Nemerov presents Ault, a retiring and misanthropic painter who moved to Woodstock, N.Y., in 1937, as a channeler of the anxieties and existential uncertainties that have been burnished off the public memory of the war years. The show, he argues, is meant to take visitors “beyond our Rosie the Riveter and ‘accentuate the positive’ stereotypes” of life on the home front.
The exhibition, an exciting and virtuosic display of curating prowess, centers on five paintings Ault made of a single crossroads near his Woodstock home. The Russell’s Corners paintings return, obsessively, to a collection of farm buildings that are consistently rendered in meticulous detail, yet feel strangely abstract and hyper-real. They seem intentionally static on the surface but teem with irregularities, misaligned windows and warped wood.
Four of them are night visions, lit by a single, lonely light that renders some surfaces with electric brightness but is insufficient to dispel the gloom that is the pervasive backdrop to Ault’s best work. Even the painting of the corners by day is a study in wintry bleakness, a landscape of slate-gray skies and snow that resists the Currier and Ives tendency to be festive.
They were made during and just after the war, and though they would seem to have nothing to do with the carnage so many thousands of miles away, Nemerov is convinced these are wartime images. He sees them as studies in unspoken opposites: Their clarity and order are a defense against the personal and geopolitical demons that haunted Ault; their reticence is proof of deeper anguish; their emptiness masks a crowding-in of meaning, fear and pain; and their local precision is pregnant with intimations of universality.
This is a slippery form of argument, premised on the vaguely Freudian idea that great paintings, like people, are always repressing or hiding their meanings. Much of what is striking about the Russell’s Corners paintings can be explained without such grand leaps of philosophical faith. Ault, whose misanthropy may have extended to a constitutional indifference to the human form, was lousy at painting figures, rendering them like cartoons. He was also better at buildings seen from out of doors than from within. Perhaps his great, brooding paintings of old barns under harsh light are empty for an obvious and strategic reason: He was limiting himself to what he did best.