October 10, 2002

The David M. Solinger Collection

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By all accounts, the David M. Solinger ’26 collection of art is one of the most exciting and important collections of its kind in the nation, and perhaps the world. Composed primarily of works by American and European artists working in the mid 20th century, the Solinger collection is arguably the most monumental collection to ever come to the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.


After graduating from Cornell in 1926, David Solinger attended Columbia University’s law school, graduating in 1929. Following his service in WWII, Solinger returned to New York where he founded the law firm Solinger and Gordon. With an intense interest in advertising and marketing law, Solinger’s roster of clients included giants like Saks Fifth Avenue.

Despite his success in the business world, however, Solinger never lost his intense interest in art. His wife, Betty Ann Besch Solinger wrote of her late husband, “David experienced a work of art as a seduction, sometimes like a blow between the eyes … he didn’t grow up with art on the walls, and when he went off to Cornell in the twenties, there was only one art course in the curriculum, on Greek sculpture, which he was quick to take.”

Indeed, throughout his life, Solinger made and maintained close relationships with some of the nation’s (as well as the world’s) most important artists and prominent businessmen. To call him a proverbial “Renaissance Man” might be too constricting a title for someone like Solinger.

In his long career as a lawyer and as an avid art afficionado, Solinger lectured at several major universities, acted as a trustee for the American Federation of the Arts, served as a founding member and the first president of the Friends of the Whitney Museum of Art, and later went on to become a trustee for that institution. During his vacation time in Provincetown, MA, he employed artistic skills he’d practiced in classes at both the YMHA and the Art Student’s League. Some fine examples of Solinger’s own work are concurrently on display along with the many fine works from his collection.

And though he only avidly collected art for a relatively short period of time, he did so with intelligence and his own artistic appetite in mind. That is to say that the Solinger collection is composed of works he hand-picked for their appeal to his own artistic sensibilities. With little formal training in art or art history, Solinger went about building his collection without the self-conscious pretension that is so commonly associated with private collectors. As a self-made success, he was able to choose and acquire pieces that touched him.

What is most astounding is that when looking at the pieces in his collection, one not only comes away with the knowledge that he’s seen some of the finest modern art in the world, but we get a real feel for who Solinger was.

Explicitly, through the works themselves, we see that Solinger was a lover of beauty, expression. Implicitly — through his generosity and the generosity of his family), we see that he was a philanthropist of the highest order.


“Mrs. Solinger and I have been talking for at least four or five years about bringing this collection to the museum,” says the Richard J. Schwartz Director of the Johnson, Frank Robinson.

“I first saw the works in early ’92 … I had met the Solingers even before I had become the Director of the museum. He [David Solinger] has made over 200 gifts to the museum already.”

An example of Solinger’s generosity was recounted in an anecdote by Robinson regarding one of those 200 gifts to the museum.

“At one point we went together to a dealer in New York City and he wanted to pay for a work that was about $35,000 … he bargained it down to $30.000 but wanted to go a little lower. Finally, he said to the dealer, Virginia Zabriskie, ‘You know, Virginia, I’m buying this for the museum at Cornell, why don’t you make it $26,000?’ and she did. She was so taken aback that she dropped the price. He was a brilliant negotiator in that respect.”

As diverse and dichotomous as any collection one may ever encounter, the works currently on display at the Johnson represent a time period when “Modern Art” was coming into its own. After WWII, when New York City was fast becoming the epicenter of youth culture, literature, jazz and commerce, it followed that the city gained a reputation as an art and artist-friendly city. This is to say, Solinger lived in the city at an electric and evocative time when a de Kooning could be purchased for $150 (as Solinger, himself, did).

As one enters the main gallery, the viewer is greeted by Pablo Picasso’s Femme dans un fauteuil (Woman in an Armchair), from 1927. At approximately 58 inches by 39 inches, this is an impressive and imposing work by one of the world’s most widely recognized artists. Picasso once said, “Give me a museum, and I’ll fill it.” After being greeted by his dark and imposing woman, it’s easy to understand what he meant. This single work seems grand enough to fill the space.

Other works in the collection include the organic purism of Jean Arp, including his “Floral Nude” a piece which the Frank Robinson calls “The highest and best Arp there is.”

A mixed media piece entitled “Trade Winds” by Joseph Cornell is not only part of the exhibit, but will be staying at Cornell.

“Finally,” says Robinson, “We have a Cornell at Cornell.”

Similarly, Jean Dubuffet’s “Vue de Paris, La vie de plaisir” (View of Paris, the Life of Pleasure) will remain in the museum’s possession. Painted in 1944, at a time when Paris was smoldering in the wake of German invasion, the work is an interesting commentary by an artist who is just recently coming into popular favor.

American Willem de Kooning’s “Yellow River” is one of the highlights of the exhibition. With it’s striking, broad brush strokes and its seemingly sporadic mixture of yellows and blues make this one of the most enticing canvases in the collection.

Other highlights include two works by the “father of the mobile” Alexander Calder, and sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, including 1950’s “Bust of Diego.” Hans Hoffman, Wassily Kandinski, John Martin, Fernand L