Stillman’s paintings were produced in four groups: the realist oil-on canvas paintings, which the Art Center has three of in its permanent collection; abstract oil-on-canvas pictures; a series of paintings from the early 1960s where acrylic is applied over older oil paintings to create a new image; acrylic on canvas. What these pictures have in common is an attention to the effects of muted color that results from multiple layers of paint are built up over long periods of time.
He explained his shift to abstraction: “For me, the world of surface realities is no longer paintable. For nothing is as it formerly seemed. It is not the surface of things — the look of things — that is real — it is that which is hidden beneath the surface — an inner reality of some sort, that is real.” His mature abstract works depend on his development of a “blind” style of drawing that he invented in the summer of 1948. These drawings were produced by taking a stylus and drawing a line on a blank sheet of heavy paper without using any ink, then, after completing the image, he would rub the surface with charcoal, conté crayon or pastels, making what he had drawn become visible. His later paintings of the 1950s and 1960s increasingly use a black line to create their imagery, reproducing the visual effect of these drawings.
Gift of the Sioux City Society of Fine Arts
Stillman’s early works do little to suggest the sudden emergence of abstraction in his work so late in his career. While he traveled in Paris in the 1920s, he was not part of the avant-garde groups there, preferring more conservative forms such as Impressionism than the Modernism that was then current. Like many of his fellow abstract artists who emerged in the 1940s, Stillman’s transformation came abruptly and was a complete shift from his landscapes, nudes, and portraits that resemble the French painter Pierre Bonnard into geometric, expressive abstraction that was initially derived from the Russian painter Vassily Kandinsky. This influence is never entirely lost in his later works, but was instead transformed as Stillman incorporated what he learned from Kandinsky’s work into his own image-making process based on long, continuous lines that both define forms and stand as a shape in itself that he invented while staying in the Provincetown artist’s colony in 1948.