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Paul Solman Pays Tribute to His Father

June 13, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Paul Solman offers reflections on his father, painter Joseph Solman, on the occasion of Father's Day. Joseph died April 16 at his home in Manhattan at age 99.
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RAY SUAREZ: The approach of Father’s Day triggered this appreciation from correspondent Paul Solman.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: I’m Joe Solman, I’ve turned 80, which staggered me a bit. At 79, I didn’t mind bragging about my age so 80 staggered me … it hit me in the solar plexus.

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour correspondent: My dad at his summer cottage near Boston in 1989, a full career already behind him, doing one of his “mono-types.”

JOSEPH SOLMAN: It’s a delightful way of concentrating on small paintings with a great variety of subject matter.

PAUL SOLMAN: Who knew Joe Solman had 19 sweet years to go? Of his apparent immortality, he’d say it was “kind of crazy” — the secret: Scotch at night, he’d say, and half-a-grapefruit in the morning.

He might have added: Women. Song. Old New York. New New York. Motorcycles. Mozart — he did a book on him. His family, of course. Cape Ann, Massachusetts. And the backyard of his summer cottage there. The guy loved it all.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: Well, see how she looks now. Of all the games that men have invented, from chess to football, baseball, so on, art is one of the nicest games. That’s my take on it.

PAUL SOLMAN: The czar was still running Russia when Joe’s family sailed away in 1912, the year the Titanic failed to make a similar trip. The Model T preceded Joe, but only by a year. Fidel Castro is young enough to be his son. If Joe were John McCain’s dad, he would have fathered him at age 28.

It’s not just that Joe outlasted pretty much everything in sight, though, but how he nurtured time — savoring it, lavishing it on us and his art.

An artist's life

JOSEPH SOLMAN: My mother said that I sketched even as I crawled. I guess I never got over it.

PAUL SOLMAN: He never did. He went straight from high school to the National Academy of Design but by the 1930s, he was already an against-the-grain modernist painter.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: I met people who was in sympathy with me, sympathized with my ideas about modern art, flat space, more free brush work.

PAUL SOLMAN: So he helped found a cutting edge group, "The Ten," with Marcus Rothkowitz, soon to become Mark Rothko.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: We met in my studio late 1935 on East 15th Street and we formed a group. We decided on the name The Ten. It sounded nice and formidable. Of course, there were only nine of us.

PAUL SOLMAN: The public reception was mixed. The New York Times wrote that the paintings would "give anyone with the slightest academic sympathies apoplexy." Joe didn't mind, kept painting as he liked, became quite well-known.

But to keep our family secure, he worked half the year at the race track for almost three decades, selling tickets for bets at places like Belmont.

On the hour-plus train rides to and from work, tedious to anyone else, he did drawings, coloring them in at home.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: Of course the subway is one of the greatest artist studios of all time. I could tell when a person was reading or day-dreaming. They would hold the post a long time.

PAUL SOLMAN: There was almost nothing he couldn't positively reframe. Even his relative obscurity in the '60s and '70s as old friends like Rothko and DeKooning became household names. When the '80s and '90s came, and his star rose again, he said...

JOSEPH SOLMAN: I feel I'm being confirmed.

PAUL SOLMAN: Vindicated?

JOSEPH SOLMAN: Yes, to a certain extent.

PAUL SOLMAN: But I'd ask him what about the transcendence of new art, new ideas?

JOSEPH SOLMAN: That stuff's for critics. No artist would want to use that word. Your head's a little low.

PAUL SOLMAN: As to the artist as tortured soul...

JOSEPH SOLMAN: I think it's full of cliche and overused and that it distorts the image of the artist.

'His own man'

PAUL SOLMAN: Dad, by contrast, was far more bourgeois than bohemian. As London's The Independent wrote recently: "Where Pollock died in a drunken car smash and Rothko by his own hand, Solman survived: never in thrall to a gallery, always his own man, happy to live over a kosher deli on 10th Street and Second Avenue."

And, one would have to add, happy as ever to paint ... the sidewalks of New York.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: I used to be intimidated to think of drawing big buildings, because they were high and they weren't as interesting as broken down streets, so I used to draw on the East Side.

PAUL SOLMAN: He did streets to the end.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: You see how I put it? It echoes this one.

PAUL SOLMAN: On April 16, after a day in and around New York sketching, visiting a gallery, ice cream at lunch, Scotch at dinner, my dad came home, dozed off in his recliner at 8, died in his sleep around 10.

"A lucky guy" is how a great friend summed it up.

JOSEPH SOLMAN: See a self-portrait, way, way back...

PAUL SOLMAN: And I'm lucky to have been his son.