GALLERY IN A GARAGE : Second-generation art entrepreneur Thomas Solomon shuns tradition and displays artwork in a space that opens on an alley

A year ago Thomas Solomon opened a garage and went into the family business.

He does not change oil, spark plugs or air filters in the two-car garage, located on an alley in the Fairfax District. What Solomon is trying to change, in a quiet way, is the way people think about art galleries.

"I didn't want to be on a boulevard. I didn't want a sign out front," said the soft-spoken Solomon as he leaned against his homemade desk. It is the only piece of furniture in Thomas Solomon's Garage, a gallery that specializes in work by young, avant-garde artists. "I do no listing and no advertising. I do not send out press releases. I started the garage with an intent of it being about the artwork, and not about making it in the art scene."

Solomon, 30, could have drawn attention to his garage by capitalizing on the fact that his mother, Holly Solomon, is famous in art circles as a champion of contemporary artists. She opened one of the first art performance spaces in New York's Soho area in 1969 and her current gallery, located among the famed 57th Street showcases for art, regularly features works by such established artists as William Wegman, Robert Mapplethorpe and Nam June Paik. Thomas Solomon's godfather is Christo, the artist who wraps whole buildings in material.

Although Holly Solomon also started out by showing young, unknown artists in an alternative space, she now has more traditional ideas about what a gallery should be.

"When I walked into the garage, the first thing I said was, 'So, where is the sign?' " she said, speaking from her gallery in New York. "He said, 'Mom, they will find me if they want me.'

"What can I tell you? It's not my way, but I am very proud of him."

Her son, whose garage gallery is now showing "Paintings by the Pound" by Luciano Perna (there is a scale by Solomon's desk and paintings are priced according to weight), gratefully credits his mother as his inspiration not to travel a well-worn path, and he has used connections he gained by growing up in an art-intensive household. But he feels strongly that he has to make his own way.

"You would think it's easy for me to be the son of someone famous in the same business," said Solomon, who speaks in a slow, measured stream of words.

"But I've always learned everything on my own. I made my own mistakes. That is part of what I learned from my mother. I learned from her how to live surrounded by interesting, challenging art. And I learned from her how to be independent."

Financially, he said, he's been on his own. "I'm not a trust-fund baby, that's for sure."

As a teen-ager in New York he worked as an assistant to several sculptors, including Alexis Smith and Gordon Matta-Clark, and then curated shows at White Columns, an alternative art space in Soho founded by Matta-Clark. "From the beginning I was showing young, undiscovered artists, a number of whom were out of CalArts."

He left White Columns in 1985 and lived for a year in Europe, curating an exhibit of works by 40 young New York artists at the Udstillingsbygning Ved Cholottenborgq Museum in Copenhagen, and traveling to take in the European avant-garde scene. Then he set his sights on California. He had long been a fan of such established West Coast artists as Edward Ruscha, James Turrel, Robert Irwin, Bruce Nauman and John Baldessari. But he also wanted to explore the works of a younger crowd.

"In New York they are interested in the California work that deals with the same issues as New York or European art," Solomon said. "I wanted to learn about art out here that was less well-known, less safe."

Solomon came to Los Angeles in 1986 to check out the local art scene and look for work. He interviewed for a job at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which he didn't get, and was asked to take over as director of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, which he didn't want to do. He curated shows for six months at the Piezo Electric Gallery in Venice and then in the summer of 1987 put together a show (titled "Breaking Through the Looking Glass") of new works by Los Angeles and New York artists. The exhibition was displayed simultaneously on both coasts--at the Fahey-Klein Gallery in Hollywood and at his mother's gallery in New York--with different works by the same artists in each show.

He also resurrected a Christmastime event he had staged for several years at White Columns in Soho, his "First Pacific A/More Christmas Exhibit and Sale," a marketplace in which artists can set up booths and sell their works to invited guests. In 1987 he produced the A/More (from the French word for love) event in the basement of the regal Los Altos apartments near downtown. All proceeds went to the artists.

Buoyed by the good feelings the event generated among artists, Solomon, who had settled in West Los Angeles, decided to look around for his own place to establish a gallery. Given his penchant for alternative spaces and basements for art happenings, it's not much of a surprise that he ended up in a two-car garage.

"When I was making studio visits out here, I saw artists working in their garages," he said. "It started to come together for me. The garage has a history out here--rock 'n' roll bands, inventions, experimentation, new ideas that start small. Mattel Toys, Apple Computers started in garages.

"I started to look for the right garage in a quiet place with beautiful light."

Through a classified ad, he found his dream garage near mid-block, off an alley in the rear of an apartment building. The garage, behind 822 Hayworth Ave., had long ago been converted to storage space and had been used as an artist's studio at one time. It was about 15 by 17 feet and had a skylight to let in the "beautiful light" Solomon wanted.

He painted the walls white and the floor gray, and keeps the garage immaculate. "I think the only advice I gave him about operating a gallery was that he has a responsibility to keep the place clean," said his mother. "He should make sure it is the best possible space to show work."

Thomas Solomon listened to his mother. The garage looks like a minimalist stage set upon which art, whether hung on the walls or situated on pedestals on the floor, is the star.

He has not checked to see if an art gallery fits into the zoning ordinance for the residential area.

"I have done it low-key, I have insurance, I'm a good neighbor and I have had no problems with any officials," he said. He does, however, have friends in high places, including on the City Council.

"Joel Wachs comes to see all my exhibits," Solomon said. "Al Nodel (general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs) has come too."

The gallery opened last November with a show of "eraser pictures" by Michael Gonzalez. "He does a kind of painting with sculpture," Solomon said. "He cuts up plastic erasers and places them on Masonite."

The second show was of paintings by the best-known artist who has been shown at the garage: William Wegman, whose most famous works are his enduring photographs of his dogs Man Ray and Fay Ray. "I grew up with Bill," Solomon said, adding that Wegman was the only artist who got his works into the garage because of his family connections.

Solomon changes the shows almost every two weeks, much faster than most galleries. Artists he has shown include painter Carl Ostendarp, who sprays thick linen with urethane foam; local sculptor Robert Millar; Theresa Pendlebury, whose show of photos taken of her television screen during newscasts was called "Why Go Outside When the Door Is So Pretty;" and Stephen Glassman, whose "Frozen Precedents" works use refrigerator units to produce a layer of ice over mounted photographs of past U.S. Presidents.

Solomon said he does well financially, especially considering his low overhead. Solomon sold four of six sculptures he recently showed by Sean Landers, who suspends plaster casts of famous figures--such as Abraham Lincoln and Dante--in blocks of resin. The price was $3,300 apiece.

In September he had a show of mixed media "self portraits" by Laura Stein, with price tags ranging from $900 to $2,200. He sold all seven exhibited in the garage, plus two more he had in storage.

As with most of his artists, Solomon got a 50% commission on the Landers and Stein sales.

Visitors to the garage have included famed collector Count Guiseppi Panza, famed curator Pontus Hulten, and artists Baldessari and Jonathan Borofsky.

Some days almost no one comes to the garage. That's when Solomon sits alone at his desk, doing business on the telephone or reading. He has no employees to help man the gallery and he normally does not leave during business hours. He brings his lunch.

In a two-hour stretch one afternoon during the Landers show, the only visitor was a young man who wondered in from the alley, hoping to bum a cigarette. Solomon gave him a Kool. The young man lit up, looked around at the eerie display of plaster casts in resin, and quickly exited.

"I like being part of a neighborhood," Solomon said. "I'm very open to talking to people. I'm not hidden away."

But he is not settling down entirely. Solomon is drawn to ever-more-exotic locales for art displays. "I'm close to making a deal to have this year's A/More show in a swimming pool," he said.

The pool, as Solomon envisioned it, will not be emptied for the event. "It will be a heated pool and I'll be telling people to bring their swimming suits," he said. "The art will be at the bottom of the pool, floating on the surface, on the sides.

"I've always wanted to have an art show underwater."

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