Joseph Solman (1909-2008), a New York expressionist painter, hovered near the leading edge of the avant garde through most of his career, yet his works never departed entirely from representation. His concern was always with the patterns and poetry he found in the material world.
Born in Belarus, Solman emigrated with his family to Long Island as a child. After high school, he attended the National Academy of Design in Manhattan. When he was 20, he visited the very first show at the new Museum of Modern Art. The work of the Post-Impressionists he saw there, especially Cezanne, would have a great effect on him. His first one man show, in 1934, reveals a fascination with looming spaces knit together with dark shadows. During this time, Georges Rouault would also become an important influence.
In 1938, as a response to the domination of New York gallery space by a homespun and anecdotal realism, Solmon and a group of other painters, including Mark Rothko, founded the Ten. The members, all immigrant Jewish New Yorkers with an interest in European Expressionism, presented an urban, abstract, formal style.
As his colleagues in the Ten advanced toward a more non-objective art, Solman warmed toward representation. By the early 1950s, when the Abstract Expressionism he had helped to develop was the mainstream in avant garde art, he was done with it. With Edward Hopper and Jack Levine, he began a magazine called "Reality." It featured the work of figurative painters, then terribly out of fashion, but its central editorial stance was that artists should be able to paint however and whatever they liked.
Joseph Solman did exactly this. From the near-abstraction of his early landscapes he grew more and more attached to the particulars of natural form. His use of line becomes more active and inquisitive as the years pass. First solid and sinuous like Modigliani's, it develops a pleasing kind of nervousness as it looks for the truest shape.
This searching line is apparent in the series he made during the 1960s of people riding the subway to the track. Solman himself liked to bet on the horses, but he also took a job at the betting counter for a while when his art career slowed. The pictures he drew on newsprint during the trip there and later finished are called the Subway Gouaches.
These pictures are reminiscent of Japanese ukiyo-e prints in their emphasis on character and their flat linearity, but with spectacle replaced by a matter-of-fact ordinariness. The people, deeply engaged in the betting sheets or involved in their own thoughts, are disconnected but self-contained, self-assured and content. He was, after all, one of them, and happy to be so.
Though he passed out of the center of the art world for a time, critics discovered Solman again in his later years. A 2003 retrospective in Bath, England was among the most highly-regarded shows of the year.