As a curator who has worked at The Jewish Museum in New York for decades, the specter of Alan Solomon looms large. Solomon served as its director from July 1962 to July 1964, a mere two years. Yet the exhibitions he curated and the programs he created were heralded in a world in process of major artistic and commercial transformations—in New York, in the United States, and internationally. His vision and important contributions, though acknowledged over the years, are just beginning to receive art historical attention. Nearly fifty years have passed since his premature death in 1970.
As a Jewish Museum principal, I have been privy to hagiographic information and anecdotes about both Solomon’s skills and quirks. Stories pertain to his sharp eye and uncompromising nature. Art-world insiders agreed on his command of exhibition installation to the point that a number of artists alleged that he could tell from a distance when a painting was even one degree askew. Then, too, there are tales of his idiosyncratic nature, his intellectual charisma, as well as his diplomatic deficiencies. Frequently mentioned are examples of his antipathy to Jewish religion and culture.
Beginning as director of the gallery at Cornell University in 1952, the next year Solomon established the Andrew Dickson White Gallery. His prescience can be seen in exhibitions there such as Collages and Constructions of 1958, foreshadowing, perhaps even inspiring, the Museum of Modern Art’s 1961 The Art of Assemblage curated by William Seitz. Certainly his appointment at the Jewish Museum provided Solomon with a starring role and a platform from which he would appear on an international stage. His much-heralded Robert Rauschenberg survey, which opened at the museum in late March 1963, might be considered his breakthrough. Leo Castelli characterized it as an “explosion.” A major collector of the period called it “startling.” Rauschenberg’s show was followed the next spring by an equally major retrospective of Jasper Johns’s work. Solomon also captured new trends by helping originate group shows including Toward a New Abstraction and Black and White in 1963 and 1964. Sensitively he peppered exhibitions of specific Jewish interest into the program. For these, he used outside curators to present The Hebrew Bible in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Art and then emerging architect Richard Meier’s revelatory Recent American Synagogue Architecture.
During the postwar era, the Museum of Modern Art had become the go-to organizer for the Venice Biennale. A building project and subsequent lack of funds, however, forced them to decline directing the 1964 version of that prestigious show. Combing the terrain for an appropriate and adventurous curator for the project, the USIA tapped Alan Solomon with the Jewish Museum as the organizing partner. This was clearly a coup for Solomon who promised the press a “lively show of advanced art.” The curator’s aspirations reached beyond just choosing artists to fill the U.S. pavilion in the Giardini. Working with the American Embassy in Rome and negotiating with the State Department in Washington, Solomon commandeered the former U.S. consulate building in Venice to expand the presentation of cutting-edge contemporary American art. Works by Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, exponents of post-painterly abstraction, were hung in the main pavilion. The additional consular space allowed Solomon to show a group of younger Neo-Dada and Pop artists, including Rauschenberg and Johns, as well as Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, and Frank Stella. In the American spirit of President John Kennedy’s New Frontier, presentation alone would not suffice. Winning the prize for an American artist was the goal. Indeed, through a series of machinations and politicking—sometimes mistakenly labeled in the press as CIA intervention—Rauschenberg won the Gran Premio. He was the first American artist to be so honored. This was evidently an all-consuming venture, for Solomon’s diversion from institutional administration led to his departure from the Jewish Museum.
Although Solomon would become chair of the art department and director of the gallery at the University of California, Irvine in 1968, he spent much of the final years of his career as what is now known as a portfolio-carrying curator. Perhaps the most visible of his projects was American Painting Now, the American Pavilion for Expo ’67 in Montreal. For this Solomon commissioned twenty-three artists to create monumental scale paintings for the U.S. pavilion housed inside Buckminster Fuller’s twenty-story Biosphere. But he also reviewed the New York art scene from 1944 to 1969 for an exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum, essentially including works by artists from Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko, to Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. More ad hoc projects were also part of his curatorial range, to wit his New York Theater Rally at TV Studio on 81st Street and Broadway in New York. On the other hand, his carefully wrought book on New York artists’ studios with photographer Ugo Mulas has become at once a classic and a period piece. Despite his close ties with contemporary art and culture, Solomon was crucially aware of history and his place within it. As such he claimed that he wanted his 1964 Venice Biennale “to do for the Europeans what the Armory Show did for [Americans] back in 1913.”