SYD SOLOMON (1917–2004)
“Solomon offers some exhilarating abstractions based on forms in nature, each shot through with windswept energy of design and color. But the rush of paint is never put to the service of haphazard composition. There is here the kind of thought and control that makes of movement per se an intrinsic element, a necessity that serves as the binding factor of each canvas. Solomon wields a joyous brush that swerves and sweeps its subject matter into dynamic, full-blown rhythmic statements. Their control and discipline lend them real substance.”
–John Gruen, New York Magazine, February 16, 1970.
An Abstract Expressionist painter of vibrant, multilayered paintings, Syd Solomon held important roles in the art communities of Sarasota, Florida, and East Hampton, New York.
Solomon was born near Uniontown, Pennsylvania in 1917. He had a long and varied training as an artist. He began painting in high school in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, where he was an All-American football player. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1935 to 1938. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the war effort and soon after married Ann Francine Cohen He was assigned to the 924th Engineer Aviation Regiment of the US Army where he was able to hone his artistic skills by creating camouflage from the air, which protected the airfields being built by the battalion. Working with the artist Barbara Hepworth, he helped camouflage airfields in England, and then was sent to Normandy early in the invasion to provide protective concealment for the ground war. He also designed aerial camouflage for the African campaign. Solomon was considered one of the best camouflage experts in the Army, receiving among other commendations, five bronze stars. Solomon often remarked that this aerial reconnaissance during World War II influenced his ideas about abstract art. At the end of the war, he attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Syd Solomon, 1959.
© Estate of Syd Solomon
During the Battle of the Bulge, Solomon suffered frostbite, so he and Annie chose to settle in a warm climate, Sarasota, Florida, home to the Ringling Museum of Art. Solomon soon became friends with Everett “Chick” Austin, the museum’s first director. At the suggestion of Alfred Barr, the Museum of Modern Art’s Director, the Ringling Museum began collecting Solomon’s paintings. His were the first paintings by a contemporary artist to become part of the museum’s permanent collection. This began a long association between Solomon and the Ringling Museum. He also formed close ties with nearby Ringling College of Art and New College.
In 1955, Syd and Annie Solomon visited East Hampton for the first time at the invitation of his former protégé, the artist David Budd. In East Hampton, Solomon met and befriended many of the artists of the New York School including Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, James Brooks, Alfonso Ossorio, and Conrad Marca-Relli. By 1959, and for the next thirty years, the Solomons split the year between Sarasota (in the fall and winter) and the Hamptons (in the spring and summer).
During the 1950s, Solomon participated in numerous national exhibitions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the National Academy of Design, New York.
Victor D’Amico, the first Director of Education for the Museum of Modern Art recognized Solomon as the first artist to use acrylic paint. His early experimentation with this medium and others put him put him at the forefront of technical innovations in his generation. He was one of the first artists to use aerosol sprays and resists, innovations influenced by his aerial camouflage training. He described the ability of using sprays as “dropping paint layers from above.” This technical ability allowed for groundbreaking achievements in abstract painting, and his canvases were acclaimed for their visionary and romantic expression.
Solomon sought to evoke the forces of nature through abstract expressionist gestures, and he is best known for his challenging color, which while including the palette of his peers, extended the range to teals, pinks, and sea greens, among others. This spectrum of color was owed to the “polaroid,” a term he coined to describe the color he experienced working in natural environments on Long Island’s East End and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Over the course of his career, his work was included in important museum exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Dallas Museum of Art, Texas; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, DC; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; The National Academy of Design, New York; The High Museum, Atlanta; American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, among many others.
In 1959 Solomon began showing regularly in New York City at the Saidenberg Gallery and in the Hamptons and Miami at the James David Gallery run by the renowned art dealer, Dorothy Blau. His reputation reached an apex in the 1960s, when he won numerous national awards, including Painting of the Year from the Whitney Museum in 1961 and the 13th New England Annual awarded by the Guggenheim Museum’s H. H. Arnason. Thomas Hess of Art News also chose Solomon as one of the ten outstanding painters of the year in 1961. Many prestigious museums purchased his work during this time.
Solomon became even more influential in the Hamptons and in Florida during the 1960s. During 1964 and 1965 he created the Institute of Fine Art at the New College in Sarasota. He is credited with bringing many nationally known artists to Florida. Larry Rivers, Philip Guston, James Brooks, Conrad Marca-Relli were among the artists that taught at the Institute. Later Jimmy Ernst, John Chamberlain, James Rosenquist, and Robert Rauschenberg settled near Solomon in Florida. In East Hampton, the Solomon home was the epicenter of artists and writers who spent time in the Hamptons including, Alfred Leslie, Jim Dine, Ibram Lassaw, Saul Bellow, Barney Rossett, Arthur Kopit and Harold Rosenburg. In 1966, Solomon hosted the first Artist vs. Writers Baseball Game in his backyard a game in which the above artists and writers played. A number of artist-produced performances were also held at the Solomon home in the late 1960s including the Frank O'Hara play "Try Try" with Larry Rivers and Shirley King, Directed by Gaby Rodgers
In 1970, Solomon, along with architect Gene Leedy, one of the founders of the Sarasota School of Architecture, built an award-winning precast concrete and glass house and studio on the Gulf near Midnight Pass in Sarasota. Because of its sighting, it functioned much like Monet’s home in Giverny, France. Open to the sky, sea, and shore with inside and outside studios, these active environmental forces greatly influenced his work. His friend, the art critic Harold Rosenberg, said Solomon’s best work was produced in the period he lived on the beach.
During 1973 and 1974 a retrospective exhibition of Solomon’s work was held at the New York Cultural Center and at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota. Writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. conducted an interview with Solomon for the exhibition catalogue. The artist was close to many writers, including Harold Rosenberg, Joy Williams, John D. McDonald, Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan, Betty Friedan and Evan Hunter. He also had friends in the music world, including Mitch Miller, Eric Von Schmidt, Jerry Leiber, and Jerry Wexler. In 1990, the Ringling Museum of Art honored the artist with a solo exhibition, A Dialogue with Nature. The artist died in Sarasota in 2004.
Syd Solomon’s work is held in many important private and public collections, including Adelphi University, Garden City, New York; American Academy of Arts and letters, New York; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama; the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia; the Cincinnati Art Museum; the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Dade County Art Collection, Miami, Florida; Fine Arts Society of Sarasota, Sarasota; Greenville County Museum of Art, South Carolina; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Guild Hall Museum, East Hampton, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; IBM, Atlanta, Georgia; Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; J. M. Kaplan Fund, New York, New York; Kokuritsu Seijo Bijutsukar, Tokyo, Japan; LeMoyne Art Foundation, Inc., Tallahassee, Florida; Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida; The Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota; The City of Miami (mural), Miami, Florida; Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Museum of Fine Art, Clearwater, Florida; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida; the Museum of the South, Memphis, Tennessee; Naples Museum of Art, Florida; New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota; New Orleans Museum of Art; Norton Gallery of Art, Palm Beach, Florida; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland, Florida; the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts; the Tampa Bay Art Center, Florida; Tate Gallery, London; Tel Aviv Museum, Israel; Telfair Art Museum, Savannah, Georgia; University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; Weatherspoon Gallery, University of North Carolina, Greensboro; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.
© Berry Campbell, 2015