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Ary Stillman - From Impressionism To Abstract Expressionism

by Kay Bourne
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Wednesday Oct 1, 2008
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Ordinary people in the 1950s who rarely, if ever, dropped by chic art galleries in Manhattan knew about action painter Jackson Pollock who dribbled paint on a canvas he had spread out on his studio floor. Of celebrity stature, as well, was William DeKooning another abstract painter of that era in New York who worked and reworked his pentimenti abstract representations of female figures who were reminiscent of ancient fertility goddesses.

Much active in the art movement that was the first to speak of the American psyche following World War II also was Ary Stillman (1891-1967). As with most of the group of painters during this hotbed period in New York City, Stillman may not have boasted a star on his studio door, but was critically recognized and collected as well.

His first show that exhibited abstract paintings (at the MacBeth Gallery at 11 East 57th St.) was in early 1946. While the move from impressionism, to what the artist is quoted as saying is "intuitive" as against "conscious painting" came as a surprise to the reviewer in "Art Digest." Yet, the writer liked what he saw: "what color!" he wrote of the Stillman abstract art. "It sings, dances and broods by turns." Stillman was an innovator within the post war American art scene that is now known variously as the New York School, the Abstract Expressionists, or the Action Painters.

Works from this significant period in his oeuvre are in the permanent collections of the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Houston, Texas, and the Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, among numerous other notable museums and galleries.

On the minus side, that his work is scattered far and wide is part of the recognition problem for Ary Stillman, which a handsome new book hopes to address. Born Hyman Aron Stelmach in a small predominantly Jewish village situated in the southwestern region of the former Russian empire and at not much of a remove from where he studied the masters of the Classical period at an academy in Vilma, he managed to escape a wave of pogroms by hiding on a traveling freight train. After many adventures, he wound up by immigrating to Sioux City, Iowa, where he had relatives. Throughout his life he was a globe trotter, settling in to do his art for periods at a time in places as distant from New York as Berlin, Paris, and Mexico, which probably further mitigated against his establishing his name.

A large and abundantly illustrated coffee table sized art book Ary Stillman/From Impressionism To Abstract Expressionism, the first major monograph devoted to the artist, tells his story through seven thoughtful essays by respected curators. The handsome volume provides perceptive articles written by authors known for their expertise in topics that touch on Stillman’s art and biography, such as Modernism, Jewish identity, and American artists in Paris. The book is in a sense a vanity publication as so many books worth reading are today. Published by Merrell Publishers in association with The Stillman-Lack Foundation, which is a foundation dedicated to promoting the art of Ary Stillman, "Ary Stillman/From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism" is a valuable reminder of an artist who deserves to be remembered for his contributions to an important chapter in American art and for the impressive work he has left for us to enjoy.

Ary Stillman: From Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism (Hardcover)
by Michael Betancourt (Author), David Craven (Author), Rachel Garfield (Author), Helen A. Harrison (Author), Donald Kuspit (Foreword), James Wechsler (Editor). $59.95.

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