“What becomes a legend most?” the tagline of Blackglama’s ads used to ask, set against dramatic photo-portraits of famous entertainers decked out in the label’s high-priced mink coats. For fashionistas from a past, more fur-friendly time, the advertisements served as sexy-elegant emblems of unbridled fabulousness and top-of-the-heap chic.
With her blonde hair and charisma, her eye-catching style and knack for conjuring up a sense of glamour — real or imagined — just about anywhere, the New York art dealer Holly Solomon (1934–2002) probably would have made a memorable Blackglama model, too, joining the ranks of such stellar mannequins as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Maria Callas and Ray Charles. Maybe, though, Solomon’s name and fame were not big enough while she was alive to earn her a spot in such a pop-culture pantheon.
Still, starting in the late 1960s, in the New York art world and internationally, Solomon was for many a genuine star and maybe even, in Andy Warhol’s lexicon, a “superstar.” Speaking of legends, there’s the one about the time the Pop Master hauled Solomon to a Times Square photo booth, where she spent hours dropping coins in the machine to produce a big batch of four-picture strips. From some of those snaps, Warhol in 1966 produced a multi-panel Solomon portrait. In a 2001 interview, the would-be former ingenue remembered that experience, saying: “I went to the photo booth with Andy. […] I had, like, 25 dollars, 30 dollars worth of quarters, and he let me be, which was very smart, because I was an actress and what I did was Lee Strasberg exercises … ”
In retrospect, “Who was most likely to become a legend?” might be the best phrase to tag Solomon’s long, multifaceted career in an art world her achievements helped define. I don’t know if she ever wrapped herself in Blackglama pelts, but by the time she died, after having battled cancer and, in a 2001 auction, sold her iconic Warhol portrait, she had earned another, more intangible kind of trophy. For many of those who knew Solomon and worked closely with her, that prize remains their appreciation of the support, generosity and friendship she shared with them during her lifetime.
At the time of her death, the artist Alexis Smith, who had shown text-and-image works at Solomon’s gallery starting in the mid-1970s, told the Los Angeles Times: “Holly found a lot of young artists and gave them a chance, and I was one of them […] She had a lot of moxie.” Such aspects of Solomon’s legacy and enduring mystique were, those who knew her well say, hallmarks of both her personality and her way of doing business.
A hint of Solomon’s spirit — or at least of the catholic interests of this nice Jewish girl, née Hollis Dworkin, from Connecticut, the daughter of a Russian-born operator of a grocery-and-liquor store — wafts through Hooray for Hollywood!, an exhibition on view through February 8 at Pavel Zoubok Gallery and Mixed Greens. Featuring works by dozens of artists, it offers a tribute to the late dealer’s aesthetic sensibility. Among the artists with whom Solomon was associated, whose works are on display are Nicholas Africano, Laurie Anderson, Robert Barry, Ed Baynard, Christo, Tina Girouard, Valerie Jaudon, Robert Kushner, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Kim MacConnel, Gordon Matta-Clark, Nam June Paik, Judy Pfaff, Alexis Smith, and others.
Among its diverse offerings, the show includes Arch Connelly’s “Holly Sparkling” (1988), a bonbon made of glitter, sequins and a cut-up color photo of its subject teasingly tucked into a luscious, blue-green painted square; Donna Dennis’s “Tourist Cabin Porch Maine” (1976), a scaled-down, wood-and-fabric replica of a vernacular-architectural icon; Kushner’s “Wedding Dress” (1976), made with acrylic on cotton, Japanese silk, silk tassels and more; and Lanigan-Schmidt’s meticulously crafted “A Summer Before Vatican II (Tridentine Church)” (1976), in which this inventive master of the cast-off employed cardboard, metallic foil, printed matter and markers to create a dollhouse-size holy structure. Two of Africano’s drawings are on view, “Girl With Fruit” (1991, watercolor on paper), with its sputtering, delicate strokes that come together to form a figure under a tree, and “Dear Holly” (1991–92), a portrait on glass, in which simple dots of white paint form a luminous earrings-and-necklace set, mere wisps of pigment transformed into emblems of luxe.
The exhibition was co-organized by Pavel Zoubok, a dealer who specializes in collage and assemblage art, and who knew Solomon during the later years of her life, and by Heather Bhandari and Steven Sergiovanni of Mixed Greens. Sergiovanni worked as the director of Solomon’s gallery toward the end of her life and, after she died, helped organize her estate.
Solomon attended Vassar College and, later, Sarah Lawrence; she studied acting and art history. In 1954, she married Horace Solomon, a Yale graduate who worked for his family’s hairnet and bobby-pin company. The Solomons moved to Manhattan, where Holly studied at the Actors Studio and with Lee Strasberg, and auditioned for plays as “Hollis Belmont.” In the 1960s, the Solomons frequented Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery and Leo Castelli’s eponymous gallery, two important outposts that promoted Pop art. Among the couple’s earliest acquisitions: a Dan Flavin work and a Warhol Brillo box.
Erik La Prade, who is working on a biography of Holly Solomon, writes in Hooray for Hollywood!’s catalogue that, after her father died in 1964, she inherited $6000.00, an amount that allowed her to continue amassing art in earnest. As her profile rose, Solomon became the subject of portraits by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Christo (his plastic-wrapped drawing is on view in the current show), Warhol and others. In time, the Solomons branched out from Pop toward an interest in certain conceptual artists’ works and in such movements as Italy’s Arte Povera.
In 1969, the Solomons opened a performance-and-exhibition space at 98 Greene Street in SoHo, where poets, filmmakers and artists presented a range of innovative works. Of that undertaking, Holly Solomon said: “The theater no longer interested me, and I felt that it was about time I did something that I could do.” In 1975, she and Horace inaugurated the Holly Solomon Gallery on West Broadway, where their eclectic taste found a very visible showcase. (In the early 1980s, the gallery moved to 724 Fifth Avenue and in the 1990s back down to SoHo. Finally, for a very short period just before she died, Solomon ran her business out of a room in the Chelsea Hotel.)
Kushner came to New York from California in 1972 and worked at Food, a SoHo eatery founded by Gordon Matta-Clark, an artist who chopped up buildings with a chainsaw and who designed the Solomons’ 98 Greene Street space. Kushner told me last week: “I did a performance there for which I had made a costume using tree branches, antique gauze, raffia, used camera flash bulbs and other materials; when it was not being worn, it became a sculptural object. Holly acquired it, and when I delivered it to her home, she said, ‘I think it should go right there’ — you know, next to a Jasper Johns painting, a Warhol soup can and Warhol’s portrait of Holly. You can’t imagine how supportive she was, always telling artists, ‘Do it!’”
Kushner remembered that the Solomons “hosted dinner parties at which they always treated us artists generously, with respect.” This was a time when, as Zoubok recently recounted, “a kind of minimalist-reductivist formalism” was a strong tendency in contemporary art. However, Kushner pointed out, “With Holly, who was interested in whatever was new and different, I didn’t have to make excuses for using glitter.”
Indeed, Kushner, along with Lanigan-Schmidt, Kim MacConnel, Valerie Jaudon, Brad Davis, and certain other artists whose work Solomon championed, became key figures in the Pattern and Decoration movement. Their paintings and mixed-media creations, with their unabashedly pattern-rich designs, challenged geometric abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism’s orthodoxy of the cool. The P&D artists shared a deep interest in ornament, craft and non-Western decorative arts.
Zoubok said: “Holly once told me, ‘Honey, all art is decorative,’ and she was right. She appreciated my special interest area, too, and observed, ‘Collage is one of the most important things to have happened in art in the last 100 years.’ Some people probably regarded her gallery program as kitschy, but remember, she was an actress. Holly was smart. I firmly believe it takes a certain kind of intellect to create real glamour of the kind for which she was known.”
The now-retired Chicago and New York dealer Phyllis Kind, another famed art discoverer-promoter of Solomon’s generation, told me by telephone from her current home in San Francisco: “Holly was always exploring and experimenting, and when she found a focus, as she did with Pattern and Decoration, she really could make it happen. She was one of those dealers whose aesthetic judgments trickled down to us, the public. They came from the top.”
What “came from the top” was sometimes over the top, too; as Zoubok noted, “Holly’s apartment was a spectacular, art-filled environment, like her gallery. For her, there was no difference between the two spaces. She lived with and showed her artists’ works in her home, a practice that would influence later, younger dealers of the 1980s East Village scene, like Gracie Mansion, who opened her first ‘gallery’ in her own apartment’s bathroom.” Zoubok said: “Holly was the patron saint of that scene, with its appreciation of color, kitsch, camp, spectacle and fun.”
Mixed Greens’ Steven Sergiovanni said: “The way Holly hung shows was all about creating environments. She could even make installation art feel more ‘installationy.’” He and Zoubok agree that someone like Judy Pfaff was an emblematic Holly Solomon artist. Zoubok said: “Just look at the way her sculptures literally exploded and filled up the gallery space.”
In Hooray for Hollywood!’s catalogue, La Prade calls attention to the feminist movement, which was part of the backdrop against which Solomon launched her gallery and career. She opened the gallery, he notes, partly in an attempt to become “emotionally and financially independent.” He quotes a 1981 interview, in which Solomon said of that effort: “It contributed to my sense of being a capable human being, and as a woman, that it was okay to make a living and help others make a living … ”
Susan Graham, a sculptor who moved from Ohio to New York in 1992, met Solomon at the very end of the dealer’s life and was the only artist to have a solo exhibition at her Chelsea Hotel venue. In that show, Graham presented gun-shaped sculptures crafted from confectioner’s sugar. Their glossy surfaces resembled porcelain. “When I met Holly,” Graham told me, “she was in a difficult position; she was recently divorced, she had given up her last SoHo space because rents were so high, and her health was in decline. But she was still at it — in a hotel room! She had chosen to continue, to keep doing something different. For me, that kind of perseverance is part of her legacy.”
Sara Jo Romero and Lisa Schroeder operated galleries in Willamsburg and Chelsea before closing their last space in late 2012. Before teaming up with Schroeder, Romero had worked for Solomon during the last years of her life. “I was with her at the Chelsea Hotel and I saw how, even in limited circumstances, she kept on wanting to make discoveries and to be stimulated by art. That’s why she showed Susan’s work, because it was strange and powerful.”
Those are qualities that describe numerous works on view in Hooray for Hollywood!, from Richard Nonas’s untitled, wall-mounted sculpture from 1971, made from little more than brown paper folded and stuffed into a wooden frame, to Ned Smyth’s Pop-Pompeiian mosaic, “Portrait of Holly” (1983) and Graham’s small, black-and-white photo, “Tornado With Cloud” (1998) — a sugar-and-cotton confection shot to resemble a real, menacing twister sweeping down the plains.
If Hooray for Hollywood! makes the point that such works of art — and artifice — reflect the creativity and sensibility of the collector-dealer whose imagination they seized, it also suggests that her heyday was a time of effervescent experimentation and widespread inventive spirit, the likes of which cannot always be found in galleries nowadays. Subtly, too, this well-assembled survey proposes that it was out of a confluence of the zeitgeist and Solomon’s personal mojo that her legend evolved — a legend that already had been recognized while she was still alive and that may be more intriguing today than ever, now that she is gone.
Hooray for Hollywood! continues at Mixed Greens and Pavel Zoubok Gallery (both at 531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 8.