“I have nothing to do with it,” says Carl Solway. He’s speaking of the coming Cincinnati Art Museum exhibition that bears his name: “Not in New York: Carl Solway and Cincinnati.”
Really? Really? Is it possible CAM co-opted the name of Cincinnati’s most distinguished gallerist and just slapped it onto an exhibition?
“Well . . .” says Solway quietly. He gently wobbles his head back and forth, then flashes the endearing grin art lovers have come to know so well since he opened his Cincinnati gallery 54 years ago.
“I did know a little about it,” he begins. It turns out he is not completely disassociated from it. “They gave me a checklist of what they wanted to exhibit.”
It’s not exactly a Carl Solway retrospective. He has been involved in far too many projects during his decades as an art dealer and a matchmaker between artists and aficionados to be contained in a single, modest-sized exhibition. But as a reflection on his influence, it’s not bad.
All of the works in the show – more than 50 – have a direct connection to Solway and his Solway Gallery. Many were direct museum purchases. The others were gifted to the museum by local collectors who had obtained the works through Solway.
“So after they had it all together, they asked, ‘Did we forget anything you think is important?’ ” he says. It was already an impressive list, including works by John Cage, Ann Hamilton, Nam June Paik, Tom Wesselman, Jim Dine, Judy Pfaff and many, many more.
“But I suggested they should consider a few others,” he says, rattling off a handful of names, beginning with “a great George Rickey I sold to the Becker family.”
In truth, when CAM approached him about the exhibition, he says he was lukewarm.
“I said, ‘I’d rather you do it when I’m dead and gone,’ ” he says. “Then I don’t have to go to the opening.”
Actually, it’s not impossible to imagine him saying that. Solway is a quiet man, unassuming and, according to him, “quite shy.” But he is eminently approachable. And at 81, he is still a combination of art educator and salesman. Engaging, congenial, rarely in a rush, he is the kind of person who engenders trust in collectors and artists alike. He’s likable and not afraid to laugh. And he’s always ready to talk about the art in his gallery, which occupies 15,000 square feet of a 40,000-square-foot building at 424 Findlay St. in the West End.
Read a bit about Solway’s father, Harry Solway, and you’ll come across the same sorts of descriptions. Harry owned Solway’s Furniture Co., located at 132 W. Elder in the northwest corner of Findlay Market. This was where Carl grew up, in a world filled with vendors of every type, a place where everything around him was defined by its commerce.
Harry was generous to his customers and, if the history books are to be believed, greatly admired by his contemporaries.
When Carl took over the family business after his father’s death, he knew almost nothing about art. But his then-wife, Gail Forberg, did. At her urging, he moved away from the furniture trade in what was already a fading neighborhood and opened a gallery in the heart of downtown, selling prints of mid-century masters.
And it might have stayed that way were it not for an encounter with the late John Cage, the noted musician, visual artist and cultural touchstone.
“Cage is a person who changed a lot of people’s lives and a lot of people’s thinking about everything,” says Solway.
Cage was composer-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory in 1968. He and Solway became friends and confidantes.
“He would come to the gallery on Saturdays, and we would play chess together,” recalls Solway. “I always lost. And he would try to make me feel better by saying that when he played with Marcel – meaning Marcel Duchamp – he always lost. That was intended to console me. But it was just great to be with John.”
The relationship proved to be as rewarding professionally as it was personally.
As Solway introduced the visual arts world to Cage, Cage was introducing Solway to a “who’s who” of New York intelligentsia. Cage opened many doors for the young art dealer.
But most important was a bit of advice he shared. Looking around the gallery one day, he turned to Solway and said, “Carl, these people are all dead. You can’t have a relationship with these people. Why aren’t you dealing with the art of your own times?”
For Solway, in his early 30s at the time, it was a turning point. From then on, he spent more and more time in artists’ studios, discussing their work and philosophies and what drove them.
I’m no longer interested in work because I think I can sell it. It’s the other way around. I’m interested in the work because I am interested in the artist.
– Carl Solway
“As a rule, we’re more deeply involved with the person who is making the work than most galleries are,” says Solway. “That’s the initial impetus for us to get interested in the work. We have to be interested in the person. I’m no longer interested in work because I think I can sell it. It’s the other way around. I’m interested in the work because I am interested in the artist.”
His son Michael, who is now president and director of the gallery, shares that philosophy.
“My roots are still in 20th century art,” says Michael. “But more and more of the art we’re representing now is 21st century art – art that is being produced right now and reflects the things going on around us.”
Like his father before him, Michael Solway, now 55, returned to his hometown to assume control of the family business after living in Los Angeles for a decade. He navigates the modern world of massive international art fairs with ease. He is also deeply interested in the art of this region.
“One of the great contributions of Carl’s gallery was that he could bring artists to Cincinnati who had not been seen here before,” says Michael. “But for the most part, we ignored the things that were happening in the so-called regions.”
Michael was determined that should change. It wasn’t so much a rejection of his father’s way of doing business as it was a realization that, as New York real estate prices skyrocketed, more artists of merit were making their way into the American heartland.
“When I came back here, I started to visit northern Ohio and other parts of the region,” says Michael. “There are so many great artists who are working here. Recently, we had a wonderful show of work by Matthew Kolodziej, who is an art professor at the University of Akron.”
In April, the gallery will open a show by the noted Cincinnati-born conceptual artist Tom Marioni, who has lived in San Francisco since 1959. In September, it will be Alan Rath, best known for his kinetic and robotic sculptures. Solway also is working toward a 2017 exhibition highlighting the art of Cleveland-based Icelandic artist Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson.
He is devising a nontraditional schedule of openings and exhibitions, as well, in order to provide visitors more opportunities to go to the gallery.
“There is a completely different public out there these days,” says Michael.
Michael is quite different from his father. He has a bushy beard and leans far closer to the Type-A personality than his supremely laid-back dad. He is as comfortable quoting the Marx Brothers as he is bantering with an erudite collector in Berlin.
But one thing that has remained unchanged from father to son is a passion for art and artists.
“I get to talk to such amazing people all the time – all the time,” says Michael. You wonder if he realizes how much he sounds like his father. “There are so many great artists that nobody knows about, and I get to hang out with them and . . . well, it’s unbelievable. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life.”
AT THE CARL SOLWAY GALLERY THROUGH JULY 9, 2016
Tom Marioni: “Dry Fresco, Drawing and Bronze,”
conceptual artist and sculptor originally from Cincinnati.
Elsa Hansen: “R. Kelly thru R. Crumb,” deceptively simple cross-stitch embroidery pieces on fabric, often depicting
provocative comparisons of public and religious figures.
Kirk Mangus: Ceramic Sculptures (pictured) and Drawings.
‘NOT IN NEW YORK: CARL SOLWAY AND CINCINNATI’
April 30-Oct. 30, 2016 – Cincinnati Art Museum
This exhibit consists of about 50 artworks from the museum’s permanent collection, providing insight as to Solway’s influence on the Cincinnati art scene over the past half century.
The artist list contains some of the most important names in 20th century art: John Cage, Ann Hamilton, Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Tom Wesselman, Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Pfaff, Pat Steir, Helen Frankenthaler and many others.
“The Cincinnati Art Museum is thrilled to recognize Carl Solway’s contribution to the Art Museum’s collection. He has made his mark in Cincinnati homes and the Art Museum’s permanent collection and has made a name for himself as a leader in contemporary art collecting in the Midwest,” says Kristin Spangenberg, Cincinnati Art Museum’s curator of prints. Spangenberg is co-curating this exhibition along with Matt Distel, exhibitions director at The Carnegie.
Opening reception: April 29, 5-9 p.m., “Art After Dark: Swingin’ with Solway.” Cash bar and appetizers for purchase.