Joseph Solman's career began in the late 1920's. Though he revered East Asian as well as European art very early in his long career, he did not take up sumi-e or 'ink wash' painting until 1987, when he was in his late 70s. Favorite New York subjects like motorcycles, thus became East Asian brush art. Only a few dozen Solman sumis exist, and this newly rediscovered cache contains almost all of them.
"Sumi" is a Japanese word for an 'inkstick' made from the soot of burned plants and glue. "E" is the word for picture. The technique originated in China. The Chinese word is shuimohua (水墨畫): 水 (water: shui), 墨 (ink: mo) and 畫 (brush: hua). In Japanese, sumi -- 墨, the middle character -- is the transliteration of the Chinese for water (shui/sumi), though the character means only "ink" in Japanese. 墨絵, adding 絵 for "picture," is "sumi-e" in Japanese, meaning "ink pictures."
To the right is a copy of a Chu-Ta Solman especially admired. A devotee of the 17th century Chinese master, Solman tried to capture his calligraphic style and elegance, and apply it in his other work.
"The brush drawings of the Chinese masters obtain the highest degree of mystery as well as the deepest penetration into nature’s forms. Their remarkable simplicity and condensation is due primarily to the force and knowledge of observation. That is why they impart so much spirit with so little matter." -Joseph Solman
(This section is still in progress. Stay tuned!)
Tar Cart, two views
Joseph Solman The Oculist (1937)
JOSEPH SOLMAN AND THE TEN
by Paul Solman
It was 1938. A group of artists who called themselves The Ten were irate. The biggest event in American art, the annual exhibit at the Whitney Museum, was coming up and as usual, it would reflect, in their eyes, the complacency of the Art Establishment. Once again, New York's showcase of the status quo would exhibit the trendiest artists, the ones getting all the press. The tastemakers would not invite The Ten.
Okay, the group decided, it would stage an exhibition of its own. "The Ten: Whitney Dissenters" would hang at New York's Mercury Galleries, right down the block from the Whitney. The Ten would challenge the powers that were, head on.
In fact, there were only nine rebels to begin with. No matter: the group was sure a worthy tenth would come along. (Indeed, some 16 different artists had been members by the time The Ten disbanded in 1939.) What united them was a devout individualism – in style, subject matter, and artistic temperament.
As people, they ranged from darkly driven to energetically well-adjusted. Most notable of the troubled: The Ten's unofficial co-leader, Marcus Rothkowitz, better known as Mark Rothko, who would go on to create a new way of painting and become both icon and emblem: icon of American modernism; emblem of the neurotic artist. Mark Rothko committed suicide in 1970, age 68.
The Ten's other leader, by contrast, was consistently upbeat about himself and his work, even as his star dimmed in the decades after the Whitney Dissenters show. Joseph Solman, the last survivor of The Ten, was still painting until 2008 and beat his own peculiar path long enough to see himself rise again. Though a radical modern in 1938, he never "went abstract," never caught (or tried to ride) the new wave that became synonymous with America's most widely hailed contribution to 20th century art: abstract expressionism.
Instead, he remained a figurative painter of recognizable subject matter, resisting the tides of taste in Cold War America, just as he had during the Depression. He maintained a steady income by working five months a year as a parimutuel clerk at the race track, while also teaching private classes, painting and selling his work. The story of Joseph Solman, Mark Rothko and The Ten is the story of American modern art from the mid-1930s to the turn of the century – its fantasies, fads, fortunes, and fol-de-rol .
Back in the '30s, The Ten defined the cutting edge of art in America. Small wonder that, in the beginning, the critics were quick to cut back.
"I do not believe I understand the American 'expressionists' so very well," sniffed the New York Times' art arbiter, Edwin Alden Jewell, saying many of the paintings looked to his arch eye "like silly smudges." "The pictures are mostly such as to give any one with the slightest academic sympathies apoplexy," Jewell accurately reported on another occasion: "I personally feel that there is much needless obscurity and reasonless distortion in most of the work."
"Their names are Ben-Zion, Ilya Bolotowsky, Adolph Gottlieb . . . Marcus Rothkowitz, Louis Schanker, Joseph Solman," The New York Sun enumerated, a tad xenophobically. "Hard names for New Yorkers to circumvent, but possibly citizens of Moscow and Odessa would find them easy." (This was the 1930s, remember.) Lou Schanker has his own account. There had been earlier modernists, of course: in Europe, from Picasso to Kandinsky; in the US, from Marin to O'Keeffe. New York's Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929 (with a show of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat and Gauguin). But the American art scene was dominated by the academics, who ran the schools and ruled the roost.
My father attended the National Academy, but says he learned more sketching in the subway on his night ride home from school than from the rote exercises in class. (Besides, he adds, people "pose perfectly when they're asleep.")
The accepted art of the '30s fell into either of two camps: Regionalism, ennobling rural America (as in an image you all know, Grant Wood's "American Gothic") or Social Realism (as in Thomas Hart Benson's "America Today) , exalting blue-collar America (in the left-wing spirit of the times):
Grant Wood, American Gothic (of course) (1930)
Thomas Hart Benton America (ca. 1930)
The Ten thought the latter were party-line; the former, cornball;. As the "manifesto" for the 1938 "dissenters" show put it: 'American art' was being defined "by non-aesthetic standards – geographical, ethnical, moral or narrative . . . . In this battle of words the symbol of the silo is in ascendancy in our Whitney museums." The New York World-Telegram quoted the manifesto in characterizing the show as "a protest against 'the reputed equivalence of American painting and literal painting.' Their own things range from pure abstraction to expressionist distortion for formal ends."
It's hard to imagine (for me, at least) that, in 1938, a painting like my father's The Statue (featured at the Whitney Dissenters show) was, to many art lovers, a slap in the face. But then, so were the Impressionists' pictures just 60 years earlier. In fact, a thoroughly modern mix of European influence and native subject matter.
Joseph Solman The Statue (1938)
The scene is Madison Park, where 5th Ave. and Broadway cross (at 23rd St.) in Manhattan. But to the reigning taste makers, the problem with a painting like this was that it had no story; the statue, no heroism. It was (and remains) an abstraction in shape and color: light breaking the distant red water tower into shapes which echo the arrows on the lamp post, which in turn breaks the park bench in two, its blue left side leading down the street to the same-blue Flatiron Building, the bench's right side a shape in itself, playing to the grey monument just off center. If this is a transcription of the world, it's the world as much felt as seen. Hence the word "expressionism."
Mark Rothko was among the least warmly received of The Ten, when he was reviewed at all. Even the sympathetic New York World-Telegram, while lauding Schanker, Lou Harris, Bolotowsky and my father, wrote that "Rothkowitz still swings pretty wildly." He was on his way to swinging more wildly still, to great acclaim, but in the 1930s Rothko went largely unremarked.
Mark Rothko Standing Man and Woman (1938)
"Rothko was so unnoticed by the general critics at that time," Joseph Solman recalls, "that he was very bitter about it. He said to Lou Harris, 'I don't care if they'd say I stink, if they'd only mention me.'" They didn't much mention Ilya Bolotowsky either, the one pure abstractionist of the group.
Ilya Bolotowsky Geometry in Green (1937)
If Bolotowsky and Rothko were neglected, Joseph Solman, by contrast, was noticed early and often. Before, that is, the abstract revolution he helped create turned his world sunny side down, while exalting the name "Mark Rothko," (adopted by Rothkowitz in the late '30s before or soon after a major three-man show with my father and the French expressionist, Marcel Gromaire, at New York's fabled J.B. Neumann Gallery. (The name change was Neumann's suggestion, fearing he was featuring too many Jewish artists. Neumann had altered his own given names – "Israel Ben" – to the WASP-y "J.B." a few years earlier.)
Marcel Gromaire, Autumn 1940
A word about a child's-eye-view. To me, there was nothing even remotely significant – much less glamorous – about my father "the artist." Frankly, I was a lot more impressed that he worked at race tracks like Belmont and Aqueduct, especially when he brought home autographs of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, many of whom bet at his "$6 combination" window (a combined bet of $2 that your horse would "win," $2 that it would "place" second, $2 that it would at least "show" up third). Landing Jackie Robinson and PeeWee Reese's signatures: that was something. Meeting Bill de Kooning for a drink at the Cedar Tavern or hanging out with Milton Avery and his wife Sally: hey, they were just friends of the family.
It's not that my father hadn't experienced any career frustrations up to the mid-1950s. He had, for example, kicked his foot through some of his earliest work. Reviewing his first one-man show in 1934, much influenced by the French modern, Georges Rouault, one critic lauded "the mystery that lurks in deserted streets in the late twilight." Another noted color of "an astonishingly rich quality that burns outward beneath the surface." But, says my father, "the pictures were very, very dark. I destroyed many of them later on because I could hardly see them myself."
In 1939, he had his one "depression."
"I thought I was going to be a world-beater," he says. "Critics praised my work, so did the top gallery dealers, other artists. Yet there I was turning 30 and getting no recognition from museums at all."
"What did you do about it?" a neurotic friend of mine once asked.
Joseph Solman Self-portrait (1939)
"I did a half-dozen pensive self-portraits and worked my way out of it." The portrait reproduced above, from 1938, may have been the first of the group. The dominant blueness certainly suggests the frame-of-mind. But the carving of forms with color (just look at the hair), the abstract handling of the easel (the yellow shape is the back of the board on which this self-portrait is painted), the bold brown diagonal breaking up the board (a shadow of shapes cast by the easel) – all this is vintage Joseph Solman, regardless of mood.
Solman's mood rebounded smartly after 1940. He felt useful to the war effort working in a munitions plant, turning blueprints into 3-D drawings for inexperienced workers. He liked working at the race track, from 1945 to 1973. (He even became a successful handicapper, meaning he lost less money than most people.) He especially liked the favorable reviews his art kept getting, the fact the Whitney was now inviting him to its annual, that the great Washington D.C. collector, Duncan Phillips, not only purchased his work, but gave him a one-man show in 1949 and bought this painting, from his studio interior period, hanging at the Phillips Collection at the moment.
Joseph Solman Studio Interior (1949)
But by the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism had begun to rule the roost. To my father, it was evidence that the academy was still in charge of the art world. Only it was a new academy, as smug as the one that ran things in the 1930s. It was the "academy" of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, of the new Art News and Museum of Modern Art. In this world, the trend-setting artists were larger than life – a wild group that drank and philosophized at the Cedar Tavern (Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, even Rothko). Their art was spontaneous, "existentialist," "transcendent."
My father, meanwhile, had moved on to exploring the possibilities of portraiture. On the surface, he was less abstract than before.
Joseph Solman Elaine (early 1950s)
But by the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism had begun to rule the roost. To my father, it was evidence that the academy was still in charge of the art world. Only it was a new academy, as smug as the one that ran things in the 1930s. It was the "academy" of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, of the new Art News and Museum of Modern Art. In this world, the trend-setting artists were larger than life – a wild group that drank and philosophized at the Cedar Tavern (Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, even Rothko). Their art was spontaneous, "existentialist," "transcendent." And by the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism had begun to rule the roost.
Mark Rothko Orange and red (1950s)
To my father, it was evidence that the academy was still in charge of the art world. Only it was a new academy, as smug as the one that ran things in the 1930s. It was the "academy" of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism, of the new Art News and Museum of Modern Art. In this world, the trend-setting artists were larger than life – a wild group that drank and philosophized at the Cedar Tavern (Pollock, Kline, de Kooning, even Rothko). Their art was spontaneous, "existentialist," "transcendent."
Solman, meanwhile, had moved on to exploring the possibilities of portraiture. On the surface, he was less abstract than before. A non-troubled family man who took his Scotch at home in small doses, my father thought of art itself not so much as transcendent as, in his words, "the greatest game in the world": a game of line linked to color and shape, of subject matter fused with expressionism.
The Sixties saw the advent of Pop, Op, happenings and installations. Solman lightened his palette in response to the flower children in his East Village neighborhood. But if the paint, thinned by turpentine, now dripped occasionally, and the subjects were au courant, Joseph Solman was working on the same themes that had occupied his entire artistic life.
Solman took up monotypes in the late '60s, featured on this website, falling in love with urban objects like motorcycles and tar carts that featured sinuous lines and his beloved negative shapes. A book of his monotypes was published in 1977.
The Japanese-inspired sumi wash paintings which motivated the Joseph Solman Virtual Gallery website were done in the 1980s and '90s.
All the while, Solman kept sketching, monotyping (if there is such a word) and painting building and skies above the sidewalks of New York. And after a few decades of relative obscurity, the art world rediscovered him: magazines, newspapers, museums – by the '90s and early 2000s, he was featured in them all. That the world was paying attention was gratifying. But it didn't affect what or how he painted at all. It never did.
Joseph Solman in 2007
Joseph Solman died in 2008, in his sleep, aged 99. He was drawing -- admittedly, in his post-hand/eye coordination period -- the last day of his life. His personal assistant has written a short account.
Solman visited Venice at least four times, the first in 1956. In the 1970s and '80s, he spent most of his time depicting The Most Serene City, beginning with a trip in 1979, when the sketch for this monotype and print itself were made. Most of the Venice monotypes have long since sold. This last batch is from the private family stock.
The Bridge of Sighs serves as the backdrop for this monotype of Venice from the early 1980s. Next to New York, Venice was Solman's favorite city to sketch. The sketches made their way back to the States, and in the summer, he would place his favorites under glass and use them as the template for a painting from which he would then take a single print -- a monoprint or "monotype."
(This section is still in progress. Stay tuned!)
(This section is still in progress. Stay tuned!)
As the German poet Rilke wrote when he discovered Cezanne:
"Everything that was, rearranges itself, lines up in formation, as if someone were standing there giving orders; and whatever is present is utterly and urgently present, as if prostrate on its knees and praying for you."
Not for sale (it's owned by the Metropolitan Museum), we include this image to reference one of Virgona's major influences, the 20th century master of Bologna.
Joseph Solman subway gouache, 1962
Another major influence, of course: Joseph Solman. He worked part-time at the New York horse racetracks from 1945, after his wartime stint as a draughtsman in a defense plant, to 1963, when he joined the faculty of the City College (now University) of New York. He drew subjects on his subway commute from Manhattan to Queens and back, more than an hour each way.
Joseph Solman subway gouache, 1960
Solman would take the drawings home, paste them on a board, and color them in. In this image, you can clearly see the past performance charts of that morning's Daily Racing Form. Virgona, with a similar commute in the other direction -- to his studio in Manhattan -- followed Solman's subway gouache lead.
Jeff Lion Weinstock
New York Walls
"Jeff Lion Weinstock is a native New Yorker whose photographs pay homage to the city and what you might call secret spectacles. His 'Walls' update Aaron Siskind and the whole great 1950s New York School by scouting fresh materials and sites and tinkering with colors -- a mix of acid and cool -- that gently, almost serenely nudge ready-made abstraction into a fresh century. 'In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject,' Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, adding that 'the creative instant lasts but a brief moment.' Weinstock seizes it, time and again."
To see more of Weinstock's work, click here.
Tangled up in Blue
All Hallow's Eve
© 2019 Joseph Solman Virtual Gallery LLC