nighthawks” of 1942 is 33 by 56 inches. Against such aggressive competition, Ault’s work, which seemed to Louise always so uningratiating—that was her word—when displayed next to the paintings of other artists, didn't really stand a chance.

    But quiet communication, those delicate wires, is not no communication. In fact, there's a purpose to Ault’s smallness and his quietness. His paintings, you see, have the air of secrets found just off the beaten track. So, for example, Louise remembered that she and George unexpectedly discovered a waterfall on a walk after they left the main road one day and descended an old quarry trail to wander below. The waterfall they found so meaningful to them both was, she wrote, “actually close by the road but unsuspected, hidden from passers-by.” So Ault conceived his paintings that way. They would be a secret and saving gift. Ault’s paintings, for me, in that sense are like the Grail cup at the end of Robert Frost’s great poem called “Directive,” first published in 1946, the year Ault made the painting you're looking at. The Grail cup kept hidden by Frost’s narrator, who takes the reader off the beaten path and progressively higher and higher into the mountains until together the two, narrator and reader, come to a remote place where, “hidden in the instep arch [o]f an old cedar” by a mountain stream, says the narrator, is “a broken drinking goblet,” kept there hidden, the narrator says, and this is the key:

    “… so the wrong ones can’t find it,
    So can’t get saved …”

    Ault in that same year conceived his paintings as comparable secrets hidden in cool quiet kept away from the wrong ones but offering to those who would follow a path toward a meeting place, a convergence, where some saving wisdom, some sense of being, as Frost wrote, “beyond confusion” would be revealed. This was a quieter revelation, disdainful of showcasing its wonders. If the living and the dead and the ends of the Earth should be in his pictures, their presence would not be discernible to just anyone. When he thanked the Lawrences of Pittsburgh for sensing the mysteries of this painting, Ault might have felt like a guide who had taken these appreciative visitors to a very source of his art.

    But, you know, maybe after all, Ault’s paintings might be really only the melancholy vision of one man. He really was only misanthropic and morbid. They're so empty, after all. Look at this one, which is the fifth and the last of his Russell's Corners paintings, the one called “August Night at Russell’s Corners,” painted in 1948, the year of his death. The paintings from those last few years of Ault’s life were never emptier, and this one is maybe the emptiest of them all. Louise wrote that this work, in her words, “seemed blacker than the other Russell's Corners pictures, its black center, deep, a void.” In this one, we're now staring back up the Rock City Road toward the vantage of the first Russell's Corners picture I showed you this evening. It's true what Louise says—this late painting does devote proportionately much more of the canvas to the empty night. Compared to what you're seeing here, the night sky in “Black Night,” that first picture of 1943, for all its somber quiet, seems positively busy with designs: telephone poles, wires, barns, and the tree.

    There's a quality in this picture even of outer space in its emptiness. The streetlight hangs in the night sky like the sun beheld from a distant planet in a fantasy painting, showing the vantage of Neptune or Uranus. The curved line of light extending across the dirt road suggests the curve of a planet lit by that remote sun. The post-war years were a time when outer space replaced the wartime ghost story as the American sign of the occult, of the supernatural. Think of the titles of some of Jackson Pollock's first drip paintings of 1947, paintings with titles such as “Comet,” “Galaxy,” and “Reflection of the Big Dipper” or of the first reports of spacecraft over Roswell, New Mexico, also in 1947, or of Ault’s references to billions of light years, as he put it in a letter of December 1948. Think of all this to see the cosmic qualities, or one might say the existential nihilism, of the profoundly empty “August Night.”

    You know, the void of that picture does seem, can seem, misanthropic, world-weary, the bleak view of someone who was finally too much alone. “As the world is weary of me,” Ault would quote the Scottish theologian John Knox to his wife, and you can see he was no picnic to live with. “As the world is weary of me so am I of it.” Ault hated crowds and he told Louise about larger towns near Woodstock that he wouldn't even think of—Kingston—to live in. Nyack is out, too, just as bad as Kingston but crowded with moronic-looking war workers and soldiers and hoi polloi of all kinds. “I like deserts,” he told Louise, “with nothing in them because all is peaceful and quiet. There are no human beings to disturb and annoy. She recalled another time when, as she put it, “Smiling from ear to ear, he confided that he shared D. H. Lawrence’s enthusiasm for a world without human beings, where only the ears of a rabbit would protrude occasionally above the high grass.”

    So look again at the emptiness of “August Night at Russell’s Corners,” and it's not surprising that we can see it as a complete escape from the human race, the misanthropic vision of a person alone with his own fantasies and alone with his morbidity. Because looking at that darkness and thinking of the not one but two cemeteries that are within a few hundred yards of Russell's Corners, one down the Rock City Road, the other a few hundred yards behind the white building. Looking at that darkness, we can readily imagine Ault’s fatalistic words to Louise, who, by the way, was, if you need me to tell you at this point, a heroically selfless and saintly person through that relationship. Imagine his words, Ault’s to Louise, about life. This is how he put it: “Here today and gone tomorrow.” She said he would say this with “a would-be flippant smile.” He told her once that when birds die, that was all there was to it—ping. That's the word he would use—ping—he would say, and they were gone.

    One night, as he read Virginia Woolf's great last novel called “Between the Acts,” the one published in 1941, the year of her suicide, Ault paused to read aloud to Louise a passage he considered especially beautiful, which is the suicidal rumination of Isa, one of Woolf’s characters, about a well, a passage that goes:

    “ ‘Let me turn away,’ she murmured, turning, ‘from the array’—she looked desolately round her—'of china faces, glazed and hard. Down the ride, that leads under the nut tree and the may tree, away, till I come to the wishing well, where the washerwoman's little boy—' she dropped sugar, two lumps, into her tea, ‘dropped a pin. He got his horse, so they say. But what wish should I drop into the well?’ She looked round. She could not see the man in grey, the gentleman farmer; nor anyone known to her. ‘That the waters should cover me,’ she added, ‘of the wishing well.’ ”

    The covering waters, when Ault first fell into the flooded swollen stream near their house as he walked home alone on the stormy night of December 30, 1948, they did not recover his body until five days later. “He must have felt helpless, an utter victim,” Louise thought. Then, as she put it, “He went—ping—hurtling into a universe that he knew well.” So we might say that universe is the black night, the void in the painting on the screen, and so we might say these Russell's Corners paintings have, after all, nothing to give. But something redeems them, and that something is the electric light, which is subtly different in each of the paintings, spreading its aura in varied patterns, nowhere more strikingly than in “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners,” which I return to now.

    In one sense, that light is a Christian light, the sign of a private devotion—strange as this may seem about an artist who hated religion, who spent his life retreating from his mother's piety, and who changed his middle name from Christian to Copeland. But a Christian light it is, and I want you to look at that light there, hold it in your mind, and think of it as I show you a picture which Ault loved, a picture he kept a framed color reproduction of in his studio. That is this painting called the “Journey of the Magi” by the 15th-century Sienese master Sassetta, a picture with, you'll note as Louise did and this art this is her phrasing, “its dazzling star hovering close to Earth, illuminating the earth, at lower right,” a picture that Ault not only displayed in that reproduction in his studio but almost certainly saw in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it had been on view since 1943 after being given as a gift to the museum that year and where it was among the Renaissance pictures that Ault took Louise to see and admire and where a tiny 10 by 8 inch panel it's on view to this day. Sassetta’s star, an apt model for the large streetlight in “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners,” makes the lonely crossroads a place of religious reverence and holy guidance, lit by a flower of grace for the dead and the living, no procession and no parade but the glow of a solitary path lit by a compass that designs the dirt of the road no less than the planes of the barn showing the way.

    But consider this, too, when we think of what Ault’s pictures have to give. Consider that the light is also that of someone who believes God is dead. Louise chose a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche to epitomize her husband, and this is that quotation: “Unless there be chaos within”—and this comes from “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” “Unless there be chaos within no dancing star”—and this is a detail of “Bright Light at Russell’s Corners”—"no dancing star is born.” The Russell’s Corners lights, like the one from “Bright Light” you see here, are dancing stars, Nietzschean glows. Nietzsche’s light in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is the sign of a person living by his own laws, a person autonomous and lonely, “a star thrown out into void and into the icy breath of solitude,” as the philosopher put it. It is hostile, this light, to an after world, and it does announce that God is dead. But the light is a life-affirming power to those who have it, a lightning bolt of creative pleasure and passion. It is a gift the passionate artist gives to others, as when Zarathustra tells the townspeople at a crossroads there to see him go, a gift-giving virtue is the highest virtue. The giving comes at a personal cost, yes. The gift-giver, made of light, envies the darkness, wishing that he, too, could be the night and receive gifts of light instead of only bestowing them. He laments his self-immolation, regretting that he lives only in his own light, that he must “drink back into myself,” as Nietzsche puts it, “the flames that break out of me.” He envies and hates those to whom he gives. “I should like to hurt those for whom I shine” is how he says it. But his fierce and joyful independence is still meant to be a font to those who can find it. Though the Russell's Corners paintings are not illustrations of Nietzsche philosophy any more than they are of Christianity, and though the philosophy itself might seem picturesque or overwrought to a more cynical and clinical temperament, Ault’s cry of pain as a gift glows with a splendor sufficient to make it an affirmation, a dancing star born from chaos, the color and zest of living outlasting the darkness, so do his scenes radiate still with the perpetual order of these small suns. Thank you.

    Alexander Nemerov, exhibition curator and Yale University's Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art, discusses what makes George Ault's paintings special, both as revelations of their own moment and insights into our time. This is part of our exhibition programming for To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America.