Looking at the works of Michael Solomon in the current exhibition Native Shore at Alfstad& Contemporary gallery, you can see the inspiration provided by the colors, waves and horizons of the Gulf coast of Sarasota, where the artist spent most of his formative years. If you know the paintings of his father, Abstract Expressionist Syd Solomon, a longtime Sarasota artist-icon, you can find a natural connection between them as well.
But growing up surrounded by art and artists, as his parents, Syd and Annie, divided their time between their Siesta Key home/studio and one they owned in the Hamptons, was something of a mixed blessing for Solomon. “The environment I was in was filled with artists all the time, and I did take to it,” he recalls. “By the age of 15 I was pretty serious about painting. But I had all this permission, this freedom, to do anything I wanted, and it was like being on a boat in the ocean and not having a rudder.” While still a teen, he turned to the Bahá’i faith, and he says, “It gave me a rudder. And it helped me make the choice to be an artist.”
That religious decision, he admits, took his parents by surprise, even though they had been mostly secular Jews. “Syd was kind of upset, and asked, ‘Why don’t you want to be a Jew?’” Solomon says. “But [family friend and fellow artist] David Budd was there at the time, and he said, ‘Syd, they don’t drink, they don’t smoke, and they believe in education and equality.”’ So, upon reflection, his father agreed, “What could be so bad about that?”
Along with passions for music and surfing, visual art—and his faith—have filled Solomon’s existence ever since. But, as with any artist, it’s been a complex journey to the point in his career where he stands now, with works in the permanent collections of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Cantor Fitzgerald Collection in New York, the Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton and the Parrish Art Museum, among others, as well as the private collections of playwright Edward Albee, artist Dan Flavin, architect-artist Richard Meier and others.
“Syd [Solomon usually refers to his parents by their first names] taught me to do watercolors when I was 5, and I loved the technique, the freedom, the light,” he says. “It’s the hardest technique in the world to learn.” But Solomon the younger also wanted—and needed—to get away from the East Coast Abstract Expressionism represented by his father and his contemporaries.
Over the years, that led to working as a studio assistant for sculptor John Chamberlain (both in New York and in Sarasota), where the art of assemblage became crucial to Solomon’s art. “I just learned so much from him,” Solomon says, “that each unit had its own expression, each element its own beauty.” He also spent years as an assistant to famed collector and artist Alfonso Ossorio (also an assemblagist) in New York, meanwhile earning his bachelor’s of arts at the College of Creative Studios at the University of California Santa Barbara and a master’s of fine art degree at New York’s Hunter College. His diverse interests in art history, curating, and the business of art, as well as his studio work, have been important facets to his career.
With Native Shore, Solomon says, “I’ve had a kind of Homeric return to Sarasota, after a Forrest Gump life in art.” Living here most of the year now (partly to be with his 99-year-old mother, Annie), he has the “sense of coming back to something,” he says, “but with everything I’ve learned. It’s a return not only physically, but spiritually, a return to the light here, which is different from the light in the Hamptons. It’s a very bright place, with such extraordinary skies and water, and such a flatness to the horizon. It’s very hard to paint, but the colors here are built into me.”
On view at the Alfstad gallery, through April 14, are five large-scale paintings and some medium-sized ones by Solomon, along with prints on mylar of his horizontal stripe images and some assemblages. Solomon works on his creations in a studio-warehouse on Clark Road, where he says he has “the best studio light ever.”
In all of the work, Solomon says he wants to “register a certain feeling that reflects global experience, while working toward the horizon, where the lines keep changing, keep moving. It’s interesting for me to come back to my hometown. I love being in Sarasota and there are amazing people here, and a lot of vitality.”
In addition to the current Sarasota exhibition, Solomon has a solo show coming up in September at the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, South Carolina. To see more of his art, visit mikesolomon.com.