Some children of the ’70s had tiddly winks and barrel of monkeys. Michael Solomon had Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. His father, the late artist Syd Solomon, hosted famous parties attended by movers and shakers in East Hampton, N.Y., and Sarasota, where they split their time. In the winters, they brought their artist friends here and created a vibrant artists’ colony in Sarasota.
Michael Solomon sits in the front office of the Estate of Syd Solomon between two large black-and-white portraits of his father. This warehouse off Clark Road houses the archives of the Estate of Syd Solomon. He has been camping out there recently working on a Ken Burns-style documentary film about his father and his legacy.
Solomon is a recognizable name in Sarasota. For one, there’s Michael Solomon, a minimalist artist whose work will be on display in an upcoming exhibition at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art. Then there’s Annie Solomon, Michael’s mother and Syd’s widow, who is giving a talk at The Ringling about her and her late husband’s contributions to the artist colony. But it’s Syd Solomon with whom people are most familiar. The artist died in January 2004, but his contributions to building a vibrant artist colony helped make Sarasota the arts city it is today.
Slow rise to fame
Syd Solomon’s art, which hangs in prominent places such as the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, is easily recognizable. Critics classify Solomon as an abstract expressionist due to his energetic gestures and spontaneous raw emotion. But he is more of an abstract impressionist. The areas of smaller brushstrokes exhibit the controlled, technical movements of a baroque painter.
“He doesn’t really fit into the boxes with which most of the other abstract expressionists fit,” Michael Solomon says.
Though Solomon was very much a part of the abstract expressionist art movement, he never lived in Manhattan, N.Y., with the New York School that includes Pollock, de Kooning and Franz Kline. Plus, his career did not mature in the ’50s like the others’; he started to flourish a decade later. This was something Harold Rosenburg, former art critic for The New Yorker, once cited. Rosenburg told Solomon that he was getting better, while the other artists had hit their peaks.
“And that just made it for him,” Michael Solomon says.
Contributions to Sarasota
The couple found Sarasota, a place they had never heard of, following a trip to Miami. When Solomon came across a gallery, or what was the John Ringling collection before the museum opened its doors, he realized this little town had more to offer than they had expected. They settled in 1946.
Solomon quickly started contributing to the city. He built a relationship with Ringling College of Art and Design and, by the mid-’50s, he was teaching Saturday morning children’s art classes (local artist Craig Rubadoux was one of his students). The Solomons also opened Sarasota School of Art in 1950 on First Street. He became the first art professor at New College, where he founded the Fine Arts Institute. He brought visiting artists to teach, such as Conrad Marca-Relli, Philip Guston and Larry Rivers. Many of his visiting friends took up residence here.
He first built these friendships when he started visiting East Hampton in 1955. The Solomons spent every summer on Long Island, N.Y. In the winters, their friends came here.
Every weekend for three decades, the Solomons hosted parties. Guests such as crime writer John D. MacDonald, artist Jimmy Ernst, writer Joy Williams, director Elia Kazan and writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. were famous attendees.
Newspapers featured interviews with the visitors; gallery openings became big functions because of the visual artists’ presence. The visual-art scene exploded in the ’50s, much in part to Solomon.
There are photos of Michael Solomon as a young boy spending time with famous family friends. A lot of it had to do with Solomon’s wife, Annie. She always cooked and reached out to people as the natural host.
“I don’t think they would have had the kind of life they had were it not for Annie,” Michael Solomon says.
And, as much as Solomon impacted Sarasota, the city reciprocally influenced his work. Kevin Dean, now the director of Selby Gallery, then a Sarasota-based arts writer, discusses this influence:
“There was this sense of beauty in his work,” Dean says. “Some people thought his work was too pretty … but he responded to where he was, and he was living in two very beautiful places.”
Solomon always painted outdoors. In 1970, architect Gene Leedy designed a controversial home and outdoor studio on Turtle Beach — some would argue it was too close to the water. Solomon always painted in the morning light and always with a cigar. He’d take a lunch break when he would watch “Perry Mason” on a small black-and-white television. Every Thursday for 35 years, he went fishing.
Living here, he met inventor Guy Paschal, a seasonal Longboat Key resident. Paschal, known mostly for developing Airwick deodorizers, also helped develop acrylic paint in the late ’40s. Paschal created polymers, and Solomon tested them. Because of this relationship, Solomon was one of the first artists to use acrylic paint. He gained national attention for his Sarasota-influenced acrylic work.
A legacy lives on
Solomon’s blossoming career was recognized locally when he was the first contemporary artist The Ringling added to its collection in 1962. In the following decades, the Ringling held two major retrospectives of his work.
But, more than that, by the time Solomon died in 2004 from Alzheimer’s, he had shows at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Dallas Museum of Art and The Smithsonian, to name a few. His work hangs in the Guggenheim and Whitney museums and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Feb. 5 marked the close of a month-long show at Spanierman Modern in New York City. This thrills Annie Solomon, who will speak Feb. 11 at The Ringling to share the Solomon story.
“He’s getting new recognition (in New York), and it’s really important and gratifying to me,” she says. “It’s a whole new aspect of his work, and I’ve had so many wonderful letters congratulating me. I’m very excited about it.”
Solomon’s legacy lives on — both locally and nationally.
“I think it’s important that people know of Syd Solomon and remember his history,” Dean says. “He’s very much a part of this town.”
IF YOU GO
Collecting Recollections: Annie Solomon
Annie Solomon remembers a colony of artists as part of the Collecting Recollections series, whose tagline is “Fascinating people with fascinating stories.”
When: 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 11
Where: Historic Asolo Theater at The Ringling, 5401 Bayshore Road
Cost: Members get in free; guests also get in free with museum admission. Otherwise, tickets are $5.
Info: Call 360-7399 or visit Ringling.org.
“Field of the Heart” featuring the works of Michael Solomon
“Face to Face” featuring the works of Alain Huin
When: Opening reception 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7. Runs through March 1.
Where: Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art, 1288 N. Palm Ave.
Info: Call 366-2454 or visit allyngallup.com for more information.
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