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Ary Stillman

Ary Stillman (1891---1967) travelled to America at age 16, and as for so many, it was a difficult journey [1]. Born in a small tight-knit Jewish village near Vilnius in Russia, Stillman joined his older brother, Abe, and their Brodkey cousins in Sioux City, Iowa. There the Stillman brothers and others formed the Esperanto Society for universal peace. From an early age, he was interested in color and painting. Living in straightened circumstances, he worked hard and managed to save money to pursue his dream of art study. In 1912, Stillman had a brief period of study at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving on to New York in 1919 to study at the National Academy of Design, the Art Students league, and the Jewish Educational Alliance. As with so many young artists, struggling to live and study in New York, he schemed about traveling to Europe, particularly to be part of the heady cultural scene in Paris.

Always interested in improving himself, he attended lectures throughout his life, whenever possible. A proud and multilingual man, he spoke French, German, Russian, Spanish, Yiddish, and English. 

Stillman moved to Paris, also traveling, and always looking intently at art, to Germany, Spain, Italy, Palestine and Morocco, from 1920 to 1933. He painted in oils and watercolors creating landscapes and portraits influenced by Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Friends with Leo Stein, he participated in the active café scene where the divisive discussions centered on the nature of art, at least when his lifelong periodic debilitating depressions permitted. Thanks to government subsidies, tickets to concerts were inexpensive enough to allow him to attend. In 1931, he was the only American painter chosen to exhibit in the Salon d’Exchanges at Porte de Versailles. 

With rumblings of unrest in Germany, Stillman returned to New York in 1933. However in New York, he was seen as an expat and not part of the Americana style of Grant Wood and Thomas Benton. Stillman struggled to live and paint. The WPA helped him to subsist as an artist. Margaret Lefranc exhibited his paintings in the Guild Art Gallery from 1935 to 1937 [2].

Music became more and more important to him, and he was a supporter of the avant garde music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartok, and Prokofiev, at a time when the dissonant and atonal compositions were not well accepted. 


In 1942, after a brief courtship, he married Francis who was from Sioux City, Iowa, a marriage that lasted until his death.  That same year, Stillman was shown at the Andre Seligmann Gallery. Around this time, he began to pick up pieces of wood to form into woodcuts with just a handful of pieces printed. 

After World War II, when the full extent of the Nazi atrocities became apparent, he felt he could no longer paint what could be seen but only what could be felt. Stillman turned to abstraction. He advised that to see an abstract composition it should be approached in the way one hears music. It is his non-representational paintings that he is best known for. 

Obtaining a studio on 59th street, he worked there from 1942 to 1956 until forced to vacate for a skyscraper. During this time, he was heavily involved with The Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors and also part of the 8th Street Club. At the Bertha Schaefer gallery, he had many shows from 1949 to 1954. Stillman was awarded a one man show in 1946 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. The loss of that beloved studio, along with an eye ailment that impaired the vision in one eye, led to serious struggles with depression and dissatisfaction for the rest of his life.

Returning to Paris, for a time in the mid-1950s, he attempted to find comfort enough to paint. But restless, he continued on to Houston, where his sister and family lived. For the rest of his life, he went back and forth between Houston and Cuernavaca, Mexico, not far from Mexico City. Stillman began a series of charcoal works that he felt conveyed a greater immediacy.  He began experimenting with acrylics, even using them over oils. Becoming impatient with the drying time of oil, he found acrylics more suitable in their ability to quickly capture his intent.    

There is a density and intensity in his abstract paintings that are etched with dark lines both geometric and curvilinear. These lines advance over the receding areas of rich color, as if in a dance. Stained glass comes to mind also with the black pieces of metal framing the areas of color. The largest holding of Stillman’s art is at Columbia University, a 2011 gift from the Stillman-Lack Foundation [3]. Nearing death, he echoed a thought similar to Leonardo da Vinci when the latter was coming to his end, I am learning to see just as I am dying. 


[1] where his reminiscences are available and the source of much information.


[3] Columbia University News: Collected works of Ary Stillman, Noted Abstract Expressionist, donated to Columbia.

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