Conversation With Syd
Editor's note: Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the acclaimed author of Slaughterhouse-Five, and Syd Solomon, the celebrated painter and Sarasota resident, were fast friends and mutual admirers for decades. So when Vonnegut traveled to Sarasota to speak at New College of Florida in 1986, it was only natural that Pam Daniel—then the editor of Clubhouse, the publication that would later become Sarasota Magazine—would reach out to Vonnegut to ask if him if he would write a story about Solomon.
At the time, Vonnegut was in the middle of work on what would become Bluebeard, a novel whose main character was based on Solomon, and he told the magazine he couldn't take on the assignment. "I'm going flat out on the novel, and so can't do the long piece Syd deserves," Vonnegut told Daniel. But he did give the magazine permission to publish an interview Vonnegut had done with Solomon in conjunction with an exhibition of Solomon's work at the Ringling Museum. The article eventually appeared in the February 1987 issue of Clubhouse, and is reproduced in full below.
"The only two people I have ever met who can talk about art honestly and clearly are Syd and Saul Steinberg," Vonnegut told Daniel. "Everybody else is bluffing."
He was a good friend, and we were about the same age, and we both had handlebar mustaches. And I liked the pictures he made very much, but they did not represent anything that I could name, so I could not imagine what his brains were like when he worked, and what he thought he was doing. So I went over to his house in East Hampton one afternoon with a tape recorder, and I asked him dumb questions instead of sophisticated questions about himself and his art. His name was Syd Solomon. He had a wife and two children — and two homes. His winter home was in Sarasota, Florida.
I asked him if it mattered whether a non-representational painter could draw or not. He replied that, for whatever reason, no important artist had yet appeared who could not draw. He himself had caught the attention of his teachers in high school in a mine town in Pennsylvania by drawing remarkably well. His father wasn't a miner. He ran a store.
"Who did you inherit your talent from?" I asked him.
"Nobody, as far as I know," he replied. "Both my parents came here from Hungary. My father's people were farmers who raised horses. They had vineyards, too. That's not a common background for European Jews."
"It probably wouldn't have occurred to them to try drawing," I said, "since they weren't in a city, never saw museums, never saw any drawing going on."
Syd agreed. "There were never any examples of good art in my home. There were the usual things a middle-class family might have," he said. "I tried to remember what the pictures were one time. I couldn't do it. After I was about 12 or 15, all the work on the walls was mine." He laughed. "That took care of that," he said.
I happened to believe that artistic talent was a fairly rare thing, and probably inherited, and I urged him to agree with me. He wouldn't do it.
"Talent in painting is simply intelligence," he said. "I don't have much interest in manual skills or other virtuoso matters. If everybody had the exact same equipment—manually, technically, the same education—the differences between us would still exist."
"What would the big difference be?" I said.
"Those who were more inventive would be the artists," he said. "The other guys would not."
"You won't talk about talent at all," I complained.
"It isn't a broad enough word," he said.
"What does it leave out?" I said.
"The worms of discontent," he said. “An artist has to be discontented. He has to be unsatisfied in some way."
"Would this include a discontent with being poor?" I said. He used to be very poor.
"That's certainly a factor," he said. "But when you're doing well as a postal clerk, when you have a certain assurance of middle class comforts, then you've eliminated that thing about money. After that, your discontent is only about your work, with other artists, with the art world. That discontent grows. It becomes a very combative thing."
"You seem full of life, certainly," I said, "but not especially combative. I assume you dislike some other people's paintings, although I've never heard you say so."
"Other painters sometimes disappoint me. I often disappoint myself," he said. He told me he had at least 100 photographic slides of paintings he had later obliterated. He smiled ruefully. "Some of 'em look awfully good," he said.
"Can you put into words what it is that disappoints you in a painting—anybody's painting?" I asked.
"A lack of tension," he said. "It's hard to say what tension is. It's something that holds. It makes a painting a valid aim for high art. I'm talking about forms and manners of painting that continue to hold our interest."
"That produce a strong emotional response?" I suggested.
"No," he said. "No painting is going to make you laugh or cry or shit in your pants."
"What should a good painting do?” I said.
"If I can tolerate a painting for a long time, then I know it's OK," he said.
"OK," I echoed.
He confirmed that he was satisfied with this two-letter description of a good painting. "OK," he said.
"Look," I said, "if some foundation were to pay you to spend the next year trying to put into words what you mean by tension, could you come up with some words?"
"I don't mean center of interest," he said. "That's for advertising, for applied art. It grabs you and leaves you."
"What do you mean?" I persisted.
"I would have to use what art historians have used, which is good examples," he said. "There is some universal ingredient in all important paintings which makes them masterful. But I could only describe what I found in each painting. I couldn't say what the universal ingredient was."
"Maybe the words to describe it don't exist," I said. "Maybe it's an ingredient that exists outside of words."
"I depend on my own intuition to tell me whether a painting is good or bad," he said. "But don't forget that my intuition is coupled with the fact that I have looked at over a million paintings in my lifetime."
There was a silence.
"I have developed some severe criteria," he said at last.
"Oh?" I said.
"I find very little that I like," he said.
There was another silence.
"Except for my own work," he said at last. "If we're talking straight, we have to say that an artist must have that kind of faith in his own work, or in the possibilities of his own work, or nothing much is going to happen."
I told him that this sort of egotism, usually a badly kept secret, was characteristic of most writers I knew. I said that writers secretly pitied each other for writing what they wrote.
"This is necessary," said Syd.
"Without meaning in the least to make light of your work," I said, "if I had to describe your paintings to people who had never seen them, I would have to say you were a kind of painter of bright weather."
"That's all right with me," he said.
"But a professional critic would have to say more than that. What more could a critic say that you would respect? Or are critics at all useful in the field of non-representational art?"
"We need them," said Syd.
"To do what?" I said.
"To create a liaison between the work and the public," he said. "Painting probably needs good critics more than any other art form."
"It's perhaps the only so-called kind of noble and intellectual pursuit that simply anybody can try out for himself at any time. A writer has to master a grammar and a vocabulary. A musician has to master a difficult set of symbols and unbelievably complicated tools. But anybody can be a painter. Thousands, or maybe millions of people are entitled to call themselves painters. Critics who have paid their dues—"
"How do they do that?" I interrupted.
"By looking at a lot of paintings," he said. "If they've paid their dues, they can tell the public what separates the rank amateur and the intentions of the amateur from the professional and the intentions of the professional."
"Have critics done well by you?" I asked.
"That's such a sticky area," he said. "Once, when John Canady was particularly unpopular with the abstract painters, when he was on The New York Times, he gave me a pretty good review. I didn't agree with it, but it was trying to be a good review. And the guys piled up on me. They said, 'Man, that is the kiss of death.' My answer to them was, 'Look, I'd rather have a good review than none at all.'"
"Have you done any reviewing yourself?" I asked.
"Some," he said. "The biggest thing I ever tried in that area was when I reviewed an exhibition of contemporary Italian painters, one of the first to come to this country after the Second World War."
"A war in which you served," I said.
"As a camouflage expert," he said.
"And what did you say about the Italian paintings?" I asked.
"Being a painter, I was almost pleading with people to go to the exhibit, to look at parts of paintings to see originality or the lack of originality. I tried to be an educated eye, tried to create, as I say, a liaison between the work and the man on the street. I tried to keep from using language that defeated that particular purpose of criticism," he said.
I confessed that a lot of art criticism had mystified me.
"It was terribly esoteric during the poet-critic period," he said. "That's pretty much over now, thank God. It was beautiful, but it made no sense. Sometimes it seemed to be an adequate way to describe the undescribable."
"But it wasn't," I said.
"That's right," he said. "Publishers of criticism were in a tight spot, of course, because there was a wave of abstract painting going on, and nobody could find a clear way to describe it in words. I've always thought that was one reason Pop Art got such a great big welcome the instant it appeared. The art press was delighted to have narrative art again, which is easy to talk about." He laughed.
"So Pop Art helped criticism to return to the area of journalism,” I said.
"Yeah," he said, "and it's better now. People learned a lesson."
"Which was—?" I said.
"It's dangerous to make criticism yet another art form in its own right," he said. "It can't be that and serve artists very well."
"Do you mind saying how many paintings you do a year?” I said.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I suppose, adding on drawings and studies and so on — I'm sure a hundred. Out of that hundred, I may do only 10 or 12 large, major works."
"Have you wrecked some of your major paintings by going too far?” I said.
"Yup," he said. "That old bromide about how you need somebody to stand behind you with a hammer, to hit you on the head when the painting is done, still applies. In my enthusiasm, I frequently carry an idea to a finish, and I mean a finish."
"Have you been able to rescue some of those paintings?" I said.
"Frequently," he said. "I usually have to change them considerably."
"You can't go back," I said.
"No," he said. "When things are lost, they're lost forever. You have to learn to live with that. That's one of the terrors of simplification, if you work in as juicy a technique as I do. I'll achieve some of the most delicious-looking effects, and I hate to give them up, but I often have to — for the sake of simplification. It's hard. Chances are, I'll have to eliminate what got me interested in the painting in the first place."
"Are you likely to have more than one canvas going at a time?" I said.
"Sometimes I'll put a painting aside—because I can't find a solution," he said. "I sometimes keep an unfinished work around for years."
"And then, one day, you find a way to finish it?" I said.
"Sometimes I get very excited," he said, "and I wonder why I didn't see the solution before. It's suddenly so simple."
"Syd—," I said, "please tell me how you know when a painting is done."
"That is a mystery," he said.
"Then tell me what painters think they are doing," I said. "Where do their responses come from and what are they responding to?"
"That is the biggest mystery," he said. "It's strange that such an ancient, almost worn-out idea should still be so alive. The world is still captivated with men who make marks on things. It's such an antediluvian absurdity that men are still stretching canvases and making marks on them, even at a time when we should have artistic colic, with so many images demanding our attention each day."
"Maybe all the bad images increase our hunger for the very rare images which have the indescribable quality you call tension," I suggested, "for pictures painted by intelligent, inventive painters who are eaten up by the worms of discontent."
"The people who have that hunger are almost as rare as the painters who can satisfy it," he said. "A very small fraction of the money spent on art each year goes toward buying anything I would call masterful."
"Who are the hungry people?" I asked.
"People who have paid their dues," he said.
"By looking at a million pictures," I said.
"That's right," he said.
"Have you in your enthusiasm, and eaten by worms of discontent, ever wrecked a painting your wife was crazy about?" I said.
"Frequently," he said.
"What does she say?" I said.
"She weeps," he said.
I turned off the tape recorder. We went out and played some bocce on his lawn. We had a drink, and then I went home and I typed this up.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was the author of Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five and many other novels.