“At the brief ceremony opening the Downtown Whitney Museum, the new financial district branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art, David M. Solinger escorted Mayor Lindsay around the elegant modern gallery overlooking the new Uris building at 55 Water Street, while commenting on each artist’s place in American art. They passed before Raphael Soyer’s Office Girls then strolled over to gaze at de Kooning’s Door to the River. The mayor, paying much more than a ritual visit, appeared fascinated and amused by Solinger’s insights. Solinger has been the Whitney’s president since 1966 and was in the first group of non-Whitney trustees appointed to the board in 1961. A founder and president in 1957 of the supporting Friends of the Whitney… Solinger was in a happy mood at the new branch opening.
“The significance of this event is that a number of museums have talked about opening branches but the Whitney has done it!’ Mr. Solinger noted that the gallery will serve some 100,000 residents of the area and 500,000 or so workers, ‘who come in every day and depart again.”
SALLY HAMMOND, “DAILY CLOSEUP,” THE NEW YORK POST, 20 SEPTEMBER 1973
“Law is precise, it doesn’t give the imagination much sway. That’s where painting comes in.”
The trajectory of David M. Solinger’s life and work is emblematic of a generation to emerge after World War II that recognized the importance of the arts and cultural institutions as critical to the civic and social health, and future, of a community, whether a city, suburb or small town. David M. Solinger’s passion for the arts led to leadership roles and the realization of new and innovative approaches to museums and institutions across America, marking early transitions toward agency and access. Solinger’s boundless energy, his quiet but resolute diplomacy and his extraordinary prescience were the personal and professional qualities that led to his transformational roles in a multitude of organizations. His legacy resists categorization: reaching beyond his career in law, where he was among the first to specialize in advertising and media law and as legal representative to a number of leading artists; to his transformational work as President of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the first person from outside the Whitney family to hold this position; to his own exploration of art, where his personal confrontation with the challenges of painting brought him closer to the art and artists of his day; to his life-long generosity as a philanthropist, donating significant works to Cornell University (his alma mater), the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Smith College and others; and to today, where his singular eye for extraordinary pictures, his generosity, leadership and enduring vision – as collector, philanthropist and advocate – will continue to influence generations to come.
Born on February 17, 1906, at 95th Street and Broadway, David Solinger was the son of second-generation immigrants from Germany. His father, Morris D. Solinger, held a senior position in a wholesale meat business – an industry that did not appeal to David, who was keen to pursue a career that allowed for autonomy. His inherent drive and intellect led him to pursue higher education, first at Cornell University, and then Columbia Law School. For Solinger, law was a guiding force within his life and those around him, and one which shapes and protects the standards, values, and ethos of a rapidly evolving world.
His law practice was interrupted by the Second World War, however, and in 1942 Solinger was called to serve on the Eastern Defense Command. His innate skill as a communicator meant he was quickly enlisted to the public relations arm of the division, in which capacity he strategized a system for the dissemination of news in the event of an Atlantic Seaboard attack, with the sole aim of “informing the public accurately, and keeping them calm” (David M. Solinger: Oral History, Columbia University, 1989, 1-34).
Upon his return to New York in 1945, Solinger resumed his law practice with Solinger & Gordon, the firm he co-founded. As a lawyer, his work not only included representation of key retail titans, such as Gimbel-Saks (later Saks Fifth Avenue) — but also pioneering partnerships in the developing fields of radio and television, advertising, and art law. “Lawyers without a specialty were beginning to be rarer and rarer. So I combined that perception with the fact that communications were developing, that television, particularly, as a new medium was developing. I decided that I would do whatever was necessary to be thought of as someone who was an expert in this field” (Ibid., 2-65). His foresight would make him one of the first lawyers to develop a specialty in the industry, preceding the vast majority of his peers.
Solinger’s advocacy for and interest in art was born from a chance encounter, shortly after his return from duty, when a friend enrolled for Monday night art classes at YMHA at 92nd Street and encouraged Solinger to join him. Despite his busy and rapidly developing career in law, Solinger made a practice of carving out time to paint. He describes: “I became not a Sunday painter, but a summer painter. I would take my vacation by going off to paint, much to the amusement of some professional artists who couldn’t understand how it could be a vacation for me to spend six or eight or ten hours a day painting” (Ibid., 2-71). Cathartic and freeing, art offered Solinger a key counterweight to the demands of a practice in law. “Law is precise, it doesn’t give the imagination much sway,” he once said, “That’s where painting comes in.”
As Solinger’s love of painting grew, so too did his desire to understand how other painters addressed the same challenges he encountered. Beginning to visit galleries and museums, he quickly moved from admiring works upon gallery walls to a desire to live with art every day. After his first acquisition in 1949 of a painting by Hawaiian-born Reuben Tam – now in the collection of the Whitney Museum— from the legendary Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, Solinger was, in his own words, unstoppable: “It took a lot of courage for me to do that, because it meant that I was backing my own judgment in a sense. I was buying something that was unique. I was spending money that I had earned. And like a virus that gets into the blood stream, which can’t be cured with antibiotics but just has to run its course--it never did run its course, because I started seeing and buying other works of art” (Ibid., 1-45).
Collecting largely from the 1950s to the early 70s, Solinger found himself at the center of the art world in New York – a moment when New York itself was fast becoming the epicenter of literature, music, commerce, and the visual art world at large. From his frequent visits to museums and galleries, Solinger quickly forged lasting relationships with many of the most influential dealers and gallerists in the city – including Pierre Matisse, Samuel Kootz, Sidney Janis and Charles Egan – as well as with many of his favorite artists. He dined with Willem de Kooning and Jean Dubuffet, took painting classes from Hans Hofmann, spent summers in Provincetown with Hofmann and Franz Kline, and acted as legal representative for many others – John Marin, Louise Nevelson, and Robert Motherwell among them. Solinger was also very much engaged in the reemerging art climate in Paris, through his friendships with several gallerists, including Aimé Maeght, Michel Warren, Louis Carré, and the curator and critic Michel Tapié. As an early visitor from America to Alberto Giacometti’s Paris studio in 1950, Solinger was transfixed and obsessed with the artist and his work. Subsequently he acquired several works from Galerie Maeght beginning in 1951, and in 1962 gave Monumental Head, 1960, to the Museum of Modern Art.
One of these new friends, Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, encouraged Solinger’s appreciation for museums and public institutions. Having attended Franz Kline’s inaugural solo exhibition together, Barr suggested that Solinger acquire one of Kline’s paintings and donate it to the Museum. Solinger promptly agreed; Kline’s Chief is now in MoMA’s permanent collection and has become one of the artist’s best-known masterworks.
In 1956, another friend, Lloyd Goodrich, reached out with an invitation to join a meeting with others who were interested in the Whitney Museum. As a result of this meeting, Solinger organized the non-profit corporation “The Friends of the Whitney Museum;” an entirely novel idea for the time, and one which proved to be an extraordinary success.
“A little over a year ago, a group of quick-thinking patrons banded together to see how the Whitney’s problem could be solved. They swiftly organized a non-profit membership organization called Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art, ‘devoted to furthering the welfare and progress of contemporary art’ … David M. Solinger, lawyer and prominent collector (a long standing good amateur painter) was appointed president. He phrased the by-laws, quickened the detail work, and in no time, the Friends were operating full scale. Their aim was, and still is, to augment the Whitney’s meager allotment for the purchase of contemporary art.”
Within a decade, Solinger had risen to become President of the Whitney Museum – the first non-family member to hold this position. In this role, he steered the Whitney from a small private institution to the internationally acclaimed museum it is today, including planning and fundraising for the construction of the Marcel Breuer building at 75th Street and Madison Avenue. The now-iconic building established the Whitney as a taste-making force in the contemporary art scene, and under Solinger’s tutelage the museum built the reputation for driving innovation and challenging boundaries that continues to define it today.
In the course of all this, Solinger initiated the purchase of some of the museum’s greatest works. He recalls negotiating the acquisition of one masterpiece: “I called Bill de Kooning, whom I know…. [and] I met Donald Blinken at [his] studio. And as I entered…. I saw on the easel a picture that I immediately fell in love with and knew that this was the picture that the Museum had to have. [We had lunch at Luchow's and] in the course of the conversation, he told us he was very much interested in building a patrimony for his daughter, Lisa, then two or three years old. It was winter time, but the 1st of January had not yet arrived, and I suggested to him that he might consider giving the picture to Lisa in fractions over a three year period [and that] we would then buy her fractional interests [over a number of years]. That may have persuaded him to sell us the picture” (Ibid., 1-51-52). That work was de Kooning’s Door to the River.
Further to his pioneering work as President of the Whitney Museum, Solinger’s generosity – as patron, leader, and visionary benefactor – was expansive. As a long-serving board member of the American Federation of Arts, he supported institutions, artists, and collectors in organizing travelling exhibitions, with the goal of making art more accessible to all. Always devoted to his alma mater, Solinger invested significant time and energy in developing Cornell University’s collection, serving as founding Chair of the Johnson Museum’s Advisory Council, and generously loaning and donating to the collection there. David Solinger’s legacy of insight, character, generosity and humanity has assuredly shaped new generations of institutional leadership, continuing his mission to ensure museums are strong and stable institutions, accessible, inclusive, and reflect the art of their time.
“Mr. Solinger thinks of being president of the museum ‘as a job of being president of any institution. It’s a job of leadership. It’s incumbent upon a president to have imagination, to guide the destiny of an institution and, working with the trustees, to meet any challenges of the future’.”