artworldArt Business
Friday, February 7th, 2014

The Art World Was Her Stage: Holly Solomon, Actress, Collector, Dealer Extraordinaire

Hooray for Hollywood at Pavel Zoubok Gallery and Mixed Greens

January 9 to February 8, 2014
531 West 26th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
Mixed Greens: First Floor, 212 331 8888
Zoubok: Second Floor, 212-675-7490

Ned Smyth, Portrait of Holly, 1983. Mosaic and cement, ?37 × 49 inches.  Courtesy of Mixed Greens
Ned Smyth, Portrait of Holly, 1983. Mosaic and cement, ?37 × 49 inches. Courtesy of Mixed Greens

Co-presented and co-organized by Pavel Zoubok Gallery and its downstairs neighbor, Mixed Greens, this exhibition celebrates the effervescent and flamboyant swath that Holly Solomon cut through the art world. For some 30 years a succession of Manhattan galleries that she ran exhibited a stunningly eclectic roster of artists. Holly was, of course, a major queen bee, very frequently the subject of her artists as well as their promoter, agent, and mother confessor.

This stereophonic show, while only beginning to convey the width and exuberant breadth of her stylish career, reminds today’s industrial strength art world of her irrepressible energy.  She played a key role in ushering in stylistic pluralism, not to mention the return of content, recognition of emerging women artists, and the whole postmodern aesthetic that erupted in the mid-1970s. Holly and Horace Solomon, as a couple, helped break down the austere hegemony of minimalism, injecting some real fun into contemporary art.

While there now are and have been wonderful, intrepid woman art dealers, renegade individualists such as Holly (who was, after all, a classic Sarah Lawrence girl) are increasingly rare in the current celebrity climate of the art industry. Mixed Greens has installed many of the portraits of Holly, including Christo’s Wrapped Holly (1966), Arch Connelly’s Holly Sparkling (1988), Robert Kushner’s jazzy portrait of 1983 and Robert Mapplethorpe’s seductive triple photograph of 1976. Across the two venues there are individual pieces by more than 40 former gallery artists and artist friends, including Brad Davis’s Bird & Lotus Tondo #4, (1979), which always hung in Holly’s rose-patterned bedroom.

Judy Pfaff, Wallabout, 1986?Mixed media assemblage, 103 x 68 x 59 inches. Courtesy of Pavel Zoubok Gallery
Judy Pfaff, Wallabout, 1986?Mixed media assemblage, 103 x 68 x 59 inches. Courtesy of Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Holly’s youthful ambition was “to be a great actress,” as she emphatically told me in 1986.  That year we began our collaboration (with photographer John Hall) on the book, Living With Art, published in 1988, based on the then novel idea of examining the domestic environments of contemporary collectors who paired sophisticated understanding of furniture and the decorative arts with a passion for art collecting.  As to her thespian ambitions, the art world in fact became Holly’s stage. And she always had an audience. The galleries were basically a mom and pop store.  But Holly was after all, never a shopkeeper but an aspiring uptown socialite when she first arrived in Manhattan. Her early collectors were very often social friends. All it needed to get them to participate in our book was a phone call from Holly, who always talked fast, waving a lit cigarette in her right hand.

Holly’s own first contemporary art acquisition, she told me, was a Warhol Brillo Box bought from Eleanor Ward (an outspoken, pioneering female dealer of the previous generation who had opened the Stable Gallery in 1953). It had been delivered to the kitchen but Holly instructed that it go into the living room where she used as a coffee table in the Solomon’s Sutton Place apartment.

In short order she reupholstered Horace’s beloved 19th-century English and American furniture in day-glo pink velvets. Before long, a Christo wrapped storefront filled the apartment foyer. It would later be replaced by a wild Judy Pfaff exploded cubistic construction and then a Ned Smyth aquatic-themed screen. Led early on by Richard Bellamy, from whom she bought a Lucas Samaras on the installment plan, and then by Leo Castelli, the Solomons collected Pop Art in the 1960s. (Andy Warhol produced an iconic multiple portrait in pastel hues of Holly that not too long ago sold at Christie’s.)  Later, paintings and objects by Lichtenstein, Twombly, Rosenquist and Oldenburg were superseded by works from Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth, Dennis Oppenheim and Neil Jenney as downtown art dealer John GIbson expanded the Solomons’ knowledge of the avant-garde. The Solomons embraced conceptual art in the late 1960s.

Collecting was the pathway that would lead Holly to dealing. Aided by Horace’s moral and financial support (the money came from a New Jersey fortune based on a family-owned company making hair accessories) she evolved from aspiring actress to art collector in the 1960s, when contemporary art became the rage among a group of upwardly mobile Manhattanites that included the Sculls.  Back then the contemporary art world was really a rather small club.

The Solomon apartment (and later her smaller apartment on 79th Street) was always an extension of her pioneering, flamboyant taste and an example of how high art and décor could fearlessly co-exist. While the current shows give a glimpse of her wide-ranging eye, they cannot encompass the cheeky vitality of that apartment and also of the galleries as they evolved. Soon a shiny Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt centerpiece replaced the small fabric Oldenburg as a dining room table centerpiece and in the 1980s Patkin covered the dining room windows with a stunning, silvery grey rubber curtain (veil) embellished with fruit and flowers.. The Christo in the foyer gave way to a Ned Smyth aquatic-themed screen featuring lively fish, and later an ebullient Judy Pfaff construction. Doreen Gallo had transformed the kitchen, covering walls, countertops and furniture with a riot of mismatched colored and patterned tiles, glass fragments, and stones. The living room was a mad riot of patterns and colors created with artist made furniture and window dressing constructed by Brad Davis. And the frequent extravagantly generous parties at 57th Street were like family celebrations, with Holly’s artists as the family members.

Always the actress, Holly wrote  (and performed in) a couple of plays and by 1969 the couple had opened 98 Greene Street, a performance and project space designed and built out by a very young, radical Gordon Matta-Clark, only one year after Paula Cooper had opened one of the first of the loft galleries that put SoHo on the map. It was here that Robert Kushner staged his legendary fashion shows and others exhibited work and read poetry. Many of the 98 Greene Street artists formed the nucleus of the SoHo gallery the Solomons opened at 392 West Broadway six years later, among them tinsel king Lanigan-Schmidt, Mapplethorpe, Brad Davis, and Izhar Patkin. When the Solomons inaugurated the strategically located street level gallery with a very lively, diverse group show, it was action central. The opening night crowd–a kind of proto-flash mob–jammed the West Broadway sidewalk drinking art critic white wine and champagne till all hours.

Many of the artists Holly took under her wing since have carved out substantial careers, among them William Wegman, Robert Kushner, Laurie Anderson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Judy Pfaff, Robert Barry, Yvonne Jacquette, Kim MacConnell and Joe Zucker. She also showed Joseph Kosuth, Gordon Matta-Clark, Peter Hutchinson, Nam Juin Paik and Richard Nonas as well as Jed Bark, who was an early participant, went on to become one of the most sought-after framer to museums, galleries and high-end collectors.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, ?A Summer Beofre Vatican II - Tredentine Church (interior detail), 1976.?Cardboard, foil, Magic marker, plastic, printed material, staples, found objects and other media , 30 x 13 1/4 x 12 3/4. Courtesy of Pavel Zoubok Gallery
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, ?A Summer Beofre Vatican II – Tredentine Church (interior detail), 1976.?Cardboard, foil, Magic marker, plastic, printed material, staples, found objects and other media , 30 x 13 1/4 x 12 3/4. Courtesy of Pavel Zoubok Gallery

When there were very few women artist successfully showing at the time, Holly was quite proud to be a pioneer in championing work by women, including Laurie Anderson, Donna Dennis, Eliza Jimenez, Mary Heilmann, Yvonne Jaquette, Alexis Smith and Melissa Meyer. (She was a founding member of the woman’s organization, ARTable.) She is also still best known as the early doyenne of what came to be called “P & D,” as a new generation of artists renounced the austerities of conceptual art in favor of flamboyant color and shape referencing the patterns and decorations of fabrics, beading and cellophane.

After seven years on West Broadway, the Solomons moved the gallery uptown to 724 Fifth Avenue, a block south of 57th Street, where Holly once again was out front in her enthusiasm for the design and decorative arts. I recall, for example, her enthusiasm for Kim MacConnel’s splashily painted sofas and the Dufy’s designs that upholstered a set of French chairs she showed and the French provincial desk that she always sat behind in her small office (until some collector wanted to buy it) dressed in Chanel suits, her wrists dripping with her Seaman Schepps bracelets. Who else would have showed Izhar Patkin’s life-size gold-anodized aluminum horse and helmeted rider, Don Ouijute, Seguna Parte, (1989) in a toney midtown gallery? The last public gallery was a long, narrow space on Mercer Street.

Time inevitably tames radical art, incorporating it into the long-range history of culture. Some of the art Holly showed has since entered the mainstream but it was really new, fresh and even shocking forty years ago. And let me stress that Holly’s eye was always courageous. While she would have never considered herself an intellectual, her taste was almost always impeccable.