At Guild Hall this fall, each gallery represents discovery.
For Mike Solomon, it is looking at his father, and his work, through a new lens in “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed.” For curator Jess Frost, it was stumbling across an entire body of work in the Permanent Collection, which now lives as “Please Send To: Ray Johnson.” And for artist Sara Mejia Kriendler, it was exploring her heritage in a country that was closed off to her for decades.
Starting Saturday, October 20, all three will open to the public simultaneously — an East Hampton haven of innovation, breakthroughs and meaning.
‘Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed’
Nearly 80 years ago, abstract expressionism was having a moment in Manhattan. And Syd Solomon missed it.
In 1940, the burgeoning artist enlisted in the Engineer Aviation Regiment, First Camouflage Battalion of the military, and was later moved to the Royal Engineer Camouflage Corps in London. There, he designed camouflage to be used against the Germans in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge, earning him five bronze stars among other commendations.
But what his son, Mike Solomon, never realized was that it was actually the start of his father’s art career.
“We realized that his development of the way he painted — working flat on the floor, using masking techniques and being able to hide parts of the painting and then spraying down on them — were directly related to his aerial camouflage work during World War II,” he said. “It’s like having a brand new artist because there’s a whole other narrative that nobody knew about before. I mean, I’m his son. I thought I knew everything about his work, and I didn’t.”
Instead of moving to New York after the war, Syd Solomon — who had suffered frostbite — and his wife, Annie, set their sights on Sarasota, Florida, where he first began displaying his work at the Ringling Museum of Art. Its director, Everett “Chick” Austin, brought the finest New York artists to him, and in 1955, he visited the East End for the first time.
“He was kind of like the last guy of that generation that got led in and approved of. The Guggenheim and Whitney collected his work right away,” Mike Solomon said. “My mother and father were both very gregarious, loving people. They loved to party; they were the social hub of the Hamptons in the ’60s.”
By 1959 — the year Mike Solomon turned 3 — the family would spend winter and spring in Sarasota before heading to East Hampton, where they were completely embraced by the arts community.
And every summer day at about 1 p.m., they would all gather at Georgica Beach for a picnic.
“If you had dropped a bomb on one of those picnics, you would have wiped out culture in America,” he said. “Everybody was there, all the famous writers and artists and people in theater. It was maybe 500 or 600 people. On any given summer, if you added up all the people who had gone to the beach, it would have been the entire intellectual world of America. And that’s what I grew up in. It was a big, weird family. Whatever normal is, I didn’t have it, any sense of the word.”
His closest family friends were Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Kurt Vonnegut, who based his book, “Blue Beard,” on Syd Solomon. Around 1990, the artist began to display symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and would die on January 24, 2004, at age 86 — leaving behind a massive archive with insights waiting to be uncovered.
“My father’s content is abstracted versions of nature, and very flamboyant and very romantic,” Mike Solomon said. “He was a very big and affirmative type of person. But underneath it was this other stuff that was going on. It’s a new discovery.”
‘Please Send To: Ray Johnson’
Everybody who was anybody in the 1970s art world was getting mail from Ray Johnson.
They were clipped cryptic thoughts, etched or typed, enveloped in mixed media — from magazine cutouts, photographs and handmade stamps to ink doodles, scribbles and cartoonish characters, even clothing.
He would send them directly to friends or unsuspecting strangers — or let them bounce around the community, from artist to artist, some adding their own touches here and there.
It would become known as the “mail art” movement, reaching into the thousands of paper ephemera, though only a fraction has survived, according to Jess Frost, associate curator/registrar of the Permanent Collection at Guild Hall.
“Ray Johnson was very reclusive. Part of the reason he dealt with this ‘mail art’ was because he didn’t want to be involved with institutions and hierarchy, and having to do all this social activity to remain relevant,” she said. “The mail art comes from this amazing place, this rejection of galleries and the art establishment, which I’m very interested in myself. The art world is in a really weird place, and I feel like this is an analogue version of what’s happening to it right now.”
Despite outward appearances, Johnson is a formally trained artist, having studied at the progressive Black Mountain College under Josef Albers, Lyonel Feininger and Robert Motherwell. He would move to Manhattan in early 1949 and, although he regularly showed with Feigen Gallery and even the Whitney Museum of American Art, he remained wary of the public eye — retreating to a suburb on Long Island.
“At that point, he kind of stopped interacting with people in person,” Frost said. “Most of his communication was limited to the telephone — at least with people in the city — or mail.”
By 1958, Johnson began to write “Please send to …” on each of his letters, creating even more sub-networks among the hundreds of participants that became known as “New York Correspondence School.” He would instruct them to intervene in the original work, or forward it on to another person, before declaring it dead 15 years later — though he continued to practice mail art.
It would come to an abrupt stop on January 13, 1995, when Johnson — dressed in black — was seen diving off the Sag Harbor-North Haven Bridge and backstroking out to sea, where he drowned. As part of his final performance, he left a carefully orchestrated legacy in the form of thousands of works, perfectly archived in his otherwise empty home in Locust Valley.
“It just perpetuates the mystery of Ray Johnson,” Frost said. “He created this spider web of connections to everything. I know people are like, ‘I can’t grasp it.’ And you can’t. You couldn’t possibly. The man sat in his house, by himself, just randomly making associations to a million different things. If you try to figure it out, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
“It’s a super fun show, I think if people get into it,” she continued. “It’s not like a Rothko exhibition. You’re not going to sit there and meditate on a beautiful paintings. But if you let yourself get led around by all these weird little ideas, it’s quite brilliant.”
Sara Mejia Kriendler: In Back of Beyond
When she answered her telephone on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Sara Mejia Kriendler was sitting in her Bushwick studio — the exact spot where she received a career-changing call from Guild Hall two years ago.
She had won the Top Honors Prize at the museum’s 78thannual Artist Members Exhibition, her first time entering the show.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, top honors?’ They had to tell me a number of times before I actually believed it,” she said with a laugh. “I was extremely shocked, but after the third or fourth time, it sunk in, and then I felt super honored.”
The 2016 win earned the artist a solo show in the Spiga Gallery, which will feature a new body of mixed-media and sculpture inspired by a recent trip to Colombia, and a rediscovery of her roots.
“My mother is from Colombia,” she said. “I moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I got to spend time in Colombia when I was younger, but it was very dangerous there for a long time. There was a civil war going on and I was living abroad, so I didn’t get to go back for more than 20 years.
“I really wanted to reconnect with the country, but also pay tribute to it,” she continued. “There were a lot of problems there, so a lot of contemporary art was very critical of everything that was happening — and I think that is super important in art. But I wanted to approach the work from more of a place of love and devotion, and what is really magical about this place.”
Intellectually, the country’s history inspired her to use gold foil for the first time, but it was also out of sheer necessity, she explained. While creating a site-specific exhibition this year, art materials she had grown accustomed to in the United States were unavailable to her, and she was forced to get creative.
“It was wonderful for me to explore the history of gold in Colombia, but there’s also this feeling of, ‘I want to bring that back here and really talk about this history here in the United States,’” she said. “It’s a history I want to bring more attention to, and hopefully on the East End, it will be an interesting dialogue. I wanted to bring this Colombian landscape out east.”
This past September — reenergized by her recent travels — Kriendler got to work in her garage studio in Bridgehampton, leaving the door wide open and allowing the sun to stream in, not to mention a cacophony of insects to keep her company.
“In Colombia, the bugs were out of this world, but you know, there’s some pretty good ones in Bridgehampton, too,” she said. “The bees really seem to love the gold foil. I got used to them coming and checking it out, and the crickets were non-stop in the garage, too. I kept trying to rescue them.”
She sighed. “It’s hard to come back to Bushwick after that.”
Three new fall exhibitions — “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed,” “Please Send To: Ray Johnson” and “Sara Mejia Kriendler: In Back of Beyond” — will be on view from Saturday, October 20, through December 16 at Guild Hall, located at 158 Main Street in East Hampton. Admission is free
In conjunction with “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed,” a gallery talk with Mike Solomon will be held on Sunday, October 21, at 1 p.m. at the museum, followed by a lecture by Gail Levin on Saturday, November 3, at 12 p.m. Copies of the monograph “Syd Solomon: Concealed and Revealed,” are now available for purchase.
“Please Send To: Ray Johnson” programming includes a screening of “How to Draw a Bunny” on Sunday, November 25, at 4 p.m. at the museum, as well as a gallery talk with Jess Frost on Sunday, December 2, at 12:30 p.m.
Sara Mejia Kriendler will give a gallery talk on Saturday, December 8, at 11:30 a.m. at the museum.
For more information, call (631) 324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.