The late abstract expressionist Syd Solomon lives on in the first solo exhibit of his work at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art.
It’s amazing what can come of a good road trip.
On New Year’s Day 1946, New Englanders Syd and Annie Solomon were traveling north from Miami and stopped in Sarasota by chance. What they found was a relatively small, sleepy town with a world-class art museum full of baroque art. Syd Solomon, an artist who had taken leave from art to fight in WWII, was intrigued.
He lived and painted in Sarasota for the next 58 years of his life.
Today, the late Solomon is known as one of the most talented abstract expressionists of his time — and a new exhibit at Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art is keeping his legacy alive.
Exhibit Curator Mark Ormond says Solomon is an important figure in Sarasota art history because he brought not only his talent but his skilled artist friends from New York to Sarasota.
And it was his ability to connect with people that persuaded them to travel south.
“Syd was a larger-than-life personality,” Ormond says. “He had this presence. When he walked into a room, you just felt like something changed. And he had a loud voice — that helped.”
When Solomon persuaded artists such as Conrad Marca-Relli, Philip Guston and Larry Rivers to come to Sarasota to teach, there was an immediate shift in the local art scene. And the movement was upwards.
According to the book “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed,” Solomon started the Institute of Fine Art at New College in late 1964. Although it only latest about three years, the program inspired students and established artists alike, enticing other creative minds such as Jimmy Ernst, John Chamberlain, James Rosenquist and Robert Rauschenberg to come to Florida.
“I think he certainly taught everybody to be bold and to take risks and experiment,” Ormond says. “He was the Pied Piper, as a friend of mine liked to call him.”
History of excellence
According to “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed,” in the late ’40s, Solomon experimented with the precursors to acrylic paints, new synthetic media, which were developed by Sarasota chemist Guy Pascal.
Victor D’Amico of the Museum of Modern Art noted Solomon as the first artist to use acrylic paint. Solomon is also recognized as one of the first artists to use aerosol sprays, setting the foundation for his legacy as not only a painter but an innovator.
In 1966, the Ringling Museum’s first purchase of a work by a living artist was Solomon’s “Silent World, 1961,” Ormond says.
“The painting was one of Solomon’s first abstractions based on light refracted by the water,” Ormond says. “It was inspired by visual memories of looking at coral reefs from a diving bell off the island of Bimini in the Florida Keys.”
Known largely for such colorful works inspired by the Florida landscape, Solomon set himself apart from the New York style of abstract expressionism by veering from the traditional dark palette, says his son, Mike Solomon.
“Everybody has their own unique tinge to things, but you could think of the color of being of a certain kind,” he says. “Syd kind of extended the spectrum into tropical tones.”
“He’s a master of color,” he says. “He could do any color imaginable, and he was constantly pushing himself to reinvent painting.”
Although he had long been well-known among Sarasota’s arts community, it wasn’t until recently that Solomon’s name began to get the recognition that his son and his other fans think he deserves.
This recognition is largely thanks to a collection of photos and other historical artifacts that began when Solomon was still alive, Mike Solomon says. In 2013, that became a more extensive collection conserving his father’s history through the Syd Solomon Estate.
After studies by several scholars, Mike Solomon says the archive has proved several new findings about his father’s methods, such as how his experience with camouflage in the Army influenced his version of the resist mode of painting.
“The idea is hiding certain areas that you don’t want the spray to go,” he says. “He used a kind of wallpaper paste ... he would cover certain areas of the painting that he had already painted and then put the spray paint on it, let it dry then take a hose and wash the wallpaper paste off so the part underneath was saved.”
Mike Solomon laughs as he recalls a scene in the film “Syd Solomon: The Man, The Artist,” in which the late artist said he bets his neighbors think he’s “watering” his paintings.
It’s stories like this that help people get to know his father better, so he hopes the Syd Solomon Estate collection, which now contains tens of thousands of documents and at least 5,000 photographs, can someday be given to an institution where it can be studied further.
“When you look at a painting on a wall, you just bring to it whatever you know,” Mike Solomon says. “If you don’t know that much, you’re going to just be left with what it is and it has to stand on its own … but if you know a lot about the artist and you understand the context, then it’s a whole other experience.”
The new exhibit is the ideal opportunity to provide context for Solomon’s work, his son says.
The exhibit is the first solo show of Syd Solomon work at Allyn Gallup, and the artist’s son says it was the one gallery where he felt it belonged.
“This gallery is an institution,” he says. “They’ve fought to maintain a level of excellence in a place that it’s not that easy to do. This is not New York. You don’t have enough of the sophisticated artists to keep something like this alive. You have to really struggle with it.”
The exhibit, which will also come to The Ringling in 2019, includes not only several rare paintings that have never been displayed publicly, but a wide variety in terms of size and price point, says owner of Allyn Gallup Sheila Moore. She believes it’s accessible and could be a great jumping off point for new collectors.
Mike Solomon and Moore think the exhibit will draw a wide variety of people, and they look forward to seeing their reactions.
“I hope that they’re going to be seduced by the poetry of the work,” Moore says. “I hope that they leave with a joyous feeling and that they want to know more.”
Moore notes that the exhibit could also be inspiring to artists who aren’t confident in their ability to succeed in Sarasota.
“It shows that a great artist can actually live in Sarasota, make his art here and make it in the world,” says Moore.
Mike Solomon notes that the Sarasota that his parents first settled in is not the same as it is today. He believes the sense of camaraderie that once existed between artists of varying disciplines isn’t quite as strong as it used to be, and he thinks that more could be done to maintain the cultural heritage of the city.
He hopes to kickstart that cultural heritage — creating culture, he calls it — through this show of paintings that appear to not have aged a day.
“Having grown up with these paintings and lived with them for a long time, I still see stuff in them that I didn’t see before,” he says. “Like a complex symphony, you don’t hear all the notes the first time you hear it.”