BY STEVEN ROSEN /CINCINNATI CITYBEAT / JULY 6, 2020
Seeing and talking to Carl Solway, who died on June 25 at age 85, were visits to a wise elder. His knowledge about Contemporary art and its ability to change a person for the better came from having had his own life changed by his experiences with some of the most important artists of his (and our) time.
I quickly learned, writing about art for CityBeat starting in 2007, that not only was he a good source for any story, but he also often had first-hand experiences with the subjects of my stories. It wasn’t long before I was sometimes selecting stories because Solway knew the artist.
And I was also doing stories that involved the imaginative ideas that Solway had had for improving our city and region through art. He thought big! For instance, when his Carl Solway Gallery in the West End had its Thanks: 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2012 (he opened his first gallery, Flair, with his first wife Gail in 1962), I was taken by a striking but odd 1990 drawing by Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen, “The Colossal Soap on the Ohio River.”
Near it was “The Soap at Baton Rouge,” a cast resin worn bar of soap, part of a 250-edition multiple that Solway and Oldenburg produced in 1990. Asking Solway about these unearthed the quixotic tale of how he and Oldenburg — one of our greatest living artists, known for his large public sculptures of utilitarian objects (his wife died in 2009) — proposed to Procter & Gamble floating a perhaps-inflatable version of a giant soap bar down the Ohio River to celebrate Ivory soap’s 1979 centennial.
“I said to Claes that it would be great to do some public art around it,” Solway said then. “What about the idea of doing a 400-foot inflatable bar of Ivory soap? You make a big inflatable balloon-like structure that you can blow up. It wouldn’t actually be real soap.”
It would, he explained, sit atop a barge that could guide it.
The idea didn’t get far beyond the two, but Solway tried again in 1983 after Christo wrapped 11 islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. And he couldn’t help but make a new pitch for it during our interview in 2012.
“It would be fantastic if that could finally happen,” Solway said. “And now would be the time, following all the attention from the (then-fresh Cincinnati-staged) World Choir Games, to do something like this.”
That was what made Solway so special. He combined visionary ideas with a non-parochial, non-defensive civic pride that sought to joyfully elevate our culture. He wanted to work with the best artists possible, preferably on big projects, and he wanted to help the city by doing so.
As result of being a prestigious art dealer and one of some 180 members (in just 30 cities) of the Art Dealers Association of America, he had quick, easy access to those artists. For the story about the “Colossal Soap,” he provided me with a contact email for Oldenburg, who quickly replied to my inquiry: “To answer your question, if someone would have come up with the money and means to create the giant ‘Soap’ or its balloon double, of course Coosje and I would have responded, and given it a try. The impossible was always an inspiration to us.”
Another time, I discovered Solway had artwork by a 1960s Pop artist, the late Bob Stanley, whom I owned a print by but knew little about. The print was of an unidentified female singing group, and I had long wondered who it was. I told him that and within a few days he forwarded me an email from Stanley’s widow, Marylin, identifying it as The Shirelles and part of a set of Rock & Roll prints created in 1965. It’s now in our dining room, and I know who it is when people ask.
Solway was a charismatic speaker; he was supportively professorial. He talked about Contemporary art with a relaxed smile and in an inviting, narratively unfolding way that was just plain friendly. As a result, he was very convincing.
For instance, in 1985 Solway arranged for the Cincinnati Art Museum to commission Andy Warhol to create a portrait of Pete Rose, because the Red was about to break Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record. But neither man, Rose nor Warhol, knew the other — it’s said neither even knew who the other was — and it was hard to get Rose to go to Warhol’s New York studio to have a reference photograph taken. As a result, Warhol based his portrait on an existing newspaper image by Cincinnati photographer Gordon Baer, and presented his finished work like four large baseball cards.
I had not been predisposed to like the result much; there didn’t seem much artist-subject connection to the project. But in 2010, as part of the portrait’s 25th anniversary, I heard Solway explain why this is a significant artwork for Warhol. He had a gift for being able to emphasize what he believed was significant about a particular Contemporary artist or artwork.
“It was so brilliant of Andy to make it into a baseball card,” he said. “And that’s so interesting because baseball cards are collectible and negotiable. So it was a statement about the commercialization of art, just like his soup cans are about the commercialization of branding.”
He made me see it a different way.
There is much else about Solway’s career and life that is memorable. He worked with such major names in Contemporary art (and creative thinking) as Buckminster Fuller, Richard Hamilton, Nam June Paik and, of course, Oldenburg. He advocated for more and better public art in Cincinnati — with Jack Boulton, starting a late-1960s mural project, Urban Walls.
And while, like all gallerists, he operated a business and thus tried to sell its art, he did so with quality exhibitions. He also took pride in supporting women artists, including four who became MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipients: Judy Pfaff, Ann Hamilton, Aminah Robinson and Joan Snyder.
Pat Steir, another distinguished artist, presented a transcendent gallery show in 2008 — abstracted, Asian-influenced paintings of waterfalls. (The Cincinnati Art Museum bought one.) In 2010, when she returned to Cincinnati for a Contemporary Arts Center show, I had the chance to talk to her about Solway.
“Carl goes deep into the art he works with,” she said. “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.”
I use the term Contemporary art to mean art of our time, often work by living artists attuned to changes in Post-World War II America. Solway once called the Pop artists, Minimalists and Conceptualists “my generation.” Yet he had started off emphasizing prints by Modern Masters, good but safe art for a developing regional market. He changed direction after meeting John Cage, the man he considered “the 20th century’s greatest artist.”
That’s kind of a remarkable statement, since Cage is primarily known as an avant-garde composer, although one influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s radical conceptualism. Cage’s most famous work is “4’ 33,” representing the amount of time that a musician “plays” an instrument by making no intentional sound whatsoever. It makes you hear music, or the lack of it, in a totally new way.
In the 1967-68 school year, Cincinnati arts patrons Alice and Harris Weston sponsored Cage’s stay at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music as a composer-in-residence. And Cage would visit Solway’s Flair gallery and play chess with him.
“We became friends,” Solway said in a 2010 CityBeat story that I wrote, and from which I have repurposed excerpts for this remembrance. “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.’ ”
At the same time, Alice 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 limited-edition tribute to the recently deceased Duchamp. It’s an important work, now in the collection of many art 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 said. “It was a wonderful project. I traveled all over Europe trying to sell it — (the objects) were selling for $200 apiece in those days.”
In the 1970s, the Carl Solway Gallery replaced Flair, he and his first wife divorced, and second wife Elizabeth (Lizi) became his gallery administrator for many years. At the time of his death, they had been married 42 years.
It is a bit strange to write about the importance of a career devoted to “art of the living” while knowing that refers to many who are now deceased. Now, Carl Solway is one of them. (His son Michael will continue operating the gallery.) But the fact that what once was so new is becoming history doesn’t diminish its importance. The art he championed was revolutionary, and everything new grows from it.
I hope everyone realizes just how great a Cincinnatian Carl Solway was. His impact will live on.