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Joseph Solman: Artist friend of Rothko and Pollock

It is apt that Joseph Solman should have died in his sleep, in his 100th year, in the Manhattan apartment where he spent half his life. In a career that spanned nearly eight decades, Solman had lived through social realism, Cubism, expressionism and the Neo-Ashcan School, had championed and then rejected abstraction. In the course of all this, he made friends with artists far more extreme than himself, and whose names are much better known: among them Jackson Pollock and Marcus Rothkowitz, also known as Mark Rothko. Where Pollock died in a drunken car smash and Rothko by his own hand, though, Solman survived: never in thrall to a gallery, always his own man, happy to live over a kosher deli on 10th Street and Second Avenue.

It was, perhaps, this longevity and happiness that kept his name from the first rank of American painters. Rothko got stuck with being Rothko, Pollock with Pollock. Solman, by contrast, was always willing to change direction, even – or maybe particularly – when that change flew in the face of fashion. The son of a Jewish tailor, born in the pogrom-ridden last days of tsarist Russia, he was brought to America at the age of three, to Jamaica, Long Island. It may have been a folk memory of totalitarianism that gave Solman his abhorrence of dominant trends, some of which he helped to create.

Most famous of these was a group known as "The Ten", which he co-founded with Rothko in 1935. Although Solman had recently been involved in Roosevelt's Works Project Administration scheme, he turned against the social realism favoured by the WPA and, at the time, by critics such as Harold Rosenberg. Together with eight other artists – one of the oddities of The Ten was that there were only ever nine of them – he set about pioneering a style of painting which was to be less scenic and more expressionistic than that of American Regionalists such as Grant Wood.

Solman's own contributions to The Ten's shows were among their most experimental, incorporating lessons learned from European Cubism and Surrealism. As he later said, he was "more abstract than Rothko" at the time. When Rothko and other members of the group moved towards abstraction, however, so Solman found himself moving in the opposite direction. In truth, he had never been a true abstractionist, colourist cityscapes such as his 1937 Garage having always retained elements of representation. He was, above all, a painter of New York: "What intrigues me," he said, "is the space and colour of the sky between buildings, which I see when I ride the bus around twilight."

This explanation has an air of Edward Hopper about it, and it was to Hopper that Solman unexpectedly turned in the early 1950s, the mismatched pair founding an art journal and movement with the self-explanatory name of Reality. One reason for this, in Solman's case at least, was the overwhelming dominance that Abstract Expressionism had come to enjoy in the late 1940s. Always wary of juggernauts, the Russian-born artist now nailed his figurative colours to the mast.

He had discovered, he said, that "what we call the subject yields more pattern, more poetry, more drama, greater abstract design and tension than any shapes we may invent." While abstraction shot Rothko and Pollock to stardom, figuration sent Solman's career skittering sideways. Struggling to make ends meet, he took a part-time job as a betting clerk at the Aqueduct racetrack in the New York borough of Queens, his six-dollar window being particularly popular with members of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.

This period constituted the happiest time of Solman's life. In particular, he found joy in the packed A train that took him from Manhattan to the racetrack, using his betting pads and pencils to sketch fellow travellers. He was, he said, particularly fond of drawing sleeping passengers, their unconscious bodies falling into perfect poses. From this time come the images known as the Subway Gouaches, works oddly redolent of German Expressionism of the Thirties. So, too, are Solman's pictures of readers at the 42nd Street Library, with their paradoxical air of public privacy.

With these, the one-time abstractionist enjoyed only mild success, although he did not appear disheartened. A small band of fans, including Duncan Phillips of the eponymous Washington collection, kept Solman in modest comfort. The Sixties found him living in the East Village, an epicentre of the flower power movement; he made a brief nod to hippiedom by doing calligraphic drawings in Sumi wash, but soon reverted to his preferred street scenes and portraits.

These last, too, were only patchily successful, Solman's colourist eye proving too avant-garde for even some 21st-century patrons. (Among these was President Bill Clinton's ex-adviser George Stephanopoulos, who refused to pay for a portrait on the grounds of its green-ness.) In the last decade of his life, Solman was to some extent rediscovered, being the subject of a long essay by the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman. He was also given an exhibition in Bath, listed by The Times as one of the five best shows of 2003.

He stayed on in his sixth floor apartment on 10th Street, enjoying a daily glass of whisky and the company of friends until the last night of his life.

Charles Darwent

Joseph Solman, painter: born Vitebsk, Russian Empire 25 January 1909; married 1933 Ruth Romanofsky (died 1999; one son, one daughter); died New York 16 April 2008.