My mother studied painting at the New York Art Students League with Joseph Solman, the American artist who died last year at age 99. Solman was briefly a member, along with Mark Rothko, of an artistic vanguard known as The Ten, which in the 1930s rejected the literalism of American art and championed expressionism. Yet Solman remained a traditionalist among radicals, resisting the turn to abstraction. “The subject has more interest than any shape we might invent,” he said in a 1998 interview. “I take what’s out there, and that’s what lights up my imagination.”
Solman produced no religious works like the modernist Rothko Chapel, but in his attention to “what’s out there”—such as in his gouaches of sleeping subway riders—one finds something akin to religious art. It’s a matter of artistic humility, the rare quality that Solman cherished in Cézanne, and that my mother cherished in Solman.