The David M. Solinger Collection

By: John Elderfield

Introducing an exhibition of The David M. Solinger Collection in 2002, art historian Robert Rosenblum began by distinguishing four kinds of private collections: one, an anthology of big names like a miniature museum; one, a collection of contemporary art that attempted to be as up-to-date as possible; one that was simply quirky, the product purely of personal enthusiasm, indifferent to differences of good and bad; and one embedded in a passion for a particular moment in history. Rosenblum correctly insisted that David Solinger’s collection was of this fourth kind. I will speak here mainly on this subject; but first I want to mention a fifth kind: collections put together by artists.

A selection of works pictured in the Solinger apartment, New York. Photo © Visko Hatfield

Solinger studied painting at the Art Students League in New York City prior to buying his first painting, in 1948—a modest canvas by the Hawaiian-American Reuben Tam at the Halpern Gallery in New York. He continued to paint even as his law practice increased and as he continued to collect. Two great late-nineteenth-century painters, Gustave Caillebotte and Edgar Degas, put together extraordinary collections. Solinger was not in their league as either painter or collector, but he brought his amateur painter’s eye to his collecting. The great German Renaissance painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer said that only artists can judge art; for all others it is a foreign language. If that is true, then it is a foreign language that has to be learned by those who are not artists, which means that they too should be spending more time in front of paintings than reading books about them.

I do not doubt for a moment that Solinger read as well as looked; his collection speaks of his knowledge. But it speaks even more of the trust he developed in his judgments based upon his own, continual looking at works of art. As early as 1956, he told the Cornell Daily Sun that he was dedicating six hours a week, roughly a full workday, to looking at paintings. And some twenty years later, in 1977, he told Whitney Museum of American Art curator Paul Cummings that to maintain your level of connoisseurship you have to see a lot of pictures.

David M. Solinger (center) with Alan H. Temple (left) and B.H. Friedman (right), members of the Whitney Campaign Planning and Building Committees, circa 1960s

Evidence of his trust in his own connoisseurship may be quantified: fewer than a half-dozen of the twenty-three works recorded in this catalogue had any prior reputation that may have influenced Solinger to acquire them, except that they came from trustworthy dealers. Three of his four works by Paul Klee had already been shown in early exhibitions, but the first that he purchased, from the Galerie Rosengart in Lucerne in 1951, had no prior public history. One of the two pictures by Joan Miró he bought that same year from the Galerie Maeght in Paris, had been published six years earlier in a short essay by the poet Tristan Tzara in Cahiers d’Art. And the final 1963 acquisition in this group of works, the Hans Arp sculpture of 1936, had been in the celebrated collection of David Thompson.

Cover of the exhibition catalogue for Pablo Picasso, 1950-1953, at Curt Valentin Gallery, New York, 1953.

Solinger was not yet interested in art when the great 1927 canvas by Pablo Picasso, which he acquired in 1958, had been exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art some twenty years earlier, but it is likely that Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who sold it to him, told him of that fact. The unique 1950 Willem de Kooning collage he bought from Sidney Janis in 1952 had been illustrated the previous year in Thomas B. Hess’s book, Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase, however, Solinger had been looking at de Koonings since the artist’s first show at New York’s Charles Egan Gallery in 1948. In the main, then, he trusted solely his own judgment and that of the some-dozen dealers from whom he bought these two dozen works. Doing so, he was ahead of his time in his attraction to works by painters who would subsequently be acknowledged as of pivotal importance to mid-century art, or influential upon art of that period.

It is a fascinating coincidence that it was in the same year that he bought his first, hardly controversial canvas that he visited the Charles Egan Gallery and was so overwhelmed by de Kooning’s utterly unfamiliar paintings that he long remembered having stayed there the whole day. It seems fair to say that the experience shaped what his collection would come to comprise: in the main, a mid-century collection of works of the 1940s and 1950s. Only eight of the twenty-three works recorded here were made prior to this: the five Klees, the Arp, the Picasso, and one of his three works by Fernand Léger. He admired these as predecessors, as he did in a different way the works of art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, which he began to collect in the mid-1950s. He was not alone in sensing an affinity between the forcefulness of such works and the striking material presence of some contemporary painting and sculpture; and one of his most admired artists, Jean Dubuffet, had famously adopted for his own work the disparaging description of “primitive,” then commonly used for pre-classic sculptures outside the orbit of Western art.

A selection of works pictured in the Solinger apartment, New York, circa 1960s.

The critic Clement Greenberg, who had described de Kooning’s 1948 exhibition as “magnificent” in the April issue of The Nation, wrote a year later of Dubuffet’s self-description as “primitive” in the March 1949 issue of Partisan Review. However, he said that in creating what the artist also called “art brut” (“raw art”), “Dubuffet borrowed from Klee the key to unlock the spontaneity in himself.” I do not know whether Solinger followed Greenberg’s writings in his admiration of de Kooning, Dubuffet, and Klee, but he was building such associations in defining his own taste for art which was challenging because it seemed raw and spontaneous. It is likely that he saw the 1950 exhibition at New York’s Sidney Janis Gallery of Young Painters in the U.S. and France, with a de Kooning and a Dubuffet juxtaposed on one of its walls. The dealer Leo Castelli, given his European contacts, had helped Janis to organize the exhibition, but supposedly said that “the show was a bit silly, and purists like Charles Egan, the dealer who handled de Kooning, took a very critical view. It proved one thing, however, that there really was no connection, except on a very superficial level, between European and American painting.” Clearly, Solinger did not agree.

Left: Cover of the exhibition catalogue, Ancient Art in Middle America, The Stable Gallery, New York, 1956

Right: Exhibition announcement for Jean Dubuffet: Recent Paintings, Collages & Drawings, Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York, 1954

But before further considering his taste, I should mention a major work that he brought home and then parted with: Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist, one of the enormous horizontals in the artist’s late-1950 exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery. As explained in the catalogue of the 2002 exhibition mentioned above, “in the middle of the night he heard a terrible cracking sound. The huge Pollock had pulled the wall down, itself miraculously unharmed. Lavender Mist now hangs on sturdier walls at the National Gallery.”

Connoisseurs of missed opportunities will recall how Henry Pearlman likewise gave up Henri Matisse’s huge Bathers by a River, which went to the Art Institute of Chicago. Still, in both cases, one enormous canvas in a collection of easel paintings would have depreciated the power and the kinship of all the rest. And certainly challenged the budget. As Solinger drolly observed in his conversation with Cummings, “Paintings, like strawberries, should be bought when they’re plentiful and cheap.”

A selection of works pictured in the Solinger apartment, New York. Photo © Visko Hatfield

He had the perception to buy the right ones when they were. His perception was that the finest mid-century paintings were those in which the marked, tactile surface was prominent. Effectively, his taste re-engaged what had become prominent a century earlier, when the painter Eugène Delacroix complained of the early nineteenth-century Neo-Classical artist Jacques-Louis David for his “affectation of contempt for the material means.” David’s and his follower’s paintings, he said, “lack this precious quality without which the rest is imperfect and almost useless… the charm [of] the worker’s hand.” David was not a painter “whose execution rises to equality with his idea…. In Davidian painting, the epidermis is everywhere lacking.” These words, which Delacroix wrote in his journal on several days of January 1857, are in the language of Romanticism, not of modernism; yet their message was influential upon what had happened later in the nineteenth century, then on what had been growing in importance in the decade prior to 1957. Solinger would have agreed with Delacroix. In 1956, he told a reporter for the Cornell Daily Sun that “subject matter doesn’t matter,” and insisted to Cummings that art was a visual not an intellectual experience. Therefore, neither illusionistic painting, be it realistic or surrealistic, nor refined geometric abstraction, both of which had gained such attention through the 1930s, were of interest to him. What he admired was the work of a painter “whose execution rises in equality with his idea,” and came to believe that de Kooning was the greatest American artist of the twentieth century, since he, more fully than anyone else, had revived such emphasis on the material means of painting.

A selection of works pictured in the Solinger apartment, New York. Photo © Visko Hatfield

As Rosenblum pointed out, “Solinger’s taste was clearly for surfaces that were rough-hewn and for emotions that still seem heated and unresolved.” However, the paintings by de Kooning that so impressed him in 1948 were composed, as Greenberg observed, of thin paint spread smoothly that “identifies the physical picture plane with an emphasis other painters achieve only by clotted pigment.” And the great 1950 de Kooning collage in the Solinger Collection was composed of multiple pieces of paper with thin paint spread smoothly across them. Those who saw de Kooning at work have described how he would make drawings, scatter them on top of each other; make a drawing from the result; reverse it, tear it in half; recompose it and make a drawing of that—then move into color, composing with planes, scattering, overlapping, and adjusting them until he was satisfied. His next and usually final step was to move into painting, replacing the paper planes as he did so. The Solinger work is a rare example of the extraordinary result when he did not take that final step: it comprises a sandwich of thin layers of color held together by thumb tacks within which what de Kooning called “slipping glimpses” of images appear and disappear as we look at it, notably the staring eyes in the top-left corner.

David M. Solinger at (left) Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and (right) Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, both 1981
Cover of the exhibition catalogue, Paul Klee: aquarelles et dessins, Berggruen & Cie, 1953.

True, many other works in the Solinger Collection reveal clotted pigment—or better, what Delacroix nicely described as an epidermis, a skin of paint, whose tactility is so accentuated as to make it seem rough-hewn. Such works include, most conspicuously, two of the Dubuffets in which sand is mixed into the paint; and, more programmatically, the wall-like Composition of Nicolas de Staël, a work that Solinger apparently bought in fifteen seconds, and which recalls one of Paul Cezanne’s friends, Antony Valabrègue’s description of his early tactile works as “mason’s painting.” Viewers may find allusions to built surfaces in works by other French artists in the collection: to a carpentry screen in Pierre Soulages’s Peinture 92 x 65 cm. 7 fevrier 1954, and to a woven, partially transparent cloth in Maria Helena da Silva’s untitled composition, a work with the delicacy of Solinger’s own paintings. And his own interest in making works on paper that glow with an internal light unquestionably influenced—and was influenced by—his enthusiasm for Klee.

The gracefulness of his Klees seemed to be a necessary corollary to the rawness of his Dubuffets; yet Klee also spoke to Solinger’s interest in the seemingly unschooled quality that Dubuffet had learned from Klee. And he could find imagery in Klee’s amazing inventiveness that associated it with works as different as those by Arp, Baziotes, and Miró. Moreover, Solinger’s adeptness in recognizing likenesses in unlike artists extended to seeing Arp’s famous characterization of his sculptures as “concretions”—signifying the natural process of coagulation and thickening in the natural world— as associating a work as elegant as his Fruit méchant with the densest of the Dubuffets in the collection. It was not difficult to see that a Dubuffet and a Giacometti had a lot in common; nor that a Calder was akin to a Miró. However, it took imagination to see that Mathieu’s Camp de Carthage would, for all its vehemence, be a good fit with Miró’s Femme, étoiles; and that Fernand Léger’s description, recorded in the 2020 catalogue, of a “personification of the enlarged detail” and “individualization of the fragment” in his packed compositions belonged to a modernism that included the 1950 collage by de Kooning.

A selection of works pictured in the Solinger apartment, New York. Photo © Visko Hatfield

Nonetheless, while Léger fully deserves his place as an admired predecessor in this mid-century collection, his earlier School of Paris status does set his work apart. This is also true of what may justly be called the most extraordinary painting that Solinger bought, Picasso’s 1927 Femme dans un fauteuil. It earns its thematic place in the collection as an image of raw power, yet it speaks louder than anything else. Solinger bought this in 1958 and then loaned it (perhaps that was a condition of the sale?) to the exhibition, Picasso: Five Master Works, which opened at the Kootz Gallery, New York, at the end of September of that year. We do not know whether he had been offered any of the three works in the exhibition that appear not to have been sold. If so, two were modeled in a vigorously three-dimensional manner, and the third was on the threshold of Surrealism. (The exhibition checklist is reproduced in the present catalogue.) Solinger’s painting was the earliest, the flattest, and most conspicuously on the threshold of figuration and abstraction; by far the most adventurous.

Checklist from the exhibition Picasso: Five Master Works, 1958, Kootz Gallery, New York, in which Solinger’s Femme dans un fauteuil was included

The Solinger family graciously agreed to loan me this work for the exhibition, Matisse-Picasso that I curated with colleagues in London, New York, and Paris in 2002-03. (They would similarly loan the de Kooning collage to my de Kooning. A Retrospective at MoMA in 2011, believing that David would have wanted to share his most important works when they had not been seen publicly for decades.) In the catalogue for Matisse-Picasso, my colleague Elizabeth Cowling, comparing Picasso’s canvas to Matisse’s contemporaneous paintings of odalisques, described it as “an act of pure travesty; a monstrous female of indeterminate, primal species in place of the iconic beautiful female nude… [one whose] dream may be a nightmare and she is screaming in terror.” When faced by so astonishingly aggressive a work in a private collection, which was rare, William S. Rubin, who led MoMA’s Department of Painting and Sculpture when I first joined the museum, would say to the collector, “It took courage to buy a work like this to live with.” It did; and, I venture to say, it will.

John Elderfield © 2022

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