New York painter Joseph Solman, 76, has not had a major exhibition in Washington since his retrospective at the Phillips Collection 35 years ago. Yet his current show at Robert Brown Contemporary Art, which spans 50 years, reveals the artist's remarkable staying power. His small paintings from the '30s are as fresh as the day they were made. His recent drawings and monotypes show a vigor, authority and originality undiminished by time.
This show -- which follows major exhibitions held last year at the Wichita Art Museum and in New York -- begins with a few large oils, including one on loan from the National Museum of American Art. But the highlights are several small gouaches from the Depression years, when Solman -- like so many other American painters -- was working for the Works Progress Administration, and threading his way through the opposing camps of social realism and modern abstraction. Subscribing to neither exclusively, he evolved his own blend of the two, adding warm, expressionistic overtones.
Solman was part of a group called The Ten, which included Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb, but he did not follow when they abandoned recognizable subject matter. He also edited the Artists' Union publication Art Front, but never pursued social reform in his art. From the start, it was the visual clutter of urban life that captivated him -- especially the city streets with their jumble of signs, symbols, stoplights, streetlights, arrows, letters and painted pointing fingers. He saw in them patterns, shapes and colors, and painted them as if they were still lifes, often flattening them into dark, moody, collage-like compositions.
The results are semi-abstractions in which perspective and literal color are abandoned for the sake of all-over impact and design. Yet Solman's goals have never had anything to do with geometry, but everything to do with conveying an aura that echoed his own passionate, often playful pleasure in all he observed: a child on a tricycle, surrounded by lampposts, hydrants and signs; a pawnshop window with a lone guitar; an "Alley in Hartford," where a large painted hand points to another sign advertising chewing gum.
Today, these small paintings are filled with the warmth of remembrance, of nostalgia for bits of city life now gone -- like the ice cellar with an honor-system sign-up sheet for customers. Yet, almost miraculously, none of these works has become in any way "dated" -- the ultimate test of any work of art.
A fine colorist, Solman also draws supremely well, and proves it in the swift, sure outlines of the "Handicapper" and various other subway types he continues to observe (and gently caricature) during his frequent trips to Aqueduct Racetrack. He has also taken to making monotypes in recent years, using vigorous line and impressionistic color to examine new city phenomena, such as a "Motorcycle Duo," "The Pan Am Building" and "The Public Theater at Dusk."
Taken together, the show sketches out a long career of which Solman has every reason to be proud. It also underscores a major fact of today's art world: Beyond the blinding glare of the new and the trendy is a treasure-trove of old talent making a strong comeback. It appears to have dawned, at last, on many collectors that this is art that has already stood the acid test of time. This welcome update on Solman continues at 1005 New Hampshire Ave. NW through April 13. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Gabor Peterdi Exhibit
Gabor Peterdi, famed Yale professor and print innovator, is showing recent paintings at Jane Haslem Gallery, all dealing with three themes that have preoccupied him for several years: wetlands, the ocean and fields of poppies -- which he calls "Celebrations." It is chiefly the "Celebrations" that give us something to shout about in this highly uneven show, especially "Garden of Dorka," an explosion of brilliant reds, blues and oranges -- a giant, impressionistic close-up of a poppy field in bloom. "Blonde Salt Marsh," which recalls Van Gogh's short, stacked brushstrokes, is the best of the "Wetlands" paintings here. Peterdi at his best is a fine painter, but he (like the rest of us) badly needs an editor. The show continues at 406 Seventh St. NW through Saturday. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. today and Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. Franz Bader Gallery
Franz Bader will retire at the end of the year, but the Franz Bader Gallery will go on. A purchase agreement was signed last week between Bader and Wretha Hanson, proprietor of the Benchmarks Gallery, which transfers to Hanson the name of the Bader Gallery. Benchmarks, a four-year-old private dealership in Cleveland Park specializing in contemporary fine crafts, has also occasionally shown work by area painters and photographers.
"In addition to continuing to exhibit the Bader Gallery painters, sculptors and printmakers who choose to stay, I hope to have space to show fine crafts," says Hanson, who is seeking a new downtown location. She and Sabine Yanul, new owner of the Bader Bookshop, are hoping to find adjoining space, says Hanson. She will take over management of Bader Gallery by the end of the year, but will be working there starting July 1 "to ease the transition."