October 4-31, 1990
By Marcia Goren Weser
San Antonio Light
Sunday, October 21, 1990
Ten years before his death in 1967, artist Ary Stillman
retreated to Cuernavaca, just outside Mexico City. It was picturesque
and peaceful, a perfect place to recover from a devastating eye
injury and to regain the inspiration and enthusiasm needed to
paint again. As well as having to cope with illness, Stillman
had lost his New York studio and failed to find a place in his
beloved Paris, where he had been critically acclaimed in the 1920s
He was able to paint again, finding ways to express
"inner reality" during the next five years in his Mexico
residency (1957-62), and some of the results can be seen in an
exhibition now at the Jansen-Perez Gallery through Nov. 4.
Only one work, a 1940 painting titled "Mexican
Village," is representational; it is more tentative, hesitant
in feeling, dating from his first visit to Mexico, as if he were
depicting what he expected to see, rather than what he saw. His
later drawings, gouaches and acrylics from the late 50s
and early 60s are more vibrant, resembling stain-glass jewels
of abstraction. It is as if he saw anew.
Stillman was born near Slutzk, in White Russia,
in 1891 and studied at the Imperial Art School in Vilna before
coming to the United States in 1907. He attended the Art Institute
in Chicago, the Jewish Educational Alliance and the Art Students'
League in New York City before traveling throughout Europe and
setting up a studio in Paris in 1921.
He continued to live in Paris until 1933 (with the
exception of spending 1929 in New York). There he exhibited in
many group shows, including the celebrated Salon d'Automne (founded
in 1903) which had held the first exhibits of the Fauves and later
His first one-man show came in 1928 at the Galerie
Bernheim-Jeune, which had been the site of the first Futurist
show in 1912, and another in 1930 at Galerie Zak. Both were galleries
known for avant-garde shows. Artists from the School of Paris,
Modigliani, Soutine, Pascin, as well as Braque, Matisse, Cocteau,
Derain, Leger and others could be seen there. It was an exciting
time to be an artist in Paris.
The works at Jansen-Perez show stylistic relationships
to the historical movements of those times, yet they are uniquely
of a different time and place. Layered and overpainted, the gouaches
are more somber in feeling, darker gray grounds dissected, almost
slashed, by black lines.
These black lines occasionally read as figure in
the gouaches, as in "Caprice" or the more colorful "Ritual."
The figures become more rhythmic in "Procession" and
more interrelational (almost narrative) in "Man and Woman"
and "Group with Little Prince."
Or they read as calligraphic marks, as in the dusky,
almost brooding "Scherzo," one of the most abstract,
and the most elegantly simple, in the show. With the addition
of stronger colors and the overpainting, other works appear to
glow with an inner light. These could be studies for stained-glass
windows, not representational or thematic but about essence and
Stillman's drawings, most from a series called "Babylon,"
are darker than both the acrylics and gouaches, in tones of brown
and beige, only one with dark greens and blues. Tumbling geometric
shapes are defined as if by frottage, their edges hard and texture
rich. These seem more like studies, as if Stillman were looking
more at relationships among the elements than focusing on each
He seemed able then to take these shapes and redefine
them, refining his vision according to his own order. He burst
forth into color (especially in the acrylic paintings), reflecting
what he saw in nature and his own explorations of dreams and the
unconscious. Yet color never lapses into trite symbol in these
paintings; instead color becomes a fresh, unexpected focus.
In the catalog, his wife Frances Fribourg Stillman
wrote of his delight in the outdoor cafes, in the gardens around
their rented home; of their study of the Spanish language and
the history of the region and its peoples, of European cultures
as well. Her description of the impact of this environment on
Ary Stillman may explain what viewers may recognize in his art:
"All this fired Ary's imagination
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 carried away from the walls of this ancient palace
(it was) the beginning of the culmination of his entire career
as a nonrepresentational painter."
Some Exhibited Titles:
|Mexican Street Scene
oil on canvas
19 x 25
acrylic on canvas
24 x 18
acrylic on canvas
19 1/8 x 25 1/8
The Appleton Museum of Art, FL
|Stained Glass #2
gouache on paper
Heckscher Museum of Art, NY
Click to see exhibition