We should be used to the fact that no significant visual-art event in the second half of the 20th century has happened here without some kind of connection to the gallerist Carl Solway.
That is the case with the Cincinnati Art Museum’s recent installation of Saul Steinberg’s “Mural of Cincinnati” in its newly renovated Schmidlapp Gallery, where it has swiftly become a fascinating highlight for visitors with its precisely and imaginatively drawn depictions of city scenes and buildings.
Commissioned by the owner of the then-new, innovatively Modernist Terrace Plaza Hotel, the mural had been installed on a wall in the hotel’s Skyline Room restaurant from 1948 until 1965, when it — and other Terrace Plaza artwork by Joan Miró and Alexander Calder — were given to the museum. Because of the mural’s 75-foot-length and wear and tear, the museum has struggled to find a hopefully permanent home for it until now. This is its first long-time installation since 1982.
“I remember Steinberg from 1948,” Solway says, during a tour of his current Saul Steinberg Prints: 1948-1996 show, which corresponds with the museum’s recent action. All of the prints in the show at Solway’s West End gallery come from the Saul Steinberg Foundation and were in the artist’s personal collection when he died in 1999. (All are for sale.)
“That’s when I saw the mural for the first time,” Solway says. “I was 13 years old — it was the year I was bar mitzvahed. My parents took me to the Skyline Room at the Terrace as celebration. It was the newest restaurant in town. Even as a child, I was overwhelmed by that mural. I thought it was so great.”
Solway’s interest in Steinberg, who was born in Romania and came to the U.S. in 1942 to escape anti-Semitic fascism, continued as he grew up. For one thing, his parents subscribed to The New Yorker, where Steinberg’s distinctively idiosyncratic and humorous drawings ran as memorable cover illustrations.
So when Solway and his first wife, Gail, started a gallery called Flair in the early 1960s and began seeking work, he found himself drawn to Steinberg. On a trip to New York, he visited the artist’s apartment in Washington Square Village, an apartment community in Greenwich Village.
“I think it was the same way I made connections with everybody,” he says of the original meeting. “You call them up and say, ‘I’m a young dealer in Cincinnati and I have a gallery and would like to come visit you.’ ”
That was the start of a productive relationship.
“He had a big file cabinet and he kept his drawings inside,” Solway says. “When the file cabinet filled up, he sent it to a warehouse and bought another. And I would go visit him to buy drawings. He knew I was coming and he’d put out (about) 20 drawings on a table, and I would look through them. In those days, they were $200, and a big drawing was $500. And I’d pick out a few I would really like and then say, ‘Can I see some more drawings?’ And he’d say, ‘No. That’s all your eyes can digest. Some other time.’ ”
Solway would then sell to collectors.
The relationship grew strong enough that Steinberg designed a poster for a 1968 exhibit of his work at Flair Gallery in downtown Cincinnati. Solway has a copy in his show, and others are for sale. It’s a clever, somewhat-meta vision of an art gallery — silhouetted visitors admire small sketches/markings, while concise and beautifully fluid cursive writing fills in white spaces.
The relationship didn’t end as well as Solway would have liked. By the late 1970s, the gallery was having financial problems.
“I had a hard time paying Steinberg for some of his drawings,” Solway says. “I wrote him a letter and said, ‘I don’t know if I can finish paying.’ I finally (did), but he was mad at me because I didn’t pay him promptly after buying drawings from him over all those years. I was so embarrassed, I never really contacted him again.”
This show offers a reconciliation that we all benefit from.
Saul Steinberg Prints: 1948-1996 is at Carl Solway Gallery (424 Findlay St., West End) through July 15. More info: solwaygallery.com. Steinberg’s “Mural of Cincinnati” is at the Cincinnati Art Museum, 953 Eden Park Drive, Mount Adams.