Peter Solow: Knowing When To Stop

Stephen J. Kotz | February 5, 1998

Peter Solow has made himself comfortable at Elise Goodheart Fine Arts, his wife's gallery on Sag Harbor's Main Street. His rocking chair sits in the center of the room. Behind it hangs an arrangement of photographs and drawings of family, friends, and a favorite cat.

Figurative drawings he is working on take up a large space, as do oil paintings, mostly landscapes and piazza scenes from his nearly annual pilgrimages to Tuscany. The rest of the walls are covered with still more photographs and drawings that he is using as reference points for his current work.
Photo: Morgan McGivern

"Virtual Studio," which combines a glimpse of Mr. Solow's daily routine in the studio with an exhibit of some of his recently completed work, is the appropriate name of the experimental show.

Unexpected Dividends

Although the experiment is based on pragmatic decisions - it gave Mr. Solow a chance to clean out the clutter from his home studio in Noyac and his wife an excuse to keep her gallery open during the winter doldrums - it has paid some unexpected dividends.

"This is almost like being on vacation, like going to a resort," said the artist, whose working day is punctuated by visits from friends who drop by for a cup of coffee, the occasional tourist who stops to browse, or the passerby who cannot resist pressing his nose against the window to gawk at what's going on inside.

"At home, my family does not come into my studio. I work in isolation," said Mr. Solow. Nevertheless, "although I get interrupted all the time, I've been able to work in here."

Recently, he has concentrated on adding splashes of color with pastel acrylics to a series of drawings that he uncovered in his home studio.

"Some of this stuff I haven't touch ed in five years," he said. "And if I were home, I'd be splitting my time on my oils, which I tend to focus on."

The artist often reworks older paintings. "I'm process-oriented," he said. "I take it as far as I can go. I just feed on it and build on it."

"Piazza '93" is an example. The painting, in reddish-brown tones borrowed from da Vinci, is of three lonely figures in a Florentine piazza.

Reworkings

"The painting is as much about the space between the people as the people themselves," said Mr. Solow. "I tried to figure out how they related to the rectangle of the canvas, to each other, to the buildings."

It wasn't always like that. The piazza was once crowded with eight or nine other figures and a flock of pigeons. In constant reworkings, Mr. Solow eliminated the crowd and turned the pigeons into abstract chevrons.

"In contemporary life, you have this kind of isolation and alienation," he said. "It's not that I'm trying to infuse it in my work, but in how you organize your subject, some of that expression has to come through."

"Off Montauk," an expansive oil, is another painting Mr. Solow has tinkered with. Originally a realist seascape with Montauk Point in the background, it was exhibited in a group show at a Gainesville, Fla., museum in 1993.

But when the artist saw his painting reproduced in the catalogue, he was not impressed. Not only was the color bad, but the catalogue revealed other problems.

"I was compelled back into it from that print," said Mr. Solow. "The structure looked really weak."

Back in his studio, he painted over the land and tilted the horizon to create a softer, encompassing work that now hangs above the stairwell in his home.

The "Bother" Test

So how does Mr. Solow know when to stop? "I have what I call the 'bother' test," he said. "They're finished if nothing bothers me. If something bothers me, I keep working."

While "Piazza '93" and "Off Montauk" don't bother him anymore, Mr. Solow is having serious problems with at least one painting in his Noyac studio: a work in reddish-brown tone to the piazza scene.

It began as a crucified Christ suspended amid a background of crossing lines, has slowly turned into a portrait of Mary Magdalene, and may yet turn into a picture of Icarus.

Problematic Painting

"Of all the paintings in the studio and gallery, no one has had any response to that. The only one who finds anything redeeming in it is me," said Mr. Solow.

"My responsibility is to keep working on that painting until it has an impact. That's a testament to the work I still have to do to make that happen. And right now, I don't know how to make it happen."

He admits he may have underestimated his subject. "I was fascinated by the formal idea of trying to do a crucifixion," he said. "But trying to paint it may have ended up being a foolish idea."

"Typically, my work is not content-oriented. But the context of the Crucifixion is so loaded with all that history, that to do justice to the subject, to make it your own, is very, very difficult."

Fateful Accident

An artist's life was far from Mr. Solow's mind when he was a boy growing up in Manlius, N.Y., outside Syracuse, the son of a technical writer and an English teacher.

"I'd been drawing since I was tiny, soldiers and horses, the typical stuff," he said. "I had a propensity for it, a facility that most kids don't have."

His hobby, however, became his vocation when he was in high school, after a blade broke off the lawnmower while he was cutting the grass and he suffered a seriously lacerated leg.

Laid up for several weeks, the boy spent "hours and hours on my own just drawing. That was the hook."

Art Educator

His talent was recognized by a high school teacher, Frank Vurraro, who helped him win a scholarship to Boston University in 1971.

"That's why art education is so important to me," said Mr. Solow, who has taught classes at Guild Hall, the Art Barge, the Ross School, in a Saturday-morning program at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, and now to a small group of high school students who congregate at his studio. "I had the opportunity to study with someone who was really terrific."

"When I started off, I wasn't such a great teacher," he said, "because there is a craft - an art - I had to learn. My teaching is a work in progress, the same as my art."

Cooper Union

After a year in Boston, Mr. Solow transferred to Cooper Union. "When I went to Boston I thought I was going to be in the big city," he said. "It wasn't what I expected. New York was an entirely different kettle of fish."

At Cooper Union, he found more inspiration. "My teachers, no matter what their background, be it abstract or figurative, were unified in that they had this absolute, almost religious view of art. To them it was a noble profession. It was one of the greatest things people could do with their lives."

Upon leaving the school in 1975, Mr. Solow recognized that "what you do is ultimately up to you. The next step was to be in the studio and try to find my own way."

Breakthrough

He has been influenced by just about every painter he has come in contact with, Mr. Solow said.

"I was never an artist who wanted to be the next Manet or Matisse. The imperative comes from the work itself. That's the wonderful and scary thing about being an artist, it comes from you."

His breakthrough came in the early '80s after he had spent years working a series of restaurant jobs to support his painting. "I was living that bohemian lifestyle, not that I wanted to," he said with a wry smile.

Barbara Hirschl, a noted art dealer, agreed to show one of his paintings in a group show at her Touchstone Gallery. The painting sold.

More Time For Art

"That gave me a tremendous amount of freedom," Mr. Solow said. A solo show followed, which also did well.

He was able to ease up on a "wacky schedule" that had him working until all hours and concentrate more on his painting.

Mr. Solow and Ms. Goodheart, a former drama student, moved to Noyac in 1990, where she opened her gallery in their home and he painted. The couple now has two children, Kathryn, 7, and Stephen, 4.

His current show, "Virtual Studio," will be on view through Feb. 22.

Italian Landscape

In recent years, Mr. Solow has fallen in love with Italy.

"The first time I was there, I was just bowled over by the way the landscape looked," he said. That visit has led to several others, soaking up the ambiance of Florentine piazzas and the Tuscan countryside.

Last year, he organized a study tour that spent 10 days in Florence. He plans to do the same in April.

"A lot of my fellow students at Cooper Union who were more talented than I, for some reason or other are not painting any more. It has to do with discipline, tenacity, and passion," said Mr. Solow.

"A successful artist is one who keeps painting. That's what I tell my students."