Visu­al Arts

Ary Still­man: From Impres­sion­ism to Abstract Expressionism

James Wech­sler, ed.

  • Review
By – January 11, 2012

The tur­bu­lent, dis­plac­ing his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple through­out the cen­turies due to reli­gious, polit­i­cal, and socio-eco­nom­ic upheavals has changed the des­tiny of mil­lions of indi­vid­u­als and the under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed abstract artist Ary Still­man was one such person. 

The large, cof­fee table book enti­tled, Ary Still­man: From Impres­sion­ism to Abstract Expres­sion­ism, is a col­lec­tion of essays from var­i­ous art his­to­ri­ans, cura­tors, and art crit­ics which fol­lows the devel­op­ment of a young man search­ing for a means to express his her­itage and iden­ti­ty. The visu­al­ly impres­sive book, includ­ing large col­or plates depict­ing the var­i­ous artis­tic move­ments which Still­man explored, tells the sto­ry of a curi­ous, philo­soph­i­cal­ly-mind­ed native Min­sk man born Hyman Aron Stel­mach in the small pre­dom­i­nant­ly Jew­ish vil­lage of Hresk in 1891. While Still­man was raised in an Ortho­dox envi­ron­ment, the fam­i­ly moved to the Unit­ed States to escape vio­lent pogroms. He was influ­enced by his Amer­i­can­ized fam­i­ly in Sioux City, Iowa, trav­els to Europe — par­tic­u­lar­ly Paris — the cen­ter of emerg­ing Avant Garde gen­res where he stud­ied with renowned artis­tic tal­ents, and got involved with the New York School where Adolph Got­tlieb, Bar­nett New­man, Mark Rothko and oth­ers were among his peers, and lat­er a return to the U.S. in the ear­ly 1930’s to escape the esca­lat­ing per­se­cu­tion of the Nazi régime. 

Hav­ing to redi­rect the course of his career so often due to impend­ing dan­ger or restric­tions placed on Jew­ish artists caused fric­tion in Stillman’s life and many of the con­tribut­ing essay­ists believe that this con­stant dis­rup­tion robbed Still­man of his right­ful place among influ­en­tial artists of the 20th cen­tu­ry. While the lengthy book, includ­ing an impres­sive­ly detailed overview of the styles, move­ments, and indi­vid­u­als of the 1900’s could be used an effec­tive text for art his­to­ry col­lege cours­es, the com­pi­la­tion stands out in terms of address­ing Jew­ish iden­ti­ty through artis­tic expres­sion. Pri­mar­i­ly known as an abstract artist, Still­man grap­pled with how to express the weighty, tur­bu­lent strug­gle of the Jew­ish peo­ple through abstrac­tion. He nev­er lost sight of where he came from — the under­pin­nings of some of his most com­plex can­vas­es remain nos­tal­gi­cal­ly imbued with the tra­di­tions of Jew­ish symbolism.

Mol­ly Beth Dubin received an M.A. in art his­to­ry and muse­um stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver. She is cul­tur­al arts direc­tor for the Har­ry & Rose Sam­son Fam­i­ly Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Milwaukee.

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