Interview with Mike Solomon, artist, and curator of Syd Solomon’s Along the Shore

The exhibition, Syd Solomon: Along the Shore 1956-1989 (Where Fishing and Abstract Expressionism Met), is a small selection of Syd Solomon’s work from his estate which will be exhibited in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Longboat Key Center for the Arts from January 18th through March 1.  Sarasota Visual Art interviews Curator and Solomon’s son, artist Mike Solomon, about Sarasota, his father’s paintings, and his own artwork.

Reefscape © Mike Solomon
Syd Solomon, Reefscape © Mike Solomon

What have you selected for this particular exhibition and why?

You know it’s funny how something can be right in front of you but so close you can’t see it? It is when we transform within, that our external vision opens up. A few years ago Allyn Gallup told us that Murph Klauber had Syd’s big triptych mural from the Far Horizons and wanted to sell it. Annie and I went to look at it. We hadn’t seen the painting in at least 40 years, maybe longer. I was amazed by it. It was done at one of the peaks in Syd’s career, in 1959. After seeing it I started to look back in our archives and I found a little brochure that Syd had done on it when it was first unveiled for the hotel. We didn’t know it had the title; Reefscape: Dawn, Midday, Dusk nor what Syd’s thoughts were about the work. In the small text he talks about the three panels each being an impression of the same place at different times of day and at different tides. The tide thing struck a particular note with me, as I become interested in fishing and was sensitive to this kind of “seeing”. Having become sensitized to this aspect myself, I began to realize how quite a good number of Syd’s works actually referenced fishing. Some works show a view of both above and below the water, like a slice of the picture plane from bottom to top. Others, are even more explicit with views of mangrove islands seen from a boat – totally a fisherman’s view. Others show men in waders and even with fish jumping with tight lines and lures in their mouths. It was amazing to finally realize all this, so I thought a show on this theme would be fun. Syd was a very avid fisherman since he first set foot in Sarasota in 1946. He claimed to have caught a record Snook in the Phillippi back in the day. (32lbs) His fishing buddies were Herb Stoddard and Sam Warson, among others. They shared a number of boats and for 35 years, on every Thursday, they went fishing.

Syd’s work has of course always been associated with nature, but it was always in a more general context. The specificity of fishing, the kind of view one has of the water environments with that in mind, we can now see were part of Syd’s vision in a number of paintings. Syd’s work “Silent World” at the Ringling Museum is also related to the aquatic world, a vision of underwater done from his experience of diving with Dr. Eugenie Clark and Jacques Cousteau in Key West and also painted in ’59. I think it would be terrific if the mural Reefscape could go to the Ringling Museum too. What do you think about using Kickstarter to buy for Reefscape for the Museum?

As the curator, what do you want the audience to walk away with?

Hopefully with a realization that artists see into things we take for granted and in doing so, they wake us up to the possibilities that are right in front of us.

Were you impressed with your parents friends and colleagues growing up?

As I kid, as far as I knew, they were just a bunch of friendly people. It wasn’t till I got a little older that I realized how special the whole thing was. To name names would seem like I was reading from Who’s Who. I did become close to several artists and writers though – people who really helped me understand what it meant to be an artist – David Budd, Joy Williams, Eric Von Schmidt and others were very generous with me. (Joy William’s book, Breaking and Entering has got to be the best book about the underbelly of Siesta Key culture ever written.)

Solomon Family Photo © Lionel Murphy
Solomon Family Photo © Lionel Murphy

In the 1980’s after John Chamberlain moved to Sarasota you started assisting him in his 18,000 square-foot warehouse studio on Coconut Avenue . What are some of your fondest memories working
with Chamberlain?

Actually I started with John before he had 10 Coconut. He hired me in New York to come down and help him get started here and at first he rented a spot in the Nokomis junkyard and had a pole barn put up were we could process metal and he could work outside in our clement weather. That was where I started and it was just me for about a year. He made “Detroit Deliquescence” there among other works. Once he decided he could actually work down here on a permanent basis we went looking, that’s how 10 Coconut happened. Then Heidi (Connor) came on board and she really made things gel for John. Career wise, it was Heidi that got his work into the broader spotlight, through her amazing energy and organizational skills.

I learned an immense amount from John. His work was a revelation in the assemblage process. Dubuffet actually coined the term and John, though he’s described as a sculptor for obvious reasons, liked to think of himself as an assemblagist. Assemblage implies working with autonomous parts that have their own particular identity. In assembling diverse elements John created a larger unity with them while respecting each part’s contribution, and so in a sense, there are political implications. That he did it three dimensionally was his big breakthrough. He would select parts and put them in various piles on the massive floor of the studio. Then slowly they would rise up by being positioned and welded together, and the process would continue till he was done. So you see initial selection was not based on the final form they would serve but rather on some kind of intuition about the inherent quality of each constituent part. That’s a spiritual and un-gratuitous way to approach the making of something and quite rare. Even very well respected artists are more manipulative than that, less ready to be open to real chance. John was exceedingly rare in having more faith in the unknown than most. Once he showed me a pile of parts and said, “These are an irregular set.” In other words, the parts of that group were unlike the parts of all the other groups in the studio and so they formed a set of their own. That taught me that nothing is a “reject”. If it doesn’t fit in the regular program, it can still serve a special purpose. That’s really uplifting.

Mike Solomon, RiP, 1983  postcard with china marker
Mike Solomon, RiP, 1983 postcard with china marker

You began as a painter and began making sculptures relatively recently. How did working with Chamberlain assist with the development of your sculpture– or did it?

Gestural Abstract Expressionism was always about energy made visible and John’s work was certainly the outcome of that too. Minimalism carried it along and I think of my sculpture as a refinement of those two movements. But my sculptures also refer to wave images. That recognizable symbol can be a way people “enter” the work, but hopefully they leave with more, with the idea that all things are the manifestation of an invisible energy. A “billow” is the perfect metaphor for energy in form, energy making form.

In 2005 I started working with nylon netting. I found I could make it take on shapes by building armatures for draping and stretching it. Then I would freeze the forms I found with fiberglass and resin and then cut and edit them once they were solidified. Leaving the grid visible shows the forces present in the forming of the shape, the change in the shape of each square, is the “tell” of the forces that made the shape. In this sense the work is 2d and 3d combined.

Panta Rhei, 2008
Mike Solomon, Panta Rhei, 2008

What are the biggest differences between Sarasota then and now?

Then it was small, intimate, dominated by nature with a small but special culture hovering inside. Now so-called civilization has dominated and nature is seen in the cracks between buildings. But now a greater variety of people come here. It’s not all retiring Mid Westerners and Canadians anymore. Now there are people from Italy, Asia, New York, California, Puerto Rico, Brazil, so it’s getting more diverse. There are younger people here now too. In a sense it’s like the days when my parents came after the war, younger people from elsewhere, looking to make a new life. I like a lot of Sarasota now as long as I don’t try to compare it physically with what was before. However there is still a long way to go as far as the economic and racial divide is concerned. That part hasn’t changed nearly enough.

What are the biggest differences between the visual arts in Sarasota from your young adulthood and now?

I think it is a lot better now. The Ringling College has become a nationally known entity, a real force in arts education and that is great for the community. And the Museum has finally found a balance too and is really working all its historical, modern and contemporary assets. I really like what has been done there in the past few years. And there are just more talented people around and a bigger and better audience. I mean I remember back in the 80s it was just a handful of us, David Stellin, Rik Tweed, Marsa Lazes and my wife Claudia, we were the whole of the young art scene. Now there’s way more and I hope it continues to progress.

Do you feel a relationship between your work and your father’s work?

Sure. Almost impossible for there not to be. Joan Altabe once pointed out that Syd was the romantic and I was the scientist…it’s kinda like that. I am a kind of aesthetic scientist.

Your work seems to always have a relationship with water-from your work with beeswax on paper, your China Marker drawings, to your current sculptures. Can you discuss the relationship in your work with the environment?

I grew up on Philippi Creek, then on Turtle Beach, and we were always at the beach on Long Island so water has always been a huge part of my life, to the extent that it has become a kind of language for me. One of my recent sculptures is called “panta rhei” that’s attributed to Heraclitus and translates to “everything is in flux”. He was dealing with the philosophical problem of putting one’s foot in the river…well, which river? Water can be a metaphor for more abstract concepts. Now of course, we are faced with what we’ve done to the environment and water is the main “tell” as we saw with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Those postcard / china marker works from the ‘80s were a bit prescient, no? – flooded communities and all. “The city is the world of the body, nature is the world of the soul.” That is from the Baha’i Teachings. So in wrecking the environment are we destroying “the world of the soul” ? For all the great art man makes nothing compares with even the slightest thing in nature, which is made by God. If our physical life is the mirror of our spiritual state then obviously, mankind has to find a different way to be. We’ve dominated the Earth, but now, if we want to survive, we have to reorient ourselves and become Earth’s protector. So in my opinion, the environmental issue is at heart, a spiritual one. If we can change on the inside, the outside will come to reflect it.

Engender, 2012
Mike Solomon, Engender, 2012

Please tell us about the direction you are going with your current work and where one might be able to view it.

New work I am doing is a kind of a “getting back to basics”. They are flat works but incorporate the resin I’ve used in sculpture. I am working with vertical and horizontal brush strokes in watercolor, painting them on sheets of rice paper then infusing the paper with resin, which makes it and the colors transparent. I add sheets with more marks, continuing to fuse them together with the resin so the effect is a build up of sheets with marks into multiple layers. Because of the translucent nature of the material, one can see the layers that were done first as well as the layers done later, so there is the history of the entire process with nothing really hidden – the element of time is visualized. In most two-dimensional work, the activity is on the surface. In these, it is in the depths, even though they are only about a ¼ inch deep. Also the new work just seem to have located itself as a kind of impressionism, impressionism without the specificity of place as they are simply works with aggregated, colored marks.

We just closed the show “Returning to The Mark” in Chelsea at Salomon Contemporary (no relation) of these new works and some of the sculptures from ‘08. Lots of great response; Paul Laster wrote a nice piece in Mike, Pollock-Krasner Director and art historian Helen Harrison wrote a very insightful essay. There was also a wonderful piece called Fragrance by Janet Goleas on So I was very happy with the response. Work is lined up for few group shows in New York and the Hamptons this coming spring and summer but I am actually hoping to spend more time down here so perhaps there will be the opportunity have an exhibition locally at some point. I still love Sarasota. Lots of wonderful friends.

Syd Fishing @ Estate of Syd Solomon
Syd Fishing @ Estate of Syd Solomon