George Copeland Ault, The Mill Room, 1923
Oil on canvas, 21 3/8 x 15 3/4 in. (54.3 x 40 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Gift of Max L. Rosenberg, 1931.26. Photograph © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Although George C. Ault embraced the flat, planar style of the Precisionists, he also critiqued modern American society, referring to skyscrapers as the “tombstones of capitalism” and to the American city as “the Inferno without the fire.” Following his move to rural Woodstock, New York, in 1937, he often depicted older buildings and barns whose beauty married function with form and that did not carry associations of exploited workers. Ault’s The Mill Room, inspired by his father’s New Jersey printing-ink company, simultaneously celebrates and critiques Machine Age industrialization. The abstracted composition depicts a factory interior with a solitary worker monitoring a machine powered by a giant belt attached to the ceiling. The belt’s figure-eight form, the symbol for infinity, suggestively evokes the repetitive and never-ending work of machines and their human tenders. The figure, devoid of specific facial features, underscores the human cost of industrialization — the alienation of the worker, who is nearly redundant and definitely replaceable.
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