Art News: Syd Solomon Exhibition
by Marty Fugate
“Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed” is a traveling exhibition looking back at an often-overlooking influence on Solomon’s abstract art — the techniques of camouflage. Like many brilliant inventions, it was a product of wartime.
In 1941, the artist had enlisted in the First Camouflage Battalion of the Engineer Aviation Regiment. Solomon helped design camouflage for the coast near San Francisco. Before long, he was creating life-saving illusions for the Royal Engineer Camouflage Corps in London, England. The techniques he helped invent were abstract art at a very high level.
The standard assumption: camouflage fools the eye. But it really fools the brain. The art of camouflage plays with pattern recognition — the nitty gritty of how we know (or think we know) what we’re seeing. It literally abstracts visual detail to its essence – the patterns that tell you you’re seeing a forest, a desert, or an urban setting. The irony is, “camouflage” has become a pattern we recognize. And can buy on a pair of pants.
The artist’s son, Mike Solomon, is a working artist in his own right. He observes that, “Today, we’re inundated with the camouflage patterns we see on uniforms and Humvees and so on. Those patterns didn’t come into play until late in World War II. My father’s era of camouflage was much earlier than that. His area of expertise was aerial camouflage – what the enemy would see looking down from a plane.”
According to Solomon, his father’s wartime masterpiece was his work for the D-Day invasion. His main mission supported the drop of troops and supplies to Allied troops after they broke through enemy lines during the Normandy invasion. “The troops broke through faster than the military brass thought they could, and they had no supplies,” he says. “My father’s job was to design camouflage for leap frog bases. That’s when they’d fly in, drop troops and supplies, and fly out again and go to another spot and do it again. ”
Syd Solomon had to figure out how to disguise Allied planes and troops when they landed. It was all about not being spotted from the air.
“He covered up what was visible on the ground,” Mike Solomon says. “His orientation was always looking down. The methods he developed had a direct connection to his later techniques as an abstract painter. He’d mask part of the canvas with masking pastes and then apply sprays. He’d work with the canvas lying flat and then he’d spray down on it — and he even called what he did ‘dropping color bombs.’ When the paint dried, he’d remove the pastes that hid part of the painting.”
According to Mike Solomon, the resulting abstract imagery flowed out of camouflage technique and a bird’s eye view of the canvas.
“It’s all about visual orientation,” he says. “My father went from one thing to the other. It took a long time for everybody else to catch on what he was doing. Then it suddenly dawned on us when we looked back at his camouflage work – ‘Oh my God! These are the same techniques.’
The exhibition showcases 33 of Syd Solomon’s works from 1944 to 1992. It also features historical materials from the late artist’s estate and a catalog with essays by Michael Auping, chief curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; George Bolge, director of the Museum of Art in DeLand; and art historian and Dr. Gail Levin, the artist’s biographer. In addition to camouflage, it also looks at the impact of calligraphy and hand-lettering on Solomon’s art. The exhibition was organized by the Estate of Syd Solomon and the Berry Campbell Gallery. After opening at the Deland Museum of Art, it will continue to the Greenville County Museum of Art from Aug. 24-Oct. 20, and then to other venues to be announced.
“SYD SOLOMON : CONCEALED AND REVEALED: The Influence of Camouflage and Lettering on the Art of Syd Solomon” runs through July 10 at the Deland Museum of Art, 600 N Woodland Blvd, DeLand; (386) 734-4371.
Originally published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
Syd Solomon’s “Untitled” (soldier with binoculars and barrage balloons), 1944 charcoal, conte crayon and gouache on paper. Courtesy Berry Campbell Gallery, © Estate of Syd Solomon