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The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  R E M I N I S C E N C E S

bullet Preface
bullet Foreword
bullet Grandfather     Dictated by Ary
bullet The Village     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplement to the Village
bullet Vilna     Dictated by Ary
bullet Supplemet to Vilna
bullet Coming to the United States     Dictated by Ary
bullet Back of the Store     Dictated by Ary
bullet Omaha     Dictated by Ary
bullet Ary in New York - 1919
bullet Ary in Paris
bullet Ary Comes Back to the United States
bullet Ary's Marriage
bullet Summer Cottage in Harmon
bullet The Studio on Fifty-Ninth Street
bullet We Return to Paris
bullet Cuernavaca-Houston
bullet Ary and Music
bullet Ary and the English Language
bullet Ary Stillman - Thoughts on Painting

Cuernavaca - Houston (1957 - 1967)

Birth of the Snake God

Birth of the Snake God

It was early in May of 1957 that Ary and I took a plane for Mexico City. It was the first time we had flown and I was frightened, but Ary was fascinated by the view from the window —cities, stretches of country, and finally cloud masses. I think he had imagined all this previously, but the actuality was a delight to him. In Mexico City we went to the Hotel Ontario, down in the old section, not too far form the Zocalo —typically Mexican of the end of last century — it had been recommended to us by the then Director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Lee Malone. With Nick Curcio, Ary's old friend from the 1940s, and his wife Lydia we discussed where we should locate ourselves, and had almost decided on San Miguel d'Allende, when Ary met on the street an artist he knew from New York, Judson Briggs. Judson insisted that we come to Cuernavaca, to look it over at least — the climate was perfect, he said, it was only about 46 miles from Mexico City, and could be reached by bus, and it was ideal in tempo and surroundings for an artist. He and another artist Ary had known years before, Frank ________, had just opened an art school there. So off to Cuernavaca we went, and it proved to be the setting for us for 5 years, and for summer vacations for several additional years.

Cuernavaca truly is, as the natives boast, the land of eternal springtime. Situated in a valley, surrounded by mountains including Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, famous from Aztec times, it is protected from any severe changes of weather. Soon after we got there the summer rains began, and lasted through September, but they occur only in the evening and night time, and the days are unbelievably fresh and beautiful. The fall, winter and early spring are dry, sunny and delightfully mild, and there are flower-laden trees, bougainvillea vines, and blossoms of all sorts blooming every month of the year.

Ary loved the little furnished house we rented and was interested and amused sitting at the outdoor cafes on the square, watching the colorful and animated scene. But it was long before he began to paint. He seemed drained of all creative energy; once in awhile he would take up his brushes listlessly and try to paint, but there was nothing ready to bring forth. Also, although the scarred eye was improved, there was still a problem of coordinating the focusing of the two eyes. I know he worried about his inability to work. Nick Curcio would reassure me and tell me that Ary would come forth after this period of inactivity strong and fresh again in his painting. But it took more than a year before he finally laid in a store of canvases and began ever so slowly to work. By that time we were installed on Morelos Street, in a duplex house, which had a lower and upper garden; we had the upper floor and garden — stone steps at the back of the lower part of the house and garden lead up to our quarters. There was an enormous verandah, overlooking the lower garden, with view of lemon trees, bougainvillea vines in brilliant red, purple and light blue, and beds of flowers, all hemmed in by a high brick wall, and a vista of blue sky and church steeples beyond. At the back of our garden there was a pen with two sheep, belonging to the people in a house facing the street, the property of our landlord. The sheep were dirty looking and smelly and very belligerent, constantly fighting with one another. One day they banged at the wooden slats of their pen until they broke it down and they came bounding out into the garden where I was busy with the flowers. I was terrified — and Ary made a terrible rumpus until the man who owned the sheep had his farmer-brother come and take them away.

Ary loved the garden — he was up early in the morning and out there in his bathrobe and straw-brimmed hat, raking the leaves and putting the place to rights, even before he had his breakfast. He fixed a corner for himself on the verandah, where there was a big armchair. There he set up the small easel he had bought in Paris and there the flow of creativeness gradually came back to him. At first he avoided colors — the distorted vision of the right eye still bothered him, but he felt that he could handle black and white. Some of his most interesting compositions were painted at that time, including "Introspection" which is reproduced, albeit inadequately, at the back of the Foundation booklet. One of Ary's great delights was to go to the old cathedral not far from our house, and to walk inside the walls, seeing every time new images and fantastic blends of textures — a marvelous patina that had evolved through the years from wind and sun and particles of earth. One of Ary's black and white canvases from that period, which he named "Design on an Old Wall" shows strong black curving lines making sort of a flowing figure, against a background which gives the feeling of the texture of these walls. Gradually, slowly, Ary began to introduce color into the canvases. They were becoming more and more decisive also. That they had impact was quite clear to us both when Bart _____ , a Dutch painter who had settled in Mexico, came over one day and, as Ary brought out one canvas after another, all Bart could say was, "Jesus, Ary! Jesus!"

Life was beginning to be happy for Ary. Mornings were spent working in the garden, marketing with or without me at the street stands which line the way to the big market, sitting at one of the outdoor cafes on the square, sipping a cappuccino (strong coffee with a topping of frothy milk). Then dinner out on the verandah — at this altitude everyone has his main meal in the middle of the day. Then a nap, and about three o'clock, refreshed by sleep and a cup of tea, Ary would settle himself in the big armchair in the corner of the verandah, sit there dreaming for some time and then taking up his brushes, begin to transfer his dreams to canvas. About six o'clock he would put his work away, and we would go down to one of the cafes again, to meet with friends or just to sit there taking in the lively scene, listening to the Mariachi bands. Later during our stay, after we had studied Spanish for some time by ourselves, we enrolled as "oyentes" at the little university a couple of blocks away, and attended six and seven o'clock classes there, listening to lectures on literature, psychology — whatever was offered— just to get the diction and the feeling of the language. The youngsters probably thought we were quite crazy, but they were very respectful and courteous to us anyway.

Then the evenings. There was news from the States, by radio, but principally there was our reading. We read everything on pre-Cortez times that we could find, Prescott's history of the conquest of Mexico and Peru; Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who described so quaintly and so graphically the country and the people and the details of the coming of the Spaniards as one of Cortez' men; more recent writers on the culture of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas. Also general mythology such as the Golden Bough, poetry such as the White Pony, an anthology of Chinese poetry from 1100 B.C. through 1921 A.D. All this fired Ary's imagination, and what with improved physical condition, greater peace of mind, and new stimuli to inspire him, Ary's incredibly rich imagination began to reassert itself. Now, he fantasized, he had discovered through excavating among ancient ruins, a "Palace of the Prince" and everything that poured forth, as he sat in the armchair in the corner of the verandah, was something he had carried away from the walls of this ancient palace. So in 1960 he began a series of gouaches, which in creativeness, in spontaneity, in line and form are perhaps the culmination, or at least the beginning of the culmination of his entire career as a non-representational painter. Ary felt that himself; "I am a new Ary," he would say. He even decided this new Ary should have his name on the paintings rather than the old Stillman whose depression he had fought off. So one will find that practically all of the gouaches and many of the later canvases bear the name Ary. Later on, after we left Mexico and when the "new Ary" spirit seemed to blend more into the old Stillman spirit, he drifted back into signing "Stillman'" again.

As Ary said, and I quoted in the booklet, in Mexico he felt increasingly strongly the essence of the "inner reality," when he "was completely involved in the mysticism of the subconscious." More and more his painting flowed out of a dream world — these were not paintings that one brooded over — they poured out in a stream from his subconscious.

And with this spontaneous expression came a need for a medium, which would enable him to work swiftly. Oil paint, no matter how much he loved it, was slow drying and perhaps one would have to wait for days before continuing with a canvas that had been started. So he began to experiment with acrylic paint — "Politec" — manufactured by Jose Guitterez, whom Ary had known in New York during the WPA project days and who now lived in Mexico City. Although it didn't have the rich, sensuous quality that oil can produce, its quick drying properties made it possible to get ideas down on canvas or paper before the dream world could evaporate. So all during our Mexican stay, Ary used the acrylic paint and afterwards also, back in Houston, although sometimes he would use an old canvas that had been painted with oil, and on top of the oil paint with acrylic, to express a new vision. Thus "Saga," "Fantasy in Blue and Gold'' and several others, including his final large canvas, finished on his 75th birthday, were acrylic painted over oil.

In the summer of 1963, Ary gave up gouaches for the most part and embarked on a series of very exciting canvases, which he called "Leyendas" (legends). They had marvelous movement and each represented a world of fantasy — a pagan world, but permeated with glimpses of Egyptian, Byzantine, Coptic, Italian — every kind of culture, which had intrigued Ary during his lifetime. Manny Greer of the Greer Galleries in New York came down to Mexico that summer and paid a visit to our place, and he was wildly enthusiastic about the new canvases. He said he had been combing the studios of Mexican painters and here, in the studio of a veteran American painter, he found the essence of pre-Columbian Mexico that the others lacked. But Ary was adamant about not exhibiting. He had strength only to paint, he said; to be involved in exhibiting would drain too much of the precious store of strength that remained. "When I am dead and gone, these works will be recognized," he would tell me. "Now I must paint." To the very end he was searching, striving for fuller expression of himself. "If I could only have ten more years," he would say as we sat talking at night in the house on Morelos. "Just ten more years — only now I can see what I could accomplish if I am granted the years and the strength. Now it really is beginning to unfold, all I have striven for during my lifetime." But I am sure that if Ary could have lived to 90, he would still say, "I am just beginning — now I begin to see." Of course many times Ary would be in the depth of depression at having had to give up the studio and the life among artists in New York, but he would pull out of it when the inspiration for a new canvas would come over him. Now he painted only small canvases, for he didn't have the strength to pace up and down, as one has to do with a big canvas. But he consoled himself: "I will paint something big on a small canvas. It is the conception, not the space, that makes a canvas big."

Our tourist visas for Mexico were good for only six months, so twice a year we returned to the States for a brief time — usually to Houston, although twice we made a visit to New York and stayed with my cousins, Louise and Milton Adams. Ary wasn’t able to get around too much in New York, but we managed to go to museums and a few galleries, and good friends like Faith Waterman, Jerry and Irene Bayer, and others came to the apartment to have long talks with us. Ary still mourned over our having had to leave New York, and these visits were at the same time happy and painful for him.

When we came to Houston in September 1962, Ary's physical condition was less favorable; in addition to the high blood pressure there were other circulatory and organic changes. We felt more than ever the need to keep in the closest contact with Dr. Ralph Eichhorn, the husband of Fredell Lack Eichhorn, Ary's niece. In addition to being an outstanding internist, Ralph was devoted to Ary. At the same time Ary's sister Sarah Lack suggested that we take permanently one of the apartments which she and her husband owned, and which we had occupied on our temporary stays in Houston. We should make this our permanent home, she said, and just go to Mexico from time to time. Ary decided that this was what he would like to do.

acrylic on canvas
14 x 20
Foundation Collection

It is hazy to me just how long we remained in Houston that time, but I do know that before the next summer came around, we were again occupying the house on Morelos Street in Cuernavaca. It was the summer of 1963 when Ary began his series of "Leyenda" canvases, and the excitement and renewed burst of creativity engendered then carried over for the remainder of Ary's painting career. In 1964 we decided to make a change and go to Guadalajara for the summer but it was an unhappy experience, for the climate proved very bad for Ary — he would lie awake gasping for breath at night, and the violent thunderstorms which would take place almost daily would shake him to the very depths. We left after about six weeks, and after a wild night flight to Mexico City in a small plane, through crashing thunder and terrifying flashes of lightning as the plane careened back and forth, we finally arrived in Houston about 2 a.m. and Ary had to be half-carried upstairs to bed.

He was quite feeble for many weeks after that, and in such a sad state of despondency, and it was to try to lift his spirits and give him an interest in something that we persuaded him to accept the invitation of Alfred Neumann, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Houston, and Peter Guenther, Chairman of the Art Department, to have a showing of some of his non-representational work at the University for a month beginning sometime in November. Unfortunately it didn't prove to have the therapeutic sort of effect we had hoped. Although Dr. Neumann and Peter Guenther and several others of the University faculty were tremendously enthused about the exhibition, Houston artists chose mostly to ignore it, and although there were townspeople who were really thrilled with it, most were utterly confused and at a loss to know what this kind of painting was all about.

From then on it was a losing fight as far as Ary's physical condition was concerned. His sense of balance became more and more uncertain and our walks became shorter and shorter until it was a matter of a dozen steps at a time, then a pause to rest, and the whole effort over again, for a couple of blocks at most. He would be sunk for hours at a time in melancholy. But when he aroused himself enough to paint, the old spirit was still there, and some of his very finest canvases were painted in these last number of months. He felt handicapped by the small easel which he had used in Cuernavaca, so I got a very large one, about eight feet high, and Ary was delighted with it as there were some oil paintings from New York which he wanted to re-work. One of these is the canvas, which still occupies the easel in his studio room in our house on Portsmouth Street -- the room which Ary never got to make use of. For in February 1966 Ary attained his long-cherished dream of owning a house of his own where he could paint and display his paintings, but while this little home on Portsmouth was being renovated for us, Ary was stricken with the illness from which he never recovered. After nine weeks in the hospital he had had a stroke, and while not paralyzed from it, his powers of locomotion were impaired, also his will to go on. He did have some months in the little house, and we gradually had paintings framed and began to hang them in the front rooms, which were converted into a sort of museum. We would wheel Ary around in his wheelchair and he would sit gazing at one painting after another. "My painting — my beautiful painting," I would hear him murmur at times, as if he were contemplating a cherished child.

For some years Ary had discussed with me and with other members of his family his desire that after his death the paintings which he had kept in his own collection throughout the various periods be held together as a nucleus, and be shown as an evolution of his painting career. He felt that such a permanent retrospective, and occasionally the exhibition of one section or another illustrating a phase through which he had passed as a creative artist, should be of great interest, especially to young people. Thus he asked a close friend, Arthur Mandell, an attorney, to draw up a will for him leaving his accumulated works to a group of Trustees including his brother-in-law, A.I. Lack; his brother, Eli Stillman; his niece, Fredell Lack Eichhorn; his nephew, Sanford Lack; myself, and Arthur, with the request that The Stillman-Lack Foundation be formed with the above purpose. Ary felt that the house on Portsmouth and our display of paintings there was the first step in this direction, and he derived a tremendous amount of satisfaction from it.

During Ary's final year of painting he made several canvases, which I should like to comment on, for the sake of the record. I do so mostly because I would not want future art historians to decide that Ary had "completed the circle" and had come back to representational painting as his true love.


Abstract Still-Life
c. 1960s
oil and acrylic on canvas
36 x 27
Private Collection, CA

There is, for instance, what I consider a very interesting still-life. For several years Ary had toyed with the idea of setting up a still life to see how he would handle it, after all his years of non-representational painting. He had a great curiosity about this, and finally he carried out his experiment. The painting is listed in the records as "Cuernavaca-Houston No. 52." It seems to me very striking. After this he tried a larger canvas, consisting of a still-life with an out-of-doors view that is really an abstraction. This (Cuernavaca-Houston No. Xl) was, I believe, less successful; in fact I feel sure that Ary would eventually have changed it or destroyed it.

One day he declared that he had seen, as if in a vision, the face of his father, who had died when Ary was a boy of 10 or 11. The family had no photograph of him. Ary took a small canvas and worked swiftly and as if moved by some compulsion. The resultant sketch was completed in a couple of days, and he decided to leave it as an unfinished sketch rather than to risk losing the freshness and the impact by working further on it. The face has the definite characteristics of the Stillman family, but there is something very Russian, something of the outdoors and the earth, the directness and lack of sophistication of the village farmer of 19th Century Russia. I would imagine that Ary had succeeded in evoking the essential spirit of his father in this spontaneous, hastily sketched portrait. (It is now in the collection of Ary's nephew and niece, Sanford and Ruth Lack.)

Self Portrait
Self Portrait
c. 1960s
oil and acrylic on canvas
17 1/2 x 13
Foundation Collection, TX

Another strange painting is a small head of a man with beret and bone-rimmed glasses. One finds a resemblance to Ary, yet there is a sort of Oriental surface blandness and an inscrutable quality to the look. It is not third dimensional, like most of Ary's work; it is very flat and very simply outlined, painted with the utmost economy of line and detail. To me there is something very significant psychologically about it. It is almost as if, near the end of his days, as Ary knew he was, he consciously or unconsciously was discarding everything but the basic essentials, all details were now meaningless. On another small canvas Ary painted two heads — one a patriarchal, Biblical sort of concept; the other a round face with a strange illumination — a sort of glow.

Two Heads
Two Heads
acrylic on canvas
20 x 24
Foundation Collection, TX

In these paintings Ary was, as he explained to me, just "playing." He said it took too much concentration, too much strength, to create non-representational compositions — he was not physically or emotionally up to it. It was not an indication that he would have gone back to representational painting. Again and again he would tell me how happy he was that he had made the break in his painting style when he did. He felt that if he had gone on in the old pattern, he would have "dried up;" there was such an excitement, such a challenge to sit in front of a blank canvas and from nothing to create something — to see a concept gradually develop and take form.

Ary was always dreaming and always seeking. I believe those two words characterize him more than any others.

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