Profile: Joseph Solman: New York’s veteran painter
BY ABBY LUBY
Veteran artist Joseph Solman sat in a worn recliner in his living room bedecked with his richly colored portraits and street scenes, like old friends, work that he’s painted over the last 78 years. Solman, now 98, has lived and worked in the 6th floor apartment on 10th street and Second Avenue for over 50 years. Oddly out of place in his living room was a large flat TV screen.
“I love to watch programs about animals,” said Solman in a soft gurgle.
Since getting outside is an effort for the nonagenarian, TV images have partially replaced city parks, bridges, storefronts, rooftops, park benches, then the inspirations for many of Solman’s drawings and paintings. Driven by city wanderlust, he would never leave his apartment without clutching his drawing pad seeking out that curious somnambulist pose of sleeping subway riders, folks taking respite in a park or pensive readers at the 42nd street library.
In 1935, along with Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, Solman founded “The Ten,” a group of New York City artists who broke from the mainstream art of American Scenic painters like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. The Ten, which also included artists John Graham and Ben-Zion, proclaimed themselves radically different from current venues. Solman is the sole survivor of The Ten.
“It started because galleries were showing too many artists that we didn’t like – too many dark, romantic pictures,” Solman said “We felt our drawings were more honest and stable and that we were doing better work.”
At that same time Rothko wrote “Whitney Dissenters’ Manifesto” a rail against the museum’s show of American art. In 1940 after several of The Ten became better known, they disbanded. Although Rothco, known as Marcus Rothkowitz, and Gottlieb veered off to abstract expressionism, Solman steadfastly remained a figurative painter with his own expressionist bent.
An artist in the Works Project Administration (WPA) during the depression, Solman met and worked with many great artists. He befriended Milton Avery. “Avery had a big influence on me when I was young and working in the WPA,” said Solman. “That was a great program, I couldn’t have worked without it. It’s where I saw Paul Klee’s work, which I liked very much.”
Avery had, in fact, called on Solman’s writing expertise to write an introduction Avery’s famous set of five original etchings. Solman’s literary talent became known early on when he became editor-in-chief for Art Front magazine, published in the late 30’s. Solman boldly introduced photography as an art form in the magazine.
In the early 50’s abstract expressionism was the new American art hegemony. Solman, pressing his agenda against any one dominant art aesthetic, partnered with Edward Hopper and Jack Levine and founded Reality, an artists’ publication aligned against abstract expressionism.
His work paintings of back streets, coal bins, ice cellars, storefronts, were re-created in textured, luminous colors and jaunty angles.
“My streets scenes were more meaningful,” he said. “They were romantic – just like the feeling between a man and a woman, but different. Here that same feeling can relate to something in the atmosphere that creates a feeling between the viewer and the painter.”
Solman’s sense of rhythmic textures within the form stretches our sensibilities of how we can see the world. The sky over a harbor is a loose slathery gray wash, a still life yields to quirky soft lines intoning an ethereal ambiance. Faces in Solman’s portraits are sometimes fuchsia, lime, ochre, fusing with similarly colored backgrounds. In 1999 Solman painted a green tinted portrait of George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton’s former adviser, who decidedly didn’t buy the painting.
“The colors gives faces a classic quality,” Solman said. “And I didn’t think it was important to explain it to some people although they thought it was [important].” Within facial features Solman folds in abstraction with small, multi-colored brushstrokes or thickly textured paint enlivening a cheek or an eyelid.
Solman recently saw the movie “Alice Neel.” He knew Neel in the 60’s and 70’s and intoning his own bravado brand of jocularity Solman said “Neel was the best portrait artist in the country, but then she wasn’t really. First I was the best portrait artist and then I made her known.”
His circle of friends included William DeKooning, Milton Avery, Raphael Sawyer and later on Solman would escape the city’s summer heat with Avery, John Sloan and Marsden Hartley to paint in Cape Ann.
But New York was always home base to Solman, a city he claims is changing every day. His cluttered but comfortable apartment is over what used to be the Second Avenue Deli, a kosher dining institution since 1954. The deli closed last year after problems with the landlord. Ten years ago deli owner Abe Lebewoh was mysteriously murdered – today the crime is still unsolved. Abe’s brother Jack ran the restaurant after his death. Now the deli is gone supplanted by a bank.
“There are changes in the city about every two weeks,” said Solman, who ventures out as much as possible with the help of his home aide. “The size of the streets change and so do the buildings. The deli is now a bank – there are banks on every corner. How many banks do we need? We don’t have enough money to put in so many banks.”
Solman is represented in major museums and galleries including the Hirshhorn Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, as well as the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Critics have described Solman’s work as a fusion of representationalism, Cubism, and abstraction.
In one of the many books on Solman’s paintings crammed into his bookshelves he showed us the 1930 piece “Solman Sign Co.” and said it was a semi abstract work. Floating haphazardly on assorted square signs were prosthetic limbs, special corsets, neck braces, a crutch. The number “51” painted in a garish orange over black hangs near a small white ovular sign at the top with delicate cursive letters reading “Solman’s Sign Co.”
“I saw these surreal objects in a storefront and I painted it straight,” said Solman pointing to the reproduction in the book. “In those days a piece became semi-abstract if you put one letter in it which was enough to make the work more serious. If you put a whole sign in it you were telling a story.”