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
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 crowdenough 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
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
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 couldnt
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
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
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
"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
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,
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
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 didnt
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 dont 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