Art News

RIP: Phil Solomon, Experimental Filmmaker and CU Professor

University of Colorado Boulder professor and experimental filmmaker Phil Solomon passed away on April 20,  surrounded by family and friends.

“We know that he touched many people in many wonderful ways,” his family wrote on Solomon's Facebook profile. “He cherished all of you and your friendship and conversations, and truly loved this community. We all will miss him profoundly.”

Solomon, who was 65, devoted his filmmaking career to exploring memory, death and loss by pushing the limits of hand-processing film, using chemicals and physical means to alter imagery, creating vivid portraits of the inner mind.

He was a film purist, a devout disciple of Stan Brakhage, the late avant-garde master, and a teacher to hundreds of film students at CU Boulder. Few artists have defined a region’s aesthetic as Brakhage did, and Solomon maintained that legacy over the years, making Boulder and the entire Front Range a mecca for devotees of abstract experimental film.

Solomon was known for being philosophical, for loving celluloid and the masters of cinema, and for communicating that passion to students who went on to push the boundaries of experimental media in their own right.

"Phil was profoundly important to the international avant-garde film world, one of the most important experimental filmmakers of the past forty years," recalls Elisabeth Subrin, a New York-based filmmaker and associate professor of film and media arts at Temple University. "His films have been restored and archived by the Academy of Motion Pictures. He's had countless retrospectives. He's taught generations of students. Furthermore, he is a huge local figure.

"Phil Solomon changed my life the night of my first film course with him," she remembers. "I have told this story before, but at the beginning of the class, he told all of us, 'If you want to get famous, have great recognition as a filmmaker, make a good living or even just be understood as an artist, you should probably drop this class.' Then he showed Maya Deren's 'Meshes of the Afternoon' and talked about cinema as only Phil could: precise, detailed, informed by art history, film history, poetry, cultural politics and music. None of us dropped the class. He was a mesmerizing teacher."

Subrin kept in touch with her teacher.  "Over the next decade, Phil mentored me as an artist, along with his best friend and collaborator, the experimental ethnographic filmmaker Mark Lapore," she recalls.  "Even when I had left Boston to go to graduate school in Chicago, Mark and Phil got on the phone together long distance and went literally shot by shot through my graduate thesis film-in-progress, passionately debating the exact frame length of certain shots. His dedication and support of my work was profound, the impact of his exquisite films immeasurable. He was a visionary, an incredibly generous teacher, and a dear friend."

Lapore passed away in 2005, and Subrin says that his best friend's death hit Solomon profoundly: "Due to his own health issues, I think he thought he would pass away first. Instead he outlived him by almost fifteen years. We corresponded every year on the anniversary of Mark's death, connecting about him and our own lives."

She last saw Solomon at the premiere of her first feature film, A Woman, A Part, at the Denver Film Festival in 2016. "Before the event, he wrote to me, 'I'm giving Saul (Levine) the Brakhage Award on Sunday night. So it will be a homecoming week for me to see you both in town... Life coming full circle time. I will always think of you as my first student, and now I'm (unofficially) retired and looking back, with pride. I am very fucking proud of you, as I know Mark L would be too... I'm taking him with me.' This is how Phil was as a teacher and friend," Subrin concludes. "So supportive, so committed, and always a poet."

Susan Froyd honored Solomon in Westword as a Colorado Creative in 2015. "In the realm of experimental film, Phil Solomon is a name to remember," she wrote. "His work has been oft-awarded, screened internationally and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Biennial in New York. For nearly 25 years, he’s been sharing his pioneering techniques and inspiring students to go further at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he collaborated with a fellow legend, the late Stan Brakhage.”

In his Colorado Creative interview, Solomon said that he would love to collaborate with Brian Eno, and simultaneously summed up his own goals as a filmmaker: “A man blessed with an exquisite aesthetic sensibility, interesting ideas and the right spirit needed for collaboration. I have been searching for forms in cinema that move calmly and inevitably, much like his best music. I think our mutual interest in textures and light would be mutually beneficial.”

Solomon, a lifelong champion of social justice, also praised Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, describing them as “my Dream Ticket for these troubled and maddening times in America. A vote for common sense, common cause and decency.”

In recent months, Solomon largely quit posting on Facebook, but for years he'd used the platform to celebrate underground creative luminaries in music, film, art and literature. He often wrote stirring tributes to those who passed away, from radio DJs to musicians to old friends.

Solomon will be remembered as a good friend, a great teacher and a sensitive and literary soul, reflective in a world too quick to judge.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris