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American Art

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

Ary Stillman — Thoughts on Painting

Paul Burt, a lawyer friend of Ary's, recalled that Ary once said to him:

"You see things in terms of words. I see them in terms of light and shadow, and in between there is mystery."

Early Years of Abstract Painting

I knew that beyond the border are possibilities, creative possibilities, but where are those possibilities. I know that jumping over — but to jump into something absolutely unknown you can fall and break your neck, like many have been doing. Through various reflections — through trying to see possibilities out of what I did before, I felt that that dream world — that dream reality which is not in any way a conventional reality and which is not a surrealistic reality —what it is I cannot determine — I sensed that that was the direction.

Then came the period when I began to play with charcoal on paper. I felt that maybe through an accident or subconscious movement I will get something from within myself. After a while I discovered that the charcoal drawings opened up a direction where to jump over the fence. I saw possibilities for compositions, for things that contain certain realities. I made hundreds and hundreds of these drawings. I retained the best ones and destroyed those, which were not successful. The drawings were limited in size but some of them had a great deal of impact. And as I kept on making drawings again and again I began to feel more and more possibilities of expression.

However, I felt handicapped that I couldn't do with paint what I did with charcoal. I couldn't copy the charcoal drawings on canvas — I would try it occasionally but what I did would lack the spark, the impact. I felt I would have to adjust myself to a medium, which would respond as quickly to my impulses as charcoal, and keep on working with it when I was completely concentrated and detached from the exterior world. The trouble with oil paint is that you have to wait until it dries and then when you come back to the canvas to work over it you probably arrive at making something entirely different, because just as a dream does not repeat itself, so that inner mood does not repeat and it is hard to get a continuity. It is very seldom that a dream starts over again like the last one.

It took me some time to find a medium of quick drying plastic paint. This helped me out a great deal.

Ary :"I can only speak for myself. I have no formula. I am not interested in splashes of color. Question: "How did you manage to get a unit and how does the whole thing hold together as a composition — doesn't it get out of control?" Ary : "When an artist has mastered throughout years of painting and composition, then the subconscious mind has its checks and balances. When you are working impulsively you feel intuitively where to put this and that. It is not a question of reasoning but a matter of intuitive logic."

Someone asked Ary : "Can you consciously create a good abstraction?" Ary : "There are no rules how to make a good painting, but it seems to me that if you do things with a full awareness you do it at the expense of the creative part. You can't apply a mathematical formula to create a work of art. You can take apart a masterpiece and figure out why this and that. You can even make rules, but when it comes to make a painting using that formula it doesn't come out any more than using a chemical analysis of an egg can produce a chick."

"When I speak on abstract art it is my personal experience, not that of anyone else. When I say abstract I put it in the broad sense just as when I say dreams I mean it in the broad sense, but I am only aware of my own dreams."

"Not only the artist creates a plastic unit but he offers an opportunity to others with imagination creatively to look at it the same as music. What the other person sees in it depends on the imagination of the individual.

"There is a conflict about the function, the meaning, of a painting. Some think that painting should represent a reality and some have an idea that a painting should be a decorative or harmonious combination of lines or color. My idea is that a painting should have an ideal, with a philosophy, with an aesthetic significance. "

"After I paint a canvas, if I feel it is not poetry, I am not satisfied. Also if I feel it is not a living thing, I destroy it or paint it over. ''

"In reality colors or even black (not white) respond to my way of expressing myself in color."

Dictated By Ary in Cuernavaca

I love movement. To me, life is movement. I have always loved to watch crowds. I have stood for hours on Broadway — in Coney Island — watching the movement of the crowds. Even now I love to sit in the cafe on the square and watch the people moving past. I watch until the pattern of the movement is etched in my mind. Then I mentally fill in details, to make a composition — the Mexican woman with her baby there — the Mariachi band in front of the cafe — the dog stretched out on the sidewalk.

I don't want to be involved with the crowd —just to be an onlooker — not to be involved in all that takes place. One of the great pleasures I used to have was when the light would play through it and this I would get when I used to go to the World's Fair (New York City, 1939-40) and the light would play and various silhouettes could be seen and dark shadows would be visible with couples in shadow embracing one another. All the play and light and movement formed for a number of years one of my greatest enjoyments. I was in it but still I was outside looking at it. I used to stand on 42nd Street and Broadway for a long time and the owners of the stores used to chase me away because I stood too close to the window — to their valuable displays. In the Automat they would make me feel that I shouldn't sit too long at a table.

I didn't study the individuals, no matter how interesting the individual was — it was only how far he melted into the big crowd. I loved to watch the crowd at some episode, for instance at Coney Island, the barker in the foreground of a crowd. On Broadway, the police, or perhaps some event which was shaping. The event would all of a sudden draw the crowd and then the crowd would melt away and would form somewhere else.

Amusing how little things attract the crowd—enough for a man to wear a false nose and a big hat, or somebody to wear a queer costume. Individuals would lose themselves in the crowd. The individual became a part of the whole. It was interesting to see the pattern — the way the crowd would form. And no matter how a policeman tried to direct the traffic it seemed that the mystic power of moving in a certain direction was stronger. When an individual would appear and some suspected that it was a notable or a celebrity of some sort, the crowd would start moving from all sides. Men and women talking to themselves never drew attention. In fact that was an outlet for some people; in a big crowd they were more lonely than ever and that was the only way for them, to talk to themselves. There were very amusing little scenes here and there at the edge of a crowd where all of a sudden there were empty islands — a few individuals would have their chance to air out a quarrel or something like that. People who hadn't seen each other for some years probably.

In Coney Island they would love to meet on the boardwalk. It was like in European countries —just like a cafe. But those groups consisted mostly of homogeneous people coming from one part of a country, or in one kind of work. The real big joy was to meet there on the boardwalk. The wife who wanted to find her husband already knew where on the boardwalk he would be. Loving couples had a pattern of movement of their own. Quarrelsome types amusingly had their own way of moving about. Since in a big crowd they couldn't consistently carry on their queer conversation, they would be broken up by a wave of people and after meeting again they would continue just as if nothing had happened. Older people and sick people suffered because they couldn't participate in the great joy of moving just like waves of water. They would feel that they were stagnating in a place where — (unfinished).

There was a restaurant on a crowded street in Paris where you had to walk downstairs, and the only thing you could see, if you had a table close to the window, was moving legs. I was terribly fascinated sitting near the window and watching legs moving in both directions. Now this experience of watching a crowd — only the lower part —is very unique. After awhile, by the lower part of the trousers and the shoes you begin to detect the personality of those who walk — you can almost tell the age of the individual. The rhythmic steps of some; those who hurry and weave in and out of the crowd, making their way in between. The old; those with a cane; the dog trying to go through and to find its master by smelling the individuals. The rush and the crowd — this was an experience of a special kind and that restaurant attracted me and I was very unhappy when the table by the window was occupied. The crowd has just as much character viewed from below as from the top. I couldn't hear the conversations but occasionally some would pause near the window for one reason or another to engage in conversation, and I could almost make out their gestures from the lower part and guess how exciting the conversation that took place. It was a very busy street and a good deal of movement; the legs moving very fast, on a nice day moving rhythmically — on a rainy day, a snowy day — each day had interest of its own.

From the top. In Mexico City when I visited there in 1940, I had a room at a hotel facing the Zocalo, a room with a balcony. From the balcony I could watch the crowds on the sidewalk — the grouping of individuals — I couldn’t see their faces except half a block away. It was interesting how those who were rushing managed to go through, and you could see the hats moving in a certain pattern, a certain rhythmic pattern. Some drop out from the rhythm and stand, not knowing whether to continue or to go, perhaps light a cigarette. Some walk through an alley, where usually a few tramps are gathered in a corner; a cop walks through to see if something is taking place. But the crowd on the street keeps marching, marching, moving all the time —

Part of the subway has the same movement of crowds; when you enter and through the shadows you see the movement and then you have a movement in reverse. Then there is the crowd in a storm; when a storm breaks out how they dash for shelter. This is interesting in itself because you see the nervous and hysterical individuals — how they behave (This was unfinished.)

From Frances'European Diary, 1952
Chapter on Solsona, Spain

August 11th — When we arrived at the museum this morning we found Dr. Llorans acting as guide for a group of schoolgirls who were under the chaperonage of a sweet-faced nun. He joined us soon, and brought with him a painter from Barcelona, a big fellow in overalls and open shirt. Dr. Llorans introduced him as Guillermo Soler, and explained that he is painting the murals for the new seminary up the hill.

Soler was happy to meet an American artist, and eager to display his knowledge of the English language. However, after a few unsuccessful attempts to converse in English, everyone resorted to French.

In the course of conversation Soler asked Ary if he is an abstract painter. When Ary replied in the affirmative Soler was greatly interested, but a look of dismay came over the face of Dr. Loans. For a moment he was silent, then he turned and walked away. Soon he was back again, but he no longer talked to Ary. He devoted his attention to me, explaining to me the meaning of some of the religious pieces. Little Ingrid came in just then and the good Doctor included her in the conversation. He was making an effort to brush aside the disturbing element that had entered the picture. But the child seemed to sense his disquietude, and she gazed first at him and then at us with a bewildered air.

Meanwhile Sol er was plying Ary with questions. I heard only snatched of their conversation, but one sentence of Ary's stood out. "Although you refer to the present-day world — particularly America," he said, "as mechanized and hence cold and without a soul, the machinery, the sky-scrapers, the aeroplanes have all been fashioned by the hands of man. They are the result of man's vision, his thinking. Abstract art seeks to express the spirit, the soul that conceived this man-made machinery which on the surface seems so cold." He went on to say that abstract art seeks to express the inner reality rather than the surface reality and for that reason the abstract artist finds primitive art, which concerns itself with the soul-world, the world of super-reality, closely related to his own.

When we accompanied Sol er to the seminary on the hill to see the frescoes he is painting, we found them very realistic, although nice in color, especially the rich velvety black for which the Spanish painters are so famous. And late this afternoon when we returned from a walk in the country we found a note from him, in his flowery English which is a literal translation from the Spanish. He told Ary of his pleasure in meeting him and of his interest in their conversation, and then continued: "In spite of my style do not believe that I am not sensitive to primitive art. All the contrary, I research something that can be drawn from it as an alive lesson of simplicity and candor. Yet I dissent about the forms. I am a Latin and I like and feel the sensuousness of the forms of Nature and of Life, and I can't deny what I love. I can't assume the function and the want of odd-looking figures." He went on to ask that we meet with him soon again, which we shall do.

August 14th. When we paid our usual visit to the museum this morning two elderly priests were deep in conversation with the Director, Dr. Loans. He introduced us to them and told us that one of them in particular, Dr. H., was an authority on early Catalan painting and sculpture. Then Ary spoke of our enthusiasm for this primitive art, Dr. M. objected strongly to Ary's classification of the early Catalan art as primitive. He contended that the early Catalonians were a deeply religious people, and that their art represented their way of expressing this religious feeling; consequently it should be classified as religious art. According to Ary's views, however, the creative element existed among these people and it found expression through religious subjects, the only ones which prevailed at that period. This was the art of the people, and it was primitive because they expressed themselves in a primitive way, with a naive, almost childish fantasy.

Of course, the two points of view are diametrically opposed. As Ary explained to met later, if, as Dr. M. maintains, the subject matter is the important thing for the artist to express on account of the religious motivation, he starts with a conscious approach, and the finished work has clarity of surface ideas. If however the urge to create is the motivating factor, if the artist's intention is to make a painting, and the religious subject is employed as a vehicle of expression, there emerges, not a definite surface reality but a sort of abstraction of ideas, which has been crystallized in the process of creativity. That is why, according to Ary, the early art is more closely related to modern abstractions than the later work which emphasizes the subject matter.

We felt in Dr. M., as with Dr. Loans. at a previous meeting, a strong resistance against this modern abstract art, which is a negation of clarity of surface ideas. It contains something hidden; something which is not to be trusted....

Paris Conversation in Cafe

Ary's old friend, D... It was the first time he had referred to Ary's painting in the abstract style. He wasn't bitter about the growing trend towards the abstract as so many of the French painters seem to be, but he was puzzled.

"I always thought you were a romanticist, Ary," he protested.

"I still am," Ary replied. And then he went on to say that if he had continued to live here all these years he would probably still be painting scenes of Paris. "The romanticism of the roofs of Paris is so strong," he said, "that it is hard to break away and look for other realities to express. But it is different in a highly industrialized country like the United States where that form of romanticism doesn't exist. The sensitive creative artist who has a feeling for the romantic searches for a form of expression without depending on the reality which is on the surface. Consequently he looks within himself and eventually a romanticism is born which has evolved from an inner reality rather than a surface reality."

D. looked at Ary dubiously. "Is there any such thing as romanticism in a mechanical world?" he asked.

"The romantic spirit will always be with us," Ary replied. "We used to have a romantic feeling for the place where we were born — where we met our first girlfriend. That tree which stands by the house — the dog — the cat — the grandfather smoking his pipe — all become part of the romantic scene. A painting which recalled that scene always touched the heart, and it was admired not primarily for the beauty of the scene or the quality of the painting, but for the sentiment which it conveyed.

"During the last war and in the years following, our vision of reality has undergone a vast change. The atom, the aeroplane, the radio, the television have practically revolutionized this vision. Reality is no longer something you see —it is something you sense."

And with the development of speed the attachment to places is not so strong. However the urge to romanticism is still strong. The layman in general may not realize it, but the artist, the poet, the composer sense that a new romanticism is being born. When you can have breakfast in New York, lunch in England, dinner in Egypt, it will be the vista from the plane — the impression of the people you will meet — the sensation of movement, of color, of sound, that will be blended to make up the new romantic feeling. All these things will crystallize into something that will be the source of a new poetry and a new vision in the future of art.

Ary at Conversation at Cafe in Paris, 1952

"It is true that we have no tradition in America; the only thing that remains for us is the Indian art, and even that Americans know very little of. Be we have something else. We have a conglomeration of individuals who come from all parts of the world, and if these descendants of those immigrants who came from France, from Hungary, from Italy, from the Orient, have a nostalgic feeling for those things which made art in their country — even if we don't have one tradition we have an accumulation of dozens. It is enough to see how a negro responds rhythmically when there is music, an Italian where there is the singing of an opera, the Frenchman when it comes to making a poster — he can't help putting in the 'bon gout.' This is the material we have. How long before this will become crystallized it is difficult to say, but the making is there."

From Frances'European Diary, 1952
Chapter on Gerona, Spain

... After breakfast — croissants and cafe au lait served in a big white bowl — we walked to the museum, which is located in the square. We asked for the Director, as Sol er had suggested, and he came to greet us — in black frock, for the museums in these towns are all under the supervision of the clergy. He had callers, he told us, but we should return at four o'clock when the museum would be closed to the public and he would be free to devote himself to us.

At the appointed time we clanged the big knocker at the door. The Director opened it and invited us into his study. It was lined with shelves of books and there were books stacked in the corners and piled on the desk.

After chatting a few minutes — he spoke beautiful French — he led us into the museum and showed us the archaeological collection. His explanations were perfunctory at first, but under Ary's questioning he was drawn into a philosophical explanation of the various phases of Spain's cultural development. They discussed the cultural contributions of the Phoenicians and later of the Romans, who were masters of the country for centuries and who gave this people the Latin basic foundation of its culture; the invasion of the Goths and then the Moors from the South; the clash of forces and the triumph of the Catholic Church in the struggle for supremacy.

And then, as we walked into the rooms devoted to art, the Director spoke of St. Francis of Assisi of his humanistic philosophy and how under its influence the artists gradually drew away from the detached, cold stylization of the Byzantine. He led us from one painting to another to point out the difference between the early Catalan where everything was more or less static, devoid of movement, and the later period, when everything began to take the shape and form of actual reality, of life. According to his views the progress of art was due to this humanization, which had its roots in St. Francis' philosophy.

Ary objected, and tried to show him that this "humanization in art" was only surface, that the movement and form which the later artists injected into their work didn't represent progress; it was a step backward. The surface reality is not humanism, he said, it is the inner elements of reality, which contain the more moving qualities. And he pointed to a wooden carving to illustrate his contention. It was a work of the twelfth century — a wonderful Crucifixion figure, naive in conception, but poignantly expressive and conveying a sense of mystic power. ''In spite of its crudeness and lack of surface realism," Ary said, "it conveys a mystic impact from within. It is naive, almost grotesque, it is carved with rough tools, but the artist's inner urge to create, his intense need to express that which was within him was so strong that it produced an overwhelmingly moving impact. However, the later artists, in their preoccupation with surface realities, lost that spark, that impact."

When Ary had commenced speaking the Director's expression had been one of disapproval and impatience. But now there was a gleam in his eyes. Evidently this was the first time he had heard ideas of this kind, and he was deeply interested. He took us back into his study and we sat there an hour or more while he and Ary argued back and forth on various points. As they talked on it seemed to me that the Director's black robes somehow faded into the background. I no longer saw before me a Catholic priest and a layman from a different country and of a different religion, but two earnest and dedicated human beings, each extra ordinarily sensitive in his own way, diametrically opposite in background, training and ideology, but meeting on the common ground of their search for what they deem fundamental truths.

It grew late and we rose to go. "Doctor," said Ary, "It has been a rare experience that we have had this afternoon." The Director did not reply. Instead he took from a book of photographs the Crucifixion which we had admired so much, autographed the back of it, and presented it to us. As we reached the door he finally spoke: "I too consider my meeting with you a rare experience. And with this we parted.

When we were in the Cathedral museum this morning one of the attendants came up to tell us that arrangements had been made for us to look at the Beatus manuscript (10th Century) in the afternoon. So after lunch and a siesta, we climbed up to the "Upper wards" of the town again, and in the Cathedral library we spent several unforgettable hours, sitting at the long table of carved and Polished wood, the priceless book before us, entranced by the figures of saints, of angels, of birds and animals, all creatures of fantasy and all painted in brilliant color harmonies.

The text of the Beatus is a commentary on the New Testament; the illuminations were made in the monasteries, which in the Dark Ages were the sole centers of learning and culture. The book we held before us is one of only seven or eight, I believe, that were made in Spain. (The Morgan Library in New York has one.) It is not only for its antiquity that the Beatus is treasured. Ary pointed out to me that it is apparent that here a new vision is beginning to develop, that you are witnessing the beginning of a new creative freedom, a breaking away from the rigid Byzantine tradition, a sort of spontaneity and a movement that is quite rhythmic. Art history tells us that the Romanesque style was almost entirely of monastic origin, cultivated and spread by the monks, through the illuminates manuscripts they produced. So here in this manuscript, Ary said, we see the very beginning of the Romanesque, which characterized Western European art until the Gothic took over.

From Frances' European Diary, 1952, Rome

Frances: The Michelangelo "Moses" statue ... very realistic of course.... (Footnote): I read Ary the paragraph I had written about "Moses" and he said I was wrong to call it realism. Realism he says, creates a shell and then tries to fill it, but Michelangelo had a vision of David or Moses or whatever character he wanted to depict, and he sought to find an outward expression of his vision, to express visually his personal conception of what that character stood for, what it meant. He built outward from within; he didn’t start with the surface and try to give it a meaning.

Paris: Further Conversation in Cafe

D. is still perplexed about abstract art, and he plied Ary with questions. He commenced: "I have thought a great deal about our discussion, and have even gone to see some exhibitions of abstract art. So far I have not been convinced of the value of these paintings. Now, since I remember your former painting so well, I want to ask you this: You used to set up a still life, or choose a scene for a landscape. Now that you are painting abstractions, how do you start a composition without that impetus — without a point of departure from nature? How do you proceed when you have a clean canvas in front of you? What is it you look for?"

Ary shook his head ruefully. "You have given me a tall order," he said. "I don't know if I can boil it down to a few words, but I'll try. But remember I am not speaking for abstract artists as a whole; I am speaking for myself, speaking of the personal approach I have evolved during the past years.

"Well, then, in the past fifty or sixty years we have learned a great deal about the working of the mind. We have learned that our subconscious mind contains visions of all sorts from various places and various times. Sometimes our life is dry on the surface, but if we could bring out these accumulated experiences from the subconscious we should be able to create works of great impact.

Give a child a pencil and paper and he will have no difficulty in bringing his inner reality to the surface. And even if his drawing is crude and child-like it will be very expressive."

D. burst out laughing. '"Do you expect us to work like children? And why don’t they develop further? I have seen an exhibition of children's paintings and even of monkeys' paintings. Can you honestly say this is a road which leads to art?"

Ary shook his head: "The child has no accumulation of experiences to draw upon; he has only a child's vision. What he does have, but what he loses as soon as he develops inhibitions, is the ability to express what is within him — whatever exists in the child's world of fantasy in which he lives.

We adults encounter great difficulty in drawing our inner visions out to the surface because we find no link between the conscious and the subconscious. We have to dig down deep, just as a diver goes down to look for pearls in the bottom of the sea. And just as the diver must practice, sometimes for many years, so the artist must lose himself in a dream-world — detach himself completely from the exterior world —concentrate completely on finding what lies deep within him.

"Then comes the problem of bringing to the surface that which he has found. First of all he must acquire a technique whereby his hands respond rapidly to his impulses of imagery. Once he has worked out such a technique he will find that when he is working impulsively he will feel intuitively where to put this and that. The checks and balances he has mastered through long practice respond without conscious planning. It is a matter of intuitive imagination. The whole thing is the result of an inner intuitive logic and the mood of the artist creates that impact which is so important for a work of art…

The conversation went on a long time, but I believe I have the essential points above.

"Even years before my going to Mexico, I had completely broken away from painting surface realities. But it was in Mexico that the inner reality began more and more to emerge, that I felt more and more its essence. It was for me a period when fantasy became paintable, or when I invaded the world of fantasy. I was completely involved in the mysticism of the subconscious. This mysticism is the inner thing, which gives the spark of imagination.

Here are a group of paintings and gouaches where you can see for yourself. You have to take quite a bit of time to look at each one of these and see if you can get its impact. Each painting represents an impact of an inner vision — of a dream reality. It has a life of its own.

Remarks by Ary to Some Friends
On his Return from Living in Mexico - 1962

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