I was brought up in Asheville, North Carolina, up in the mountains. So in a way I felt that once I moved to the city with the Art Institute of Chicago, that living in a city, being surrounded by buildings was very comforting and similar to living in the mountains. And the buildings themselves are made out of the same material as the mountains – granite and stone and steel. New York felt quite at home.

I felt from the beginning that I wanted the paintings to be very physical. I started with painting very heavy impasto paintings, and using industrial strength plastics that would be liquid which could be like fibreglass and things like that. Working on construction, fit in with what I already knew how to do. Then I went into the idea of using some of the materials I found to make the paintings I wanted to make. The industrial material such as Linoleum, which I discovered as a fluke working in the gallery on 57th street, from the men laying Linoleum in the elevator, that provided the thickness of the paint that I needed, and the workability. In the dark pictures, all the backgrounds were a blue, flecked tile, and all the florals and still lives were white flecked tiles. The small ones were always white tiles covered with tar. Whatever was revealed by carving away, or washing away, would give its particular point to it: it would become a blueish, landscape background. The yellow would be painted over it; and you could see through that so the fire or the sky would be against a blue background. All of the ‘Disaster Paintings’ consisted of blue tile, yellow paint; or blue paint that matched the tile more or less, and tar. All the fruits and still lives were plaster cut out of tar on tile. So they’re the same group of just a few objects, that are consistent in each one. Even though the images are very different, there’s only three or four elements which are constantly used in each one.

I felt that the Linoleum was the natural landscape that we lived in as the inferiors. On the other hand, there was a lot of work being done – site specific work – within buildings that were being altered like [……..], Gordon Matta-Clark sawed buildings in half. So the idea of cutting the floor up, and using that as the wall itself – like a reverse mural – was a statement about the nature of paintings and the nature of work and the nature of architecture. The idea that I was ripping up the floor and putting it on the wall fit in with that type of work. When I was working on the floor, they were like platforms. I thought of those in a way as a stage. It all came together again. The first big book of mine is called ‘The Theatre of the Object’ – that goes together with the structures.

So, for me, it became an exercise in a paradox between both the floor and the wall of the painting, and the gesture and the rigidity of the architecture, and the meaning and the systems. Two different kinds of meaning, all put together in one painting.

The ‘Black Lemons’ segued from the ‘Disaster Paintings’ and the use of tar, into the industrial image of soot and grit. I wanted to take the soot and I compressed it into very seriously compacted, dense, almost light absorbing solid heavy visual images. They were both real and not real, both solid and void at the same time. As I worked on them, I decided to make them very much like a lemon from the supermarket – make it a standardised image. I began to trace some of the big ones, and transfer those to the next one, and the only variation would be their composition, or the fact that by painting them – just densely working on them with the charcoal by hand – they assumed a separate identity of their own. And then I began to keep working on that, to try to make it so the edges kind of disintegrated – they weren’t hard edged even, they were just amorphous, dense blocks. That also, was the way of making a visual sculpture; to give you the sense of weight and volume, within a flat presentation. The ‘Black Poppies’ were a way of taking those florals I’d been working with, and putting them into the same format as the ‘Black Lemons’. And making the flower, which is very light, and ephemeral shape, into a hard, thick, weighty, sooty image.

My influence of using materials like this – I guess it really came from Pollock. When I was growing up, my father set up a little studio in the basement. He had always wanted to be an artist, but he was a business man, he didn’t really paint very often, he did when he had a chance. He had when I was growing up a picture from Time magazine, a picture of Jackson Pollock: ‘Jack the Dripper’. We loved those paintings. I remember seeing it, and thinking – ‘he just used house paint’. And so did Motherwell, and so did Franz Kline, most of the abstract expressionists besides, later, De Kooning, they used those kind of material for their work because they were cheap, and if you’re going to work on that sort of scale it was natural to use those kinds of paints. Also, as an American, when I was growing up the ethos was working – my father had a tire shop. I worked in the shop, and it was physical labour. I always thought of painting as a kind of physical labour as well. I think a large part of American art was founded on that; it wasn’t the plein air, idea of the bourgeois intellectual working on a canvas to achieve this kind of thing. Americans were more hands on, jeans rolled up, wild west painting. And that’s probably the bulk of what I do, still.

Donald Sultan introduces Dark Objects: Works 1977-2019