A Life in Artworks

Carl Solway has rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s most influential artists

May 19, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Right now, the Carl Solway Gallery has a show important to its remarkable history. Works from the Gallery Collection features pieces by more than 60 major artists who, as the 75-year-old Solway puts it, mostly are “people of my generation or close to it.”

But what’s most impressive about the show, which features prints as well as other objects, is the close relationship Solway has had with many of the featured artists in the show, especially three of the most visionary and influential conceptual thinkers of our time: John Cage, Buckminster Fuller and Nam June Paik.

(Others in the show include Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Ann Hamilton, Judy Pfaff, Robert Rauschenberg, Pat Steir, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann.)

In his 48 years of having a Cincinnati gallery, Solway has had a profound impact not just on the city’s contemporary art scene but the nation’s.

“Carl has been a beacon of contemporary art all his life, and he’s a very fine person,” Alice Weston, the Cincinnati arts patron, says.

Solway is a bit more modest about his accomplishments.

“I don’t know who wrote this; it’s not my original comment: ‘Every good art dealer fights for their own generation,’ ” Solway explains, sitting at a table in the upstairs office of his gallery on Findlay Street in the West End. “That’s the history of art dealing. The Pop Art people are my generation. The Minimalists and Conceptualists are my generation. I did fight for them early on and have been rewarded for that.”

“Rewarded” in this case has several meanings. There is the material reward of a life well spent. Solway cuts a distinguished figure with his ever-so-slightly tousled white hair, sparkling eyes and easy laugh, not to mention his smart taste in dress — crisp blue-denim long-sleeve shirt and navy slacks during a recent interview. His office displays work by favorite artists.

And there is also the intellectual reward.

Solway garnered wisdom first-hand from Cage, Fuller and Paik and, in return, helped them find new audiences (and income) for their work at opportune times in their careers.

“Those three were the framework of my history,” he says. “I’m really incredibly blessed to have those connections.”

That isn’t all, however, that Solway has accomplished. His and Jack Boulton’s Urban Walls “non-profit community improvement project” of the mid-1970s was a groundbreaking foray for Cincinnati in progressive public art. He arranged for Cincinnati Art Museum to commission Andy Warhol’s portrait of Pete Rose on the occasion of the Reds’ star’s breaking of Ty Cobb’s hit record in 1985. He also helped Dayton Art Institute acquire the Ponderosa Collection of contemporary art when the Dayton-based restaurant chain was about to auction it off.

His gallery has been prescient in showing women artists, too. Back in 1984, Pfaff curated a group exhibition of women sculptors at Solway’s then-downtown gallery, which also featured Ann Hamilton. Solway is immensely proud that those two went on to win MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants, as have two other women whose work he presented early on, Aminah Robinson and Joan Snyder.

In town working on a show opening Saturday at the Contemporary Arts Center, Pat Steir took a moment to reflect on Solway’s impact as an art dealer. (He first showed her work in 1973 and did so most recently in 2008.)

“Carl goes deep into the art he works with,” she says. “He cares about the people, too — the art and the people as one. He goes for the groundbreaking, not the ordinary — I think that’s his true obsession. He’s a great person and a great friend.”

In a way, Solway’s art career started accidentally. He was already at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business — married and expecting the first of three children — when his stepfather, Harry Solway, died in 1956. He was the only son, so his help was needed in Cincinnati to decide about the family business — Solway Furniture Co., at Elder and Elm streets in Findlay Market and not far from where his gallery is now. By the time he was able to settle that, “I was 26 years old, had three children and no job,” he says, laughing.

His first wife, Gail, who had taken courses at Philadelphia’s Museum School of Art, had the idea for a gallery. “I wanted something creative to do,” Gail Forberg explains today.

Actually, turning reflective, Solway wonders if maybe he was destined from boyhood to be an art dealer because he collected stamps as a child: “I remember very vividly looking at a one-franc stamp and a two-franc stamp, with the identical image of a woman but different colors,” he says. “I think of that as my introduction to art, because I was looking at the images.”

Be that as it may, the first few years of being a Cincinnati art dealer weren’t promising.

“We started very modestly with a gallery called Flair,” he recalls. “We had an 800-squarefoot space at Fifth and Race — it was where Saks Fifth Avenue is right now. We were showing some local artists and that was a complete dismal failure.” (Flair House Galleries also sold contemporary accessories and did framing.)

But then he discovered the world of Modern Masters prints through a tip. The way it worked was dealers would buy limited-edition prints at auction in Switzerland and Germany, where material by the likes of Picasso, Chagall, Klee and Matisse were plentiful. In Midwestern cities like Cincinnati, there were people in the 1960s with money and a sense of economic security ready to buy good yet safe Modern art.

“Cincinnati was ready to deal with that, and that helped support the gallery in those early years,” Solway says.

But things changed dramatically when experimental-music composer John Cage entered Solway’s life. Actually, to call Cage, who died in 1992 at age 79, merely a composer doesn’t do justice to his legacy — Cage saw the potential for art in everything. And he believed any sound could be shaped into music. Even silence could be heard like music. One of Cage’s most famous compositions was “4’ 33,” in which the instrument (any instrument) doesn’t make a sound for four minutes and 33 seconds.

In the 1967-68 school year, Cincinnati arts patrons Alice and the late Harris Weston sponsored Cage’s stay at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music as a composer-in-residence. And Cage would visit Solway’s gallery, which by then had moved to Fourth Street because of urban renewal, and play chess with him.

“We became friends,” Solway says. “And John said to me one day, ‘What are you doing, showing all these people who are dead? Why aren’t you working with artists of your own times? Come to New York and I’ll introduce you to some of my friends.’ ” Cage, it should be pointed out, had very influential friends — his life partner was choreographer Merce Cunningham; artist Robert Rauschenberg was a close acquaintance.

At the same time, Mrs. Weston suggested Cage try his hand at visual art. Cage agreed — although he had never done it before — and Solway ended up publishing Cage’s “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,” a limitededition tribute to the recently deceased Marcel Duchamp. It’s an important work, now in the collection of many museums, including Cincinnati’s, because it so imaginatively encapsulates Cage’s belief in the liberating role of chance in art … and life.

Working off the fact the Chinese I Ching contains 64 hexagrams (oracular statements), Cage rolled dice and used the I Ching to devise an artwork that — in complete-set form — contained 64 silk-screened Plexiglas pieces, or “plexigrams,” with individualized word fragments and images.

Solway published Cage’s “Marcel” in an edition of roughly 125 “objects.” (A single object contained eight plexigrams and two lithographs.)

“That was a life-transformative experience for me, both in terms of my personal life and in terms of my career,” Solway says. “It was a wonderful project. I traveled all over Europe trying to sell it — (the objects) were selling for $200 apiece in those days. And I still have some inventory remaining.” He laughs. “It’s my old-age pension.”

Solway and his wife divorced in 1972. Also in the 1970s, the gallery took his name. For awhile, he operated two Fourth Street galleries in Cincinnati – one under his own name, and one called Not in New York, before eventually consolidating operations in the Not in New York space on West Fourth between Plum and Central avenues. He also shared a space in New York’s SoHo arts district with galleries from Chicago and San Francisco.

Because of his ongoing relationship with Cage, Solway had cachet with other major artists, both of Cage’s generation and those younger who admired him. One person Cage suggested Solway work with was the architect/ inventor/designer Buckminster Fuller, originator of the term “Spaceship Earth,” whose geodesic-domed U.S. pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67 had fascinated the world.

So in 1973, when the state of Ohio hired Solway to find a sculpture for a new 44-story government office building in Columbus, he thought of Fuller.

“The building had a huge atrium space with a balcony around it and the tenant was the Supreme Court of Ohio,” Solway says. “One night I had this epiphany and thought the right person to do the atrium sculpture was Fuller. I had never met him. I wrote a letter to him and said, ‘The reason I want you to do this is because your work is about the laws of nature and what a nice juxtaposition that would be in contrast to the Supreme Court, which is concerned with laws of man.’ And Fuller wrote back and said he was inspired by the idea and would do it.”

For the site, Fuller revived an idea for a motor-driven stainless-steel sculpture to hang from the ceiling and open and close like a flower.

“I was beside myself I would be able to commission a sculpture by Buckminster Fuller,” Solway says. But the state turned it down and demanded Solway hire an Ohio artist.

“That was complete anathema to Fuller, who believed in one world and that nationalism was the cause of all problems,” Solway recalls.

But Solway did suggest Fuller work with him to fabricate an edition of 25 smaller-scale (and non-motorized) versions of the piece. That started a friendship as well as a working relationship that has lasted even after Fuller’s death in 1983 at age 87. In 1981, Solway published a portfolio of Fuller’s most famous inventions and later a version of Fuller’s patented “Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map.”

He has also acquired the rights to produce as art objects up to 125 of Fuller’s prototype “Dymaxion Rowing Needle,” a one-person rowing machine built on two catamaran-style fiberglass hulls so it won’t flip over. A Solway-produced version was a highlight of last year’s traveling Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe museum show.

Meanwhile, in 1976 Solway met the woman who would become his second wife and — for many years, until her retirement — his gallery administrator. He and Elizabeth (Lizi), whose background was in teaching and running schools, first went on a blind date to the Serpentine Wall during the Bicentennial celebration. At the time, she was living in Circleville. They married in 1978 but saw each other plenty in the time between. And for her it was a chance to learn about art.

Lizi Solway remembers going to an art show in Columbus with a friend during that period.

“I’d probably known Carl for a year and seen a lot of art with him,” she says. “There must have been 3,000 works of art there, many small. We walked in the main room and I looked across and saw a piece that I knew was something Carl would like. And I went to it and saw it was Best in Show. That kind of tells you how my eye was being trained. I had seen a lot and knew what in his mind was good.”

Solway’s third major long-term relationship with an artist started in the 1980s with South Korean-born Nam June Paik, a pioneering video artist who — like Cage and Fuller — had the qualities of a philosopher. He popularized the term “superhighway” to describe the global possibilities of telecommunications.

Paik — mixing old television sets, video imagery and sound — had been influential since the 1960s. One of his most crucial early works was “TV Cello,” in which collaborator Charlotte Moorman played a cello comprised of three TV screens — one showed her live performance, another taped footage of musicians playing cello and on a third a TV show.

But, as Solway tells it, artists in the 1980s needed money and had problems with the quality of materials. After seeing Paik’s 1982 retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum, Solway arranged an introduction. The artist, also a classically trained pianist with a keen interest in the avant-garde, was impressed by Solway’s Cage connections.

“I asked, ‘How can I help you,” Solway says. “He said, ‘I need money because I’m doing the first worldwide live satellite program.’ So I loaned him $25,000, which I could barely afford to do, with the promise he would do some project for us later. He promised.”

That program, meant to show how television could make the world a global village, did happen. It was called Good Morning Mr. Orwell and was broadcast between major world cities on, fittingly, Jan. 1, 1984. Now considered a milestone event in arts broadcasting, Paik meant it as a statement of optimism about the future. It featured such artists as Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Merce Cunningham, Charlotte Moorman, Oingo Boingo and Cage participating on three continents.

Afterward, Solway and a small Cincinnati crew started work fabricating Paik’s Video Flags, three “moving paintings” known individually as “X,” “Y” and “Z,” each featuring 84 television monitors showing video images of stars and stripes. Solway bought 252 TV sets straight from a distributor to supply Paik with the needed raw material.

“We showed ‘Flag X’ at the Chicago Art Fair in 1984 and sold it for $65,000 to Detroit Institute of Arts,” Solway says. “We spent $20,000 to build it and Nam June made $20,000. A week or two later, after the fair, Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought ‘Flag Y,’ and subsequently Chase Manhattan Bank bought ‘Flag Z.’ In a matter of a couple months, he made $60,000 and was shocked. He thought, ‘Maybe this is an OK thing to do with Carl Solway — let him fabricate things for me.”

Eventually, Solway and his crew — including Cincinnati artist Mark Patsfall in the critical role of shop superintendent — spent much of their time working with Paik on video sculptures, including his popular “robot” series. They traveled around the world installing them. Solway bought an old multistory building in the West End for that and moved his gallery there to consolidate.

“It dramatically changed the complexion of the gallery and radically changed the financial image,” Solway says. “We’re suddenly selling all over the world and selling to museums and into production, and I’m not in Cincinnati very much.”

Paik died at age 73 in 2006 after having a stroke 10 years earlier. As business slowed with Paik’s illness and eventual death, Solway renewed his commitment to his Cincinnati gallery and the community itself. He went on the CAC’s board, joining at former Director Charles Desmarais’ request after the museum moved to its new Zaha Hadid-designed downtown building in 2003.

He also keeps up with his sons, none of whom are in Cincinnati. Arthur is director of James Cohan Gallery in Shanghai, Michael has SolwayJones Gallery in Los Angeles and Ned sells collectible jewelry.

And when he wants some exercise away from his Mount Adams home, Solway keeps a Fuller-designed Dymaxion Rowing Needle at a weekend house on Lake Lorelei in Brown County.

“Even when people are running past me in jet skis, creating wake to see if they can tip me over, it doesn’t,” he says. “It’s very stable.”