When Ary Stillman snuck out of Russia in 1907 and fled to the freedom of the United States, he listed his profession as “painter” when passing through Ellis Island. One of the great theorists and technicians of the 1950s New York School of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman, and others, Stillman’s name disappeared from those ranks thanks to a combination of being a generation older than those artists and his relocation to Mexico after an eye hemorrhage in 1955, just as the Abstract Expressionists began to capture mainstream attention. Ary Stillman: From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism, edited by James Wechsler, presents the first full-length study of the artist that critic Clement Greenberg recalled as one of the most lucid theorists of that era. Beginning with early, Impressionistic works such as Coney Island Fireworks (above, from 1940), the essays in this catalogue follow Stillman’s evolution into Abstract Expressionism and beyond, into his own personal style. “It is true that we have no tradition in America,” Stillman said in 1952, “But we have something else. We have a conglomeration of individuals who come from all parts of the world… [E]ven if we don’t have one tradition we have an accumulation of dozens.” Stillman accumulates traditions within himself of all kinds and melds them with his Jewish faith after World War II and the Holocaust into a deeply spiritual and profound body of work.
After living with cousins in Sioux City, Iowa, upon first reaching America, Stillman moved to New York City in 1919, studying for a time with John Sloan of the Ashcan School. In 1921, Stillman traveled to Europe, landing in Paris to learn the ways of Impressionism. In 1925, Stillman traveled to Palestine. In Palestine, Donald Kuspit asserts in his essay, “Ary Stillman’s Art: Making an Emotional Difference,” Stillman changes. “He needed a Jewish stimulus to liberate himself.” Works from this post-Palestine period, such as Nude (Nude with Tea Cup) (above, from 1928) show how Stillman sought to paint in an Impressionist style yet maintain some independence of vision. Looking at these almost vibrating figures reminded me of the late work of Antonio Mancini, another loose cannon in the Western art canon. In “Drawing from Life: Ary Stillman and the School of Paris,” Susan Power sees Stillman embracing and thriving from his otherness. “Cultivating his in-between status, which spanned two continents and cultures—the Old World experience of his Russian-Jewish heritage and the New World promise of another life in America,” Power writes, “Stillman approached his art similarly, interweaving subjectivity and acute observation, layering his canvases with the rich variety of experience encountered during his travels.” The pressure of all those built-up experiences explodes at the end of World War II.
“The apocalyptic personal pathology of Stillman’s paintings,” Kuspit writes, “is informed by the destructiveness of the Second World War and, however unconsciously, the Holocaust.” After such horror, abstraction seems the only escape for Stillman from harsh reality. Also, Kuspit continues, “[a]bstract art appeared to be the best way to convey the Jewish conception of God as a purely spiritual and thus unrepresentative being.” Thus, God and painting aspire to the condition of music. “Look at them the way you listen to music,” Stillman later said of his paintings, especially works such as Jazz (above, from 1949). Clearly influenced by Kandinsky, Stillman “used ‘visual music’ (synaesthetic abstraction) as his point of departure for a development that made the implicit spirituality of early abstraction into the explicit content of his work,” writes Michael Betancourt in “Ary Stillman and Synaesthetic Abstraction.” In the 1940s, Stillman still searched for a visual “language” in which to express his spirituality in his paintings. Oddly enough, it was a temporary loss of vision that led to him finally seeing the way to his ultimate goal.
In 1955, after an eye hemorrhage left him unable to paint, Stillman and his wife left New York for Mexico. For years, Stillman had read the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell dealing with the collective unconscious and its connection to mythology. In Mexico, Stillman immersed himself in the local mythology and voraciously read of the Mayans and Aztecs and the Spanish invasion led by Cortes. “It would not be surprising for a post-Holocaust Jewish artist living in Mexico to empathize with those who had suffered crimes against humanity on that very soil five centuries earlier,” James Wechsler writes in “Alchemy of Light: The Art and Life of Ary Stillman.” When Stillman regained his sight and began painting again, he briefly works solely in black and white before working in color again. “The he reintroduced color,” Wechsler writes, “there was a new, rejuvenated clarity and brightness to his palette and less of the light-infused haze of his earlier abstraction.” In From an Aztec Temple (above, from 1961-1963), Stillman copied the shape of a statue of Coatlicue, the Aztec “Mother of the Gods,” and incorporated his new flashy color with a new sense of line. As Helen A. Harrison writes in “’Beyond the Border Are Possibilities’: Ary Stillman’s White-Line Drawings,” “When the ‘world of surface realities’ was not longer artistically viable for him, [Stillman] fond new meaning in an underlying realm of essential forms and symbols, whether they arose from the collective unconscious or sprang from his own reservoir of memory, emotion, and imagination—his personal creative unconscious.” From an Aztec Temple is both Coatlicue and not Coatlicue in the sense that Stillman represents the abstract essence of that mythological power by suggesting its most basic form. Both Stillman and Pollock use an expressive line, but, unlike Pollock, Stillman’s paintings “never collapse into chaos,” writes Kuspit, because they “are stabilized by his Jewish unconscious—his Jewish mysticism.” Pollock, on the other hand, is simply “an art mystic,” whereas Stillman’s abstract mysticism, rooted in the Judaism’s idea of an unrepresentable God, ventures beyond the borders of art.
Stillman’s calligraphic abstract art opened up another dimension of meaning to him and abstract art itself—time, specifically timelessness. In “Ary Stillman’s Cuernavaca Paintings: ‘Doubling Back’ to Advance Forward,” David Craven sees Stillman’s late work as “a type of gestural proto-writing,” featuring “a distinctive back-and-forth interplay between the indexical (a trace of human action resulting in a sign) and the iconic (a rudimentary effort at a pictogram, with a mimetic dimension that led to the invention of writing).” Although most of the Abstract Expressionists flirted with the idea of primitivism and getting back to nature, Stillman approaches primitivism in a different, more philosophically sophisticated manner. “I am nature!” Pollock roared when asked to show the presence of nature in his work. Stillman instead returns to nature by returning to the very beginning of human expression, when concepts of nature first bloomed. In Calligraphic Arabesque (above, from 1958-1960), Stillman “features well-defined calligraphic lines deployed in an energetic way that makes them seem almost like pictograms for dancers,” Craven writes. Like early man writing on the walls of caves, Stillman strives at pure expression of the highest concepts for the widest audience possible, even across millenia.
Ary Stillman: From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism presents a thought-provoking, coherent, yet multifaceted view of an underappreciated artist of one of the major schools of American modern art. Bringing Stillman back into the fold of the pantheon of great Abstract Expressionists sheds new light on the period and the other artists. Yet, like a great movie, the final essay provides a shocking, twist ending. Rachel Garfield’s “Questioning Receptions of Jewish Identity in the Work of Ary Stillman” turns all the narratives linking Stillman’s art and faith on their head. She calls “looking for signs of Jewishness in Ary Stillman’s abstractions… a matter of conjecture.” “By painting non-Western forms as exotic and Other,” Garfield writes, “and by conflating the ancient and the non-Western, Jewish artists” such as Stillman “identified themselves as sophisticated and Western, thus assimilating Jewishness into whiteness.” In other words, Stillman’s development reduces rather than amplifies his Jewishness. By the end of the book, you’re left going back to the beginning and to the paintings themselves, the mark of a truly great examination of any artist. In the final analysis, we see Ary Stillman’s work through a kaleidoscope (much like his Keleidoscopic, above, from the 1950s and 1965) of interpretations and rediscover an artist both of his time and for all time.
[Many thanks to Merrell Publishing for providing me with a review copy of Ary Stillman: From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism.]