Joseph Solman, American (1909 - 2008)

Joseph Solman

Joseph Solman (January 25, 1909 – April 16, 2008) was a Jewish American painter, a founder of The Ten, a group of New York City Expressionist painters in the 1930s. His best known works include his "Subway Gouaches" depicting travellers on the New York subways.

Born in Vitebsk, Belarus, he was brought to America from Belarus as a child in 1912, Solman was a prodigious draftsman and knew, in his earliest teens, that he would be an artist. He went straight from high school to the National Academy of Design, though he says he learned more by sketching in the subway on the way back from school late at night: people “pose perfectly when they’re asleep.” In 1929, Solman saw the inaugural show at the Museum of Modern Art featuring Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cezanne.

In 1934, Solman had his first one-man show, much influenced by the French modern artist Georges Rouault. One critic was impressed by “the mystery that lurks in deserted streets in the late twilight.” Another noted that Solman’s color had “an astonishingly rich quality that burns outward beneath the surface.”

Joseph Solman was, with Mark Rothko, the unofficial co-leader of The Ten, a group of expressionist painters including Louis Schanker, Adolph Gottlieb and Ilya Bolotowsky, who exhibited as the “Whitney Dissenters” at the Mercury Galleries in New York City in 1938. A champion of modernism, Solman was elected an editor of Art Front Magazinewhen its other editors, art historian Meyer Shapiro and critic Harold Rosenberg, were still partial to Social Realism. But Solman never believed in abstraction for abstraction’s sake. “I have long discovered for myself,” Solman has said, “that what we call the subject yields more pattern, more poetry, more drama, greater abstract design and tension than any shapes we may invent.” In writing about a purchase of a typical 1930s Solman street scene for the Wichita Museum, director Howard Wooden put it this way: “Solman has produced the equivalent of an abstract expressionist painting a full decade before the abstract expressionist movement came to dominate the American art scene, but without abandoning identifiable forms.”

In 1964, The Times, discussing his well-known subway gouaches (done while commuting to his some-time job as a racetrack pari-mutuel clerk), called him a “Pari-Mutuel Picasso.”In 1985, on the occasion of a 50-year retrospective, The Washington Post wrote: “It appears to have dawned, at last, on many collectors that this is art that has already stood the acid test of time.”

Joseph Solman died in his sleep, at his long-time home in New York City, on April 16, 2008. He was the father of economist and television commentator Paul Solman.

Active through his nineties, Joseph Solman was a pivotal figure in the development of 20th century American art. Emigrating to the United States from Russia at the age of three, he studied drawing under Ivan Olinsky at the National Academy of Design in the late Twenties From 1936 to 1941, he was active in the easel division of the WPA Federal Art Project. In 1949, he was honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C. and received the 1961 award in painting from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His works are included in more than two dozen major museum collections throughout the world.

Always an innovator, Solman’s work merges realism with abstract expressionism. His portraits and figure studies are characterized by bold outlines, flat backgrounds, a fauvist palette and a gift for psychological perception. In his introduction to the 1995 publication Joseph Solman (NY: Da Capo Press), Theodore F. Wolff described Solman’s portraits as "startlingly direct ‘speaking likenesses’ of real human beings in richly-hued canvases that exist as provocatively designed modern works of art." His studio interiors employ light "principally [as] a means of forcing the spectator to discover strange beauties in unpromising places," wrote Stuart Preston in the same monograph, adding that "there is also a note of strangeness in the absence of all figures when everything speaks of human presence."


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