When Conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark was looking for a house to cut up with power tools, he knew exactly who to turn to for help. “He called me one day (in the early 1970s) and said, ‘Holly, I need a house,’” gallerist Holly Solomon recalled decades later in an interview. “And I, like a nice housewife, called (my husband) Horace and said, ‘Gordon needs a house.’” It took a week, but Horace found a two-story clapboard residence slated for demolition in Englewood, New Jersey. It was just what the young artist had in mind.
“Gordon took the house and cut it in half,” Solomon said. “Literally, with a hacksaw, cut the house in half. He was a master architect, so when he cut a house in half, it stood.”
Solomon chartered a school bus to bring SoHo artists on a field trip to Englewood, to see and celebrate Splitting (1974) - now considered one of Matta-Clark’s most iconic works. The bohemian crowd descended upon the house-turned-sculpture at 322 Humphrey Street, walking in and around it.
The art scene was also somewhat split around this time. Pop art and Minimalism – considered radical just a decade earlier - had already become art-world establishment. Few gallerists were willing to take a chance on the growing number of artists producing highly decorative pieces as a reaction against the severity of Minimalism, or hard-to-commodify pieces (like houses hacksawed in half). More intangible art forms such as Conceptual art were emerging, along with performance and video art. The artists making this boundary-pushing work needed a champion, and a place to show their work.
“The artists really needed an avant-garde gallery,” Solomon said of those years. She and her husband, who were established Upper East Side patrons and collectors of mostly Pop art and knew many artists personally, decided to open a non-commercial exhibition space at 98 Greene Street in SoHo in 1969. Using wealth from the bobby pin manufacturing business Horace had inherited, the Solomons took a second-floor loft for a cheap, $158-per-month rent at a time when there were very few galleries in the neighbourhood.
“My mother decided to do something brave and difficult, which was to find a space down in SoHo,” said Solomon’s son, Thomas, an art dealer and the curator of a new exhibition devoted to his mother’s personal art collection at Marlborough Contemporary in London. “Basically, the idea was she still collected, but she supported for three years this alternative space for poets and writers, and performance and art exhibitions. It was an experimental sort of space to support what she believed was important.”
Holly Solomon’s experimental space hosted an eclectic and wide range of art. Artist Robert Kushner could experiment with choreographing fabric-clad performers at 98 Greene Street; New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl recited poetry there; and Solomon (once an aspiring actress) staged conceptual plays she had written. It was not a gallery in the traditional, commercial sense, and far from a traditional museum.
“For me, 98 Greene was something that added to the system,” Solomon told artist Jacki Apple in 1981. “(It) allowed for work to happen that the organizations and institutions at that time couldn’t or wouldn’t do.”
Within a few years, though, SoHo became an art gallery district, and museums were participating more actively in the contemporary art scene. The Solomons felt that 98 Greene Street had served its purpose and closed the space.
For the next two years, the couple continued to support artists as they always had, by buying their work. Then, in 1975, Solomon decided to branch out by opening an eponymous commercial gallery showcasing young and often unknown artists. The Holly Solomon Gallery at 392 West Broadway in SoHo refused to accept the prevalent idea that painting was dead, exhibiting Pattern and Decoration artists who were painting unapologetically representative and decorative canvases.
“You can’t imagine how supportive she was, always telling artists, ‘Do it!’” Robert Kushner told Hyperallergic in 2014. “With Holly, who was interested in whatever was new and different, I didn’t have to make excuses for using glitter.” In some circles, this gave Solomon a reputation for being the doyenne of kitsch; she didn’t care.
Solomon gave installation artists free reign and exhibited video art, organising some of new media art pioneer Nam June Paik’s first shows. She also made a point of representing women artists, such as assemblage artist Alexis Smith and multidisciplinary artist Laurie Anderson, at a time when they were fighting for equal exhibition opportunities.
“By starting a gallery, (she was) stating that as a collector and supporter, it was worth the energy, effort, (and) money to represent artists like Laurie Anderson, Mary Heilmann, Richard Nonas, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Brad Davis,” Thomas Solomon added. “She was really about the furtherment of the culture that you take from. That you give back, and that you have a responsibility to give back and to help move things in a forward, good way that helps other people - besides living with art and enjoying art.”
In her uptown home, Solomon lived with portraits of herself that she commissioned from some of Pop art’s greats, including Andy Warhol (which sold at auction after Solomon’s death) and Roy Lichtenstein (now in the collection of The Broad in Los Angeles). She frequently asked artists to create portraits of her in their trademark styles, such as Robert Mapplethorpe’s. But at her gallery, she wanted to promote artistic pluralism and make space for the next generation.
Up until Solomon’s death in 2002, she was welcoming to all artists. The Holly Solomon Gallery migrated a few times, moving between downtown and midtown Manhattan, and finally back to SoHo. In the final years of her life, as New York’s gallery scene shifted once more, Solomon converted a guestroom at the famed Chelsea Hotel into an appointment-only space.
Just as Holly Solomon had found a house for Gordon Matta-Clark to destroy, she created a home for young artists to build their careers and thrive. As Alexis Smith, who exhibited with Solomon when she was starting out in the 1970s, said: “She had a lot of moxie.”