Donald Sultan




Donald Sultan (born 1951) is an acclaimed American painter known for his large-scale paintings produced using a range of industrial and non-art materials, including tar, latex and rubber, and for his graphic and restrained investigations of form. Since his first solo exhibition in 1977, Sultan has exhibited his works internationally and they are now held in the permanent collections of over fifty major international museums.

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Watch: Donald Sultan Introduces his first UK Retrospective 'Dark Objects'

Donald Sultan is known for his large-scale paintings produced using a range of industrial and non-art materials. Understanding his work as physical labour in the spirit of industrial construction and the practice of the Abstract Expressionists, Sultan sets his series within their social and historical context.

Early Life

Donald Sultan was born in 1951 in Asheville, North Carolina. His father, who ran a large tyre retreading business, was also a painter, working in a style similar to Jackson Pollock. His mother was interested in theatre, and this was the art form that Sultan himself first pursued. Intending initially to major in Dramatic Arts, Sultan enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1968. Unwilling to take direction, he quickly transferred over to the Fine Arts department. Upon graduating in 1973, Sultan enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to further his studies.

Early Career and Training

During the mid 1970s the demise of painting was being declared internationally and Sultan’s contemporaries at SAIC were abandoning painting altogether in favour of the minimalist object or performance or process based art. Sultan, however, persisted with painting. Whilst at SAIC, he would plaster canvases with thick paint, littering the surface with small three-dimensional found objects, such as coins or bottle tops, until they resembled, as he has since stated, ‘a polluted shoreline’. These ‘Debris Paintings’, as he called them, revealed Sultan’s early interest in surface and materiality, and show the subtle debt to Process Art that his work owed during this time.

Like many Mid-western cities at the time, Chicago’s industrial infrastructure was experiencing a slow decline. The almost derelict areas of the city, as well as the nearby city of Gary, Indiana, were equally formative on Sultan’s visual imagination at the time, and would go on to have a huge impact on his first bodies of work. The factory silhouette, for example, would become one of the more salient motifs in Sultan’s early work. Chicago had a further impact on Sultan’s early development in that he immersed himself in the artists’ community there, eventually cofounding the non-profit alternative gallery space called N.A.M.E, which exhibited the work of emerging artists and published a journal that provided a platform for artists’ writings.

New York

Sultan moved to Manhattan in 1975, arriving against a backdrop of a shaken economy and somewhat barren art scene. No art movement had broken through the oppressive legacy left by the heady days of Minimalism, Pop and Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s and 1960s. Searching for reinvigoration, Sultan continued to produce paintings, making work that sought to reflect current times that moved beyond the realm of the totally abstract. In order to support himself financially, Sultan found work initially renovating artist’s lofts in Soho and Tribeca – learning a range of trades while on the job. Here, the artist was introduced to a plethora of industrial materials that he would go on to use in the constructions of his paintings throughout his later career.

Sultan, too, briefly worked for Denise René Gallery, where he watched the installation of a linoleum floor in the lobby of the gallery’s building. The uniformity of these squared-off sections of material piqued Sultan’s interest and he brought home a number of tiles that he then softened over his stove and began to manipulate. Inspired by the black asphalt-based glue used to adhere the tiles to the floor, Sultan next purchased tubes of vinyl butyl rubber roof caulking (otherwise known as roofing tar), using this first as a drawing medium and subsequently to fill cuts in the floor tiles themselves.

Stylistic Development

During this early experimental phase, Sultan began to introduce recognisable forms into his work, reconciling his ambitions to unite both abstraction and figuration. The heavy surfaces that referred to the everyday in their use of material were given a second layer of meaning with the introduction of simple, graphic shapes that came to represent factory smokestacks, industrial towers or street lamps.

Always interested and influenced by both art history and the work of his contemporaries, Sultan cites Josef Beuys and Alberto Burri, as well as Arte Povera’s use of everyday materials and the industrial Minimalist grids found in the work of Carl Andre as influential to his work at this time. Embedding himself in the now burgeoning artistic community found in New York as the 1970s drew to a close, Sultan exhibited at a number of alternative gallery spaces, including Artists Space in Tribeca in 1977. His work was shown at P.S.1 in Long Island before being included in a group exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery in 1978 and the 1979 Whitney Biennial. By the early 1980s, painting was celebrated as medium again, and New York was again the dynamic crucible for young artists it had been in the 1960s.

From 1983, in this enlivened atmosphere, Sultan began to work on his series of monumental ‘Disaster’ Paintings, each work of which was inspired by disastrous industrial or urban events, such as warehouse fires or freight train derailments. Sultan based these paintings on photographs he found in daily newspapers, however he did not inflate any societal or political messages the photographs contained. The paintings, instead, manage to be both very specific renderings of individual traumas as well as generalised representations of disquiet and dread.

Sultan began working on still lifes in the 1980s, producing simplified, graphic depictions of tulips, lemons, pears and eggs. His silhouetted forms of lemons formed the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1988. These restrained investigations of form each informed and inspired the next subject, as the ovals of his lemons led to a series of oval blossomed tulips and the spots on dice and dominoes became oranges, and then, much later, poppies and mimosas. Each series, with its disparate imagery and subject matter, can be distinguished by two defining characteristics – the stark reduction of form and the liberal and free use of black. Black is a leitmotif found throughout Sultan’s oeuvre, with John Ravenal suggesting, ;the colour black serves as the connective tissue in Donald Sultan’s art.’ Sultan also uses black purposely in order to provide an additional link to the history of art, from Rembrandt’s use of bitumen to the Abstract Expressionists, Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still.

Selected Exhibitions and Collections

Quickly receiving critical acclaim and public recognition, Sultan was a celebrated figure in the New York art world before the decade was out. The 1980s and 1990s saw him exhibiting internationally and his works touring the US in multi-venue exhibitions. Sultan’s works are now held in the permanent collections of over 50 major international museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, the Metropolitan Museum, New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Tate Modern, London. He lives and works in New York City.

Exhibition In Focus: Donald Sultan: Dark Objects

Sultan is known for his large-scale paintings produced using a range of industrial and non-art materials, including tar, latex and rubber, and for his graphic and restrained investigations of form. The exhibition looked to reassert Sultan’s status as a vital figure in the reinvention of painting that occurred in New York in the 1980s, and also in the reestablishment of figuration in contemporary painting.

The exhibition included early, smaller-scale experiments in tar, tile and Masonite from the 1970s, three monumental works from Sultan’s celebrated series ‘Disaster Paintings’ as well as works in charcoal from his series ‘Black Lemons’.

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