The Carl Solway Gallery is an icon in the Cincinnati arts community. In 2010, Carl’s son Michael became director of the gallery after running the SolwayJones Gallery in Los Angeles for 10 years. Below is an excerpt from a recent interview with Michael Solway. It coincides with By This River, an exhibition he curated that is currently on display at the Weston Gallery.
Susan Byrnes: You’ve been connected to art from a young age. How would you describe your art education?
Michael Solway: I’ve grown up around this my whole life. When I was young I would hang out at the gallery, sit in the library to look at the books, and certainly look at the art. I would go to the openings, so I got to meet artists early on, and it was something I continued to do throughout my life. My education was the school of hard knocks in the sense that I didn’t go to college. I’ve been involved in working in the art world since 1987. Because my interest was so much in the visual arts and working with artists, I continued to meet artists, go to New York, go to museums, build a library. A real integral part of my education was to have source material that would help me think about the present and also the past. When I go to a museum I usually go into a gallery of art that I don’t typically deal with as an art dealer, but that somehow energizes me so that then when I begin to look at modern pictures or American painting or contemporary work, all of these come into an awakening moment of what my interests are, what I value. It also inspires me to think about what my direction is at any given time. That education is accumulative. Growing up as a child being around and living with art was an impetus to somehow want to continue to do this.
SB: What artwork do you remember from early on that moved you?
MS: We lived with some great things. As a child of the ‘60s, I was looking at art that was happening at the time I was growing up. One of my favorite pieces was a work by Robert Rauschenberg that hung in our space. It was very curious because there were identifiable photographic materials that were awash in abstract marks. That piece made me think about this collision of both abstraction and representation. So for me, everything that was representation was still abstraction. And that was a breakthrough. An interest in art that has kinetic movement stemmed from growing up around the sculpture of George Rickey. Having Rickey sculptures moving in space, all about balance, very high precision, manufactured in the sense that there was this handmade but totally engineered work continues to inspire. I’m still working around artists whose work combines this issue of movement and sound.
SB: What kind of work did you show in your Los Angeles gallery?
MS: When I moved to LA, I went to work for the Christopher Grimes Gallery and then for Margo Leavin, who focused in on some of the seminal conceptual people of LA, like John Baldessari, Steve Prina, and Al Ruppersberg. We (Solway and partner Angela Jones) opened our gallery in 2001. We had been in LA since ’98 so when we opened the gallery we’d already had a few years to get to know the artists. We were working with artists from the west coast. I was also able to show certain things that Carl Solway Gallery either published or was working with, so I had that access to that inventory, which was a great help. One of the things we did that was so different at the time was showing artists who were already working as teachers in the art schools in LA. A lot of collectors were going through the MFA thesis shows, but at that point UCLA had the Yankees ball team of art teachers. They had Chris Burden, Cathy Opie, Lari Pittman, John Baldessari, and Charlie Ray. We were thinking about artists living in California that were being ignored or underrepresented. So we took a strong position to reach out to artists of a particular generation – at that point many had already been working for 30 years. We also had the opportunity to work with the estate of Hannah Wilke. As a gallery we were interested in drawing, works on paper, and sculpture. We were also working with artists who use technology, like Jim Campbell, or artists who were making discreet objects using electronics. We met Diane Landry (who had a solo show at the CAC in 2013) who was a student at Stanford. A lot of the things we were showing in LA have started to filter into the program here.
SB: Do you think differently about what you show in Cincinnati?
MS: No, I don’t think so. It will be five years since I’ve been back here. I’m showing a lot of what I was doing there, here. In a funny way, the exhibition By This River at the Weston was a way of reiterating the things we were committed to in California. But Ben Patterson was a relationship that started here, in Cincinnati. I began to have a relationship with Ben Patterson going back to ‘88. One part of the installation LA River Concrete Poems #1-5 at the Weston show was made in our backyard in LA, and now here we are back in Cincinnati. There’s this connection of my time in Los Angeles and those relationships that I’m bringing here, carrying it on. I believe in this work, if it sells in Cincinnati then fantastic, if not then it will go somewhere else.
SB: The art market is experiencing a tremendous surge. Do you see that impacting your business in Cincinnati?
MS: Being in this business for such a long time, I’ve seen surges and declines over many years. The market continues to build up huge amounts of steam because the art world really has become a global concern. Collectors as a whole, no matter if I’m in Cincinnati, Chicago, New York, whatever, tend to like to buy things at art fairs now. The paradigm of the way things get sold has changed so much, in the last 5 years since we’ve been in Cincinnati, but even in LA from the time that we opened up the gallery. That became the norm. Anybody who’s doing bricks and mortar exhibitions, yes they sell things, people come, there’s a discourse there, but every art dealer was spending a lot of time planning what art fairs they were going to go to and what material they were going to take to those art fairs. Art dealers have to plan ahead and put things away because they need them to have a presence at the art fairs.
SB: Will you continue your father’s model with the gallery, or do you plan to do something different?
MS: That’s always the question of the “next generation”, especially in the art business. I think that what I do really does carry on in the proverbial “footsteps” of what the gallery was founded on. I respect that history. The way I see things has been informed by my experiences and my interest in the artists that have come through. There is definitely a core conceptual thread of the gallery the way it has been developed over the past 50 years. I’m still carrying on those core principles that come out of John Cage and more multidisciplinary ways of thinking about making art. Art is a conversation that stems from many different ways of making things, and I want to continue to be a student and a pupil of looking at things. It’s very easy to get locked down and say “this is going to be the position of the gallery, this is what I’m going to do”. The only way that I can develop my own eye is to continue to get outside and be present and look at art . One of the greatest things in the history of the gallery is that Carl was able to bring other artists from outside of Cincinnati into the community, and that’s what I still want to do. I do have to look at more art that’s happening within Cincinnati and the region, and that is something I feel is important. It’s just that in order to support the program, we have to look outside all the time. What is the gallery? How does the gallery operate? Those are interesting questions, because as I mentioned before, with the necessity for galleries to participate in art fairs, the art world has become an event-driven business. I think that the way of the white-wall gallery space and what happens within that exhibition space are interesting questions. I don’t necessarily know the answers, but I think the model is changing.