Living in Greenwich Village in the 1920s, George Ault depicted the buildings of New York City with a distinct style of simplified forms, solid colors and extreme angles. Painted in 1924, Ninth Avenue is a dynamic example of Ault’s unique form of Precisionism, incorporating elements of Surrealism to create a sense of disquiet amidst the vibrant streets of the city.
In the present work, Ault takes a perspective from under the Ninth Avenue El, which was the first elevated railway in New York and operated between 1868 and 1940. Highlighting the sleek lines and repetitive nature of the architecture around this modern transportation hub, Ault minimizes the cityscape to its most basic geometric forms and executes the composition in flat planes of primary colors. In the foreground, an elegant woman walks her adorable dog, and brilliantly colored cars are parked at regular intervals along either side. The vertical supports of the rail platform emphasize the intense one-point perspective of the scene; as a result, the road and trolley tracks seem to very rapidly recede into the distance as the block-like buildings squeeze closer and closer from both directions. The underlying tension within this outwardly bright, modern cityscape is further underscored by the vibrant signage, which tantalizes the viewer’s curiosity but remains largely illegible behind various obstructions.
Ault once referred to New York as “the Inferno without the fire,” and the nuances of the present work illustrate that duality which captivated and inspired his many views of the city. (as quoted in George Ault, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1988, p. 7) As Roberta Smith has written of the artist, “Ault's firm, unflamboyant way with a brush, his feeling for a building's austere, carefully dovetailed planes and, above all, his love of light as painting’s form-giving, mood-setting force, sustained him at nearly every turn, in any direction he chose to move...He brought to his various scenes an idiosyncratic poetry and a sadness that was neither hidden nor indulged, but kept at an arm's length with a sense of dignity that, strangely enough, could almost be celebratory. In Ault's paintings, one feels that he loved life, even if life did not particularly love him." ("George Ault's Sad, Everyday Beauty in Stillness," The New York Times, April 29, 1988)