Painter, camouflage artist, and cultural connector Syd Solomon is emerging as an important figure in Abstract Expressionism.
The association of camouflage with modern painting is a little-known chapter of art history. Quite a number of important artists cut their teeth designing patterns for the concealment of arms and men during the first and second World Wars, or even made their mark as innovators in this aspect of strategy. Considering that artists of the caliber of Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Roland Penrose, Stanley William Hayter, Edward Wadsworth, Thomas Hart Benton, and Charles Burchfield all worked on camouflage, one could even be forgiven for speaking of a military-artistic complex.
In some cases, modernist art concepts influenced camouflage design; for example, the bold geometric “dazzle” patterns on some warships in World War I came directly from Cubism and Vorticism. In other instances, the experience of creating camouflage influenced painters’ future work. That was very much the case with Syd Solomon (1917–2004), an American Abstract Expressionist who has been less well known than many other other members of the movement but is now emerging from the background. An exhibition coming up at The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla.—an institution with which Solomon had a long association—will do a good deal to make Solomon’s work available to a larger public than before, and the catalogue accompanying the show thoughtfully places the artist’s work in the context of his time and place. “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed” (December 15, 2019–April 26, 2020), presented in partnership with the Estate of Syd Solomon, places on view a career-spanning selection of works from the permanent collection of the Ringling as well as from private collections.
In her catalogue essay, Gail Levin raises the question of why Solomon achieved less fame than many other practitioners of Ab-Ex. The answer, as she formulates it, has a great deal to do with World War II. Ironically, while his experience as a camoufleur was key for his work as a painter, it was his war service that brought about his obscurity. While Abstract Expressionism flowered and came to public attention after the war, it was during the war that most of the famous artists established themselves in the New York art world. Ticking off a list of major figures who were featured in the Whitney’s seminal 1978 show “Abstract Expressionism: The Formative Years”—including William Baziotes, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, and Clyfford Still—Levin observes that while most were of draft age, almost none served in the war. The reasons for that included physical or psychological unfitness (real or feigned) and conscientious-objector status. Solomon, on the other hand, was eager to serve, and in fact enlisted several months before Pearl Harbor. As a Jew and a first-generation American, he was particularly alarmed by the threat of Nazism, and by that time—July 1941—it was clear to most that war with Germany and Japan was imminent.
Solomon’s friend and fellow painter James Brooks recalled that for returning veterans like himself and Solomon, getting established as an artist “was difficult because a good many painters hadn’t been in the Army and during the time we were in the Army, Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery had started, other galleries had, and there was a whole new established art scene. Most of the men who are pretty well established now had already made their names by the time we came back.” Not only that, but by being absent, in training camps and overseas, Solomon, Brooks, and the other artist-soldiers missed out on the opportunity to absorb the latest advances in abstract art that were being made during the war years and would have to catch up later.
Not that Solomon was a newcomer to art when he returned to the U.S. A native of Uniontown, Pa., he had received vocational training in graphic design in high school and after graduation went to Chicago to take classes at the Art Institute from 1935–38. He paid for the tuition by making the rounds of bars and restaurants and doing on-the-spot portraits of patrons. During the late ’30s Solomon made a more solid living in advertising and public relations, using his skills at drawing and especially hand-lettering. After he enlisted, he was assigned to an engineers battalion with a specialty in camouflage, under a U.S. Army program headed by Homer St. Gaudens, the son of the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. Eventually promoted to master sergeant, Solomon not only designed camouflage but wrote, lettered, and illustrated a series of instructional pamphlets called Camo-Tips. Some had humorous texts such as, “Only God can make a tree! But you can make an imitation that will serve the purpose as well as any tree.” In July 1943 he deployed to England to help prepare for D-Day. There he met his British counterparts, including Penrose and Hayter, as well as other artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. After the D-Day invasion, Solomon’s unit went over to France, where they liberated a town, and then in December 1944 they fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
During that battle, Solomon got frostbite on his hands and feet, and the injury made him permanently hypersensitive to cold. In this way, too, his military experiences proved decisive for his future career, because instead of moving to New York, the center of the postwar international art world, Solomon and his wife, Annie, whom he had married in 1941, settled in South Florida in late 1945. After an initial stay in Miami, they headed up the Gulf Coast in search of a calmer place and happened upon Sarasota, then a sleepy town of around 10,000. It had, however, one major attraction, the recently-opened John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. At that time, its holdings comprised mainly Baroque and other pre-modernist European art, as well as circus art and memorabilia, all from the Ringlings’ personal collection. But the new director, Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, who had formerly headed the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., added modern and contemporary art, modern design, and even avant-garde theater to the program. In fact, the first piece by a living artist that the Ringling purchased was Solomon’s 1961 Silent World. Austin became good friends with the Solomons and helped them establish themselves in Sarasota, where they eventually formed the center of a thriving arts community.
It was in those first years in Sarasota that Solomon developed his method of abstract painting. One of the essential aspects of camouflage is that it subverts the distinction that the mind and eye naturally want to draw between subject and background. The areas of color in a Solomon painting interact with each other in an ambiguous, tantalizing way that keeps the viewer unsure how or whether they overlap. When he was designing camouflage during the war, Solomon made use of a device called a sliding-door flat top, basically a piece of canvas placed parallel to the ground, under which soldiers would conceal themselves from enemy planes overhead. A section of the canvas could be pulled back to allow the soldiers to see out when they needed to, as well as to direct fire toward the enemy. In some of Solomon’s abstract canvases, there is a white patch in the midst of various passages of color, which is very reminiscent of the light that would enter the flat-top tent when the sliding door was opened. Other paintings by the artist seem to recall the aerial reconnaissance photos he took from military planes over France and Holland in 1944, in which the land becomes, in effect, abstracted due to the great distance and the unnatural vantage point.
In common with many of the Abstract Expressionists, Solomon placed himself in the lineage of Surrealism, not in the sense of using Surrealist subject matter but of using the Surrealist tactic of automatism, in which the subconscious is allowed to guide the creative process. However, he was careful not to let automatism go too far. In a 1954 article in American Artist Magazine, he wrote, “The accidental can never replace the deliberate in painting, any more than driftwood can replace sculpture.” The article was about new materials and techniques in painting, including a so-called “resist” method that Solomon had developed himself. Based on the batik method of printing textiles, it involved coating part of a canvas with wax and other paint-resistant materials and then spraying it with atomized paints—again, there is this dialectic between visible and invisible, presence and absence, positive and negative space. In addition to spray paint, Solomon was also an early adopter of acrylics; in fact, since he was friends with the inventor of acrylic paint, the chemist Guy Paschal, he was was one of the first to test and use the new medium.
In the ’50s, Solomon befriended Franz Kline, a fellow Pennsylvanian, and was impressed by Kline’s use of very large brushes, which inspired him to make bigger and bolder marks on his canvases, not only with brushes but also with rollers. In so doing, he came closer to the concept of action painting, making the canvas an “arena” rather than just a picture plane. On the other hand, there is something about Solomon’s mark making, however abstract, that descends directly from the calligraphic lettering of his commercial-art days. And those days actually lasted into the late 1940s, when he was still getting established as a fine artist and needed the income from commercial jobs to make ends meet.
By the ’50s, though, Solomon’s art career was thriving, and he was showing his work not only in Florida but in New York. In 1952, he showed at the Wildenstein Gallery and was included in the American Watercolors, Drawings, and Prints show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Starting in 1959, he showed at the Saidenberg Gallery
in New York, where the collector Joseph Hirshhorn purchased paintings of his. He also exhibited at the Signa Gallery in East Hampton, N.Y. The Hamptons became an important base for Solomon, who spent many summers there, associating with a diverse groups of artists including Kline, Pollock, Brooks, Alfonso Ossorio, Ibram Lassaw, and Conrad Marca-Relli. He also befriended many writers including Harold Rosenberg, Dore Ashton, Peter Selz, and Saul Bellow, as well as Hollywood figures such as Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg. Solomon was instrumental in creating a vibrant cultural scene in Sarasota by inviting many of these artists and writers to stay with him; several, including John Chamberlain, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, and Jimmy Ernst, ended up settling in the area, near the Solomons. In 1964, Solomon created the Institute of Fine Art at the New College in Sarasota, to which many of his circle of artistic colleagues from New York came to teach. Solomon himself had long had a mission as a teacher, having started his own school, the Sarasota School of Art, as far back as 1951 and having taught classes for children at the Ringling.
In the late ’60s, Solomon became associated with a group of local architects who adapted Bauhaus principles to the tropical Florida climate. Collaborating with one of them, Gene Leedy, in 1970 Solomon designed and built a house called Midnight Pass, right on the beach. With its open cage-work studio space and dramatic views, the house has been compared to Monet’s home studio at Giverny, and indeed, Solomon drew deep inspiration from the natural surroundings during the years he lived there. The alternating, undulating patches of color in his paintings from this time period, while they are in line with his camouflage-influenced works from before, now seem to convey the optical experience of seeing underwater, and the abstracted landscapes have become undersea-scapes. His friend Rosenberg opined that Solomon’s best work was produced during his years living on the beach. Solomon himself once explained his motivations to an interviewer, saying, “I am rather awed by the sea and inspired by it. It’s where I’m able to fashion my personal myth. I’m interested in the ebb and flow of tidal waters and what happens to the land and the rocks battered by the tidal flow for millions of years.” In the mid-1980s, the ebb and flow caused catastrophic erosion of the beach at Sarasota, and Midnight Pass was one of the casualties. Although the house is gone, the paintings survive, allowing viewers to see beneath the surface of the water and marvel along with their creator.
By John Dorfman