Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Sam Solomon, artist (1913-1989)

I think I've finally reached the age to begin to understand my grandfather's interest in art. He painted most of his life, at the same time as he designed dresses for his successful garment business - Sample Manufacturing Corp., which at one time was the country's largest maker of ladies dresses. He ran his business and took night classes in drawing at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Montreal. He was young (in his late thirties, after working from the age of 13) when he semi-retired to Florida where he painted in his garage-studio during the winter months, coming back to Montreal in the spring to manage the business and design the dress lines his company would manufacture in the next twelve months. 

Sam never deigned to call himself an artist even though he spent so much time making art, thinking about it, and talking about it. He produced hundreds and hundreds of canvases during his lifetime. He went through artistic 'periods', playing with a variety of styles from Van Gogh-esque landscapes, to richly Expressionist colour-ladened interior scenes, to gestural Jackson Pollock-esque drips, to black and white 'sculptures' on canvas when he would apply black paint to white canvas cutting away negative spaces to create a shadowy image, to his own personal readings of the urban hieroglyphics of graffiti art. He was chiefly a copyist, aping the styles of trending artists he read about in magazines, in the same way as he would visit London and Paris on styling trips to poach the fashion he saw in the stores there to use as models for his cheaper 'knock-offs'. On those seasonal trips he would also visit the galleries on the Montmartre and buy paintings. 

Jackson Pollock-esque
The term 'artist' I think was fraught for Sam. There is no question that he truly loved art, enjoyed its sensual and decorative qualities, admired its history and beauty, and there is little doubt that he had a talent for making it himself. And yet, in spite of the hundreds of canvases he produced he never exhibited, never had a gallery show, and never sold a single painting (except, he once mentioned, to his friend Hershel Segal, founder of the Le Chateau clothing chain, who insisted on paying for one of his canvases despite Sam's protestations.) Instead, he gave his artwork away, some as gifts to friends and business associates, but mostly he loaned them out. His will instructed his Executors to collect his artwork from the recipients, and to distribute the paintings among his heirs according to random lots drawn by them. I suspect he realized how impossible it would be to track down all his art. It makes one wonder about what art really meant to him, given that he cared enough about it to consider it part of his legacy. Given that he spent so much time viewing it, reading about it, thinking about it and doing it. And given, perhaps strangely, that he sought no formal recognition of his art from others except close friends and family. 

Painting was Sam's avocation, but art certainly had greater meaning for him than a mere pastime. It seems to me that he could not call himself an artist for two reasons; a. he did not earn his living from his art, and for Sam, owing to his impoverished upbringing, only making money at an activity gave it true legitimacy and value, and b. he could never wholly commit himself to it, because ultimately, I don't think he could ever truly believe in it. On the contrary, I think he considered art, especially the modern and contemporary art which he most tried to emulate, to be the very antithesis of possessing any intrinsic value, because it had no discernible functionality or utility, not even a religious or didactic purpose as in centuries passed. Aesthetically, contemporary art was principally self-conscious and self-referential. Market forces had made art an elitist absurdity. Owning a certain kind of art - determined arbitrarily by taste-makers and marketers - was valued only for the prestige and status that it accorded, and therefore no different than owning a Dior or a Cadillac, except that Dior covered your body and Cadillac could get you from one place to the next. 

'Picasso' drawing, signed and dated 1947
And so, if he acknowledged Picasso as a true modern genius, which he did, it was not just for Picasso's art-making abilities, which were undeniable, but just as much for his skill at branding, self-promotion and celebrity. Sam Solomon had his own kind of local 'celebrity' as a dress manufacturer among his industry peers. He pioneered private labeling - manufacturing product for retailers who promoted their own brands. In a way he was to dress manufacturing the very antithesis of what Picasso was to art-making. Millions of women wore Sam Solomon-made dresses but none of them knew the maker's name. So valued was the Picasso moniker, he could pay for dinner at a cafe by simply signing his name to a paper napkin, and reportedly often did. Sam understood that in the 20th century the objet d'art had become less important than the idea the art attempted to convey or even the notoriety of the artist. Any lasting aesthetic, historical, emotional, intellectual or cultural value that the art object might have had was now sapped away by the forces of the marketplace. The masses were like sheep, Sam often said disdainfully, who only followed the latest trends and fads. They were fools who could be persuaded to believe anything; and art, which had no purpose other than that it existed for its own sake, was the prime example. The 20th century had begun by turning art into an absurdist game, when Marcel Duchamp placed a urinal in a gallery, called it "Fontaine" and signed and dated it. The joke was on us for taking it seriously, and I suspect that Sam was laughing even as he continued painting. He steadfastly refused to exhibit or show because he didn't want to be part of the joke. He didn't need the money, and didn't want to contribute to the fraud the marketplace perpetrated on the collectors who paid ridiculously high sums for work by the latest 'hot' artist. 

'Sculpting' with paint
His own mimicking of artistic styles in his art practice may be seen as a skeptically ironic social commentary from the margins of the art world. A way of drawing attention to the elitist  foolishness he witnessed all around him - literally around him, since in the last quarter of his life he resided and painted in tony Palm Beach. After Sam died one of his best friends who'd known him for decades contacted the executors of his estate imploring them to whisk away the Picasso, Dali and Matisse drawings, and the large Leger and Pollock canvases that hung on the walls of his Palm Beach home, put them into storage, and replace them with less valuable art so that the estate would be spared a huge tax hit. He had no idea that the artworks in question were fakes, done by Sam himself, forgeries down to dates and signatures. It was one of Sam's best jokes that not even his closest friends were in on the prank. They believed the artwork was authentic not because they were artistically convincing (they were, Sam was a skilled copyist although I suspect that an expert would not be fooled) but because, in context, his friends wanted to believe it. Sam understood that all it took was wanting to believe. If you drove a Rolls Royce you must be successful. If you owned a Matisse you must have taste and discernment. I suspect that Sam did not want to 'taint' the art he made by selling it. He didn't want it to become just another hocked product, like one of the dresses he manufactured. Better to keep his two worlds separate; the world of his art untouched from the 'business' of art, ironically so, since much of his work imitated many of the current popular trends. 

don't know if Sam believed that in the age of Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans and Brillo Boxes art could still be original. But I do think that he maintained a nostalgic, romantic notion of the artist as heroic, the artist as protean visionary creator whose work can have influence, transcend and leave a genuine mark on the world. Ultimately, maybe he thought his art could never rise to that lofty status, and maybe he feared that he could never be anything more than a salesman.
Sam Solomon circa 1980