Holly Solomon, 68; Art Dealer Who Helped Transform Soho


Holly Solomon, an actress who became a flamboyant art collector and gallery owner and, in the process, was instrumental in transforming New York’s Soho into the international epicenter of new art in the 1970s, has died. She was 68.

Solomon died Thursday at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan of complications from pneumonia, according to her son, Thomas. Solomon had been in declining health for several years, following a 1999 diagnosis of mouth and throat cancer.

The adventurous Holly Solomon Gallery had a reputation for showing a wide array of work, often by unknown artists, that went against the grain of entrenched New York values.


“Holly found a lot of young artists and gave them a chance, and I was one of them,” said L.A.-based Alexis Smith, who showed text-and-image art with Solomon from 1975 to 1984. “She had a lot of moxie.”

Before becoming an art dealer with her former husband, Horace Solomon, in 1974, she was an avid art collector. She assumed the sobriquet “the Pop Princess,” which described her early enthusiasm for the work of Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Richard Artschwager and Roy Lichtenstein. Many artists did her portrait. (In 1995, businessman and collector Eli Broad acquired Lichtenstein’s 1965 comic-book picture of a generic, weeping blond, “I . . . I’m Sorry,” which is actually a portrait of Solomon; Broad famously charged the $2.5-million auction purchase on his American Express card.)

In 1969, Solomon opened a noncommercial exhibition space in a scruffy downtown New York City neighborhood south of Houston Street, a faded light-industrial manufacturing area that was beginning to see artists arrive in search of affordable studio space. The market for contemporary American art had recently collapsed, and venues for new work were scarce. Solomon rented a loft at 98 Greene St.--for $158 a month--and began to host poetry readings, performances, musical events and exhibitions.

Married to Horace, the son of a wealthy manufacturer of bobby pins, Solomon once explained to an interviewer, “I started 98 Greene St. because it was far enough downtown that it wouldn’t upset my in-laws.”

The 98 Greene St. Loft, with readings by poet Ted Berrigan and performances by Laurie Anderson and Robert Kushner, operated for three years. In 1975, the Solomons opened their first commercial Soho space, at 392 West Broadway, in what was becoming a burgeoning area for galleries.

Solomon was born Hollis Dworken on Feb. 12, 1934, in Bridgeport, Conn. Her father was a Russian immigrant who operated a small grocery store. She went to Vassar College, but eventually transferred to Sarah Lawrence, where her interests in acting and art developed. After marrying, the Solomons moved to Manhattan where she enrolled in Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio and took the stage name Hollis Belmont. She appeared as a call girl in a feature-length independent film, the 1969 comedy “The Plot Against Harry,” but had little success as a professional actress.

When she opened her commercial gallery on West Broadway, Solomon faced a good deal of skepticism, and even resistance, from those who knew her as an Upper East Side art collector and maven. Kim MacConnel, a painter and professor at UC San Diego who had his first show with Solomon during her first season as a dealer and his last show with her last year, said, “She had a certain rebelliousness that was anti-establishment. But she put her money where her mouth was and her legacy is profound.”

As a dealer Solomon focused on finding alternatives to the established figures of Pop and Minimalist art. She showed figurative New Imagepainting by Susan Rothenberg and Neil Jenney; video art by a pioneer of the genre, Nam June Paik; and, comic videotapes and photographs of dogs by William Wegman.

She bought a house in suburban New Jersey so that process artist Gordon Matta-Clark could saw it in two, creating his most famous sculpture, “Splitting” (1974). The legendary work demonstrated that in a nation riven by Vietnam, civil rights disturbances and the impeachment of a sitting president, a house divided against itself in fact cannot stand.

The movement with which Solomon was most identified is Pattern and Decoration art, which blossomed from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. In addition to Kushner and MacConnel, its artists included Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Valerie Jaudon, Brad Davis, Ned Smyth and several others, and it was championed by the eloquent critic, Amy Goldin. P&D; was a long-standing pejorative for Modern art, which is precisely what interested Solomon. Issues of gender, sexuality and non-Western cultural forms were vital to concepts of the movement, but they were not central to established art at the time, as they are today. Her support for Pattern and Decoration opened doors through which many artists subsequently gained entrance to the art world.

As the Soho scene exploded in the 1980s, Solomon moved the gallery to 724 Fifth Ave., just off 57th Street. Her program remained the same, but the new location was a tacit declaration that, artistically, downtown was becoming indistinguishable from uptown.

A decade later, following her 1990 divorce, she returned to Soho and opened a gallery at the corner of Mercer and Houston streets. Solomon continued to show many of her now-established artists, such as Paik, along with such younger artists as Israeli Izhar Patkin, whose roots extend to the original Pattern and Decoration artists.

She closed the Mercer Street gallery after losing a legal dispute with the building’s landlord three years ago. By then, most of Soho’s galleries had decamped the frenetic retail neighborhood in favor of warehouse spaces in the Chelsea neighborhood, on Manhattan’s west side. Coming full circle, the Pop Princess opened an appointment-only gallery at the Chelsea Hotel.

Solomon was buried Sunday in private services in Bridgeport. She is survived by her brother, Dr. Donald Dworken of Greenwich, Conn; and two sons, John, an executive at Disney who lives in Glendale, and Thomas, an art consultant and independent curator who lives in Beverly Hills. Plans for a memorial service in New York in September are pending.