Who Is Deborah Solomon?
It wasn’t until 2003, at the age of 46—after an illustrious career as art critic, art historian and magazine writer —that Deborah Solomon began a weekly column for the New York Times Magazine, under the heading “Questions For…” Her interview with the architect Frank Gehry appeared to launch what has become an immensely popular page in the magazine, and has led to her position as one of the most admired and feared interviewers of our time.
After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in art history, Solomon attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She went on to write extensively about art; in addition to serving as The Wall Street Journal’s art critic during the 1990s, Solomon has written two books. The first, a biography of Jackson Pollock, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1987; Michael Brenson, then a New York Times art critic, wrote in the Times Book Review that the book “was not motivated by the author’s passionate desire to say something” and said it brought “no fresh perspective” to Pollock’s life.
Of Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, published by Farrar Straus & Giroux in 1997, Times book critic Michiko Kakutani used the word “elegant” to describe Solomon’s approach. In 2001 she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in connection with an unfinished biography of Norman Rockwell.
But it has been at the New York Times Magazine where Solomon has achieved her greatest prominence. Beginning with a 1987 profile of Roy Lichtenstein—“The Art Behind The Dots”—she became a frequent chronicler of art trends and personalities, and even of herself in a memorable January 2000 essay called “Chain Chewer,” lampooning her addiction to nicotine gum. Two months later, on March 26, 2000, her first magazine Q-and-A appeared, with Hans Haacke, an artist who had a controversial piece in that year’s Whitney Biennial. Three months after that, the magazine published an interview with the artist Jeff Koons. In March of 2002, an interview with artist Tom Sachs popped up. It wasn’t until 2003, though, that “Questions For…” began appearing on a regular basis.
The column caught on quickly with readers, and by 2005, in an interview with Kathy Gilsinan in the Columbia Journalism Review, Solomon was being referred to as “The Q-and-A Queen.” That conversation began curiously:
SOLOMON: Feel free to mix pieces of this interview around, which is what I do. You don’t have to keep it in this order.
CJR: Is there a general protocol on that?
SOLOMON: There’s no Q-and-A protocol. You can write the manual.
Solomon went on to raise the issue of whether it’s appropriate for questioner and subject to exchange emails—something she later did with interview subject Ira Glass (see main story). “I think that’s an important question,” Solomon told CJR, “because the reader generally assumes that a Q-and-A was done in spoken form, spontaneously.”
Describing her technique, Solomon said she begins with a 4,000-word transcript and then cuts it to 700 words. “It’s easier than you would think,” she said, adding: “Editing is an underrated art.” As for letting interview subjects read an interview before publishing, Solomon said that “goes against Times policy and is punishable by death.” She explained that a fact-checker goes over the interview with the subject. “If they want to tone down a comment, forget it,” she said. “But if they feel that somehow they’ve been misrepresented, we do respond to that.”
A more recent interview in Good Magazine, published in its March/April 2007 issue, shed little new light on Solomon’s technique, though it did give some insight into her feelings about the journalism process. “I don’t see interviewing as an art form,” Solomon told interviewer Morgan Clendaniel. “At best, it is a minor art form, like bartending, or macramé.”
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