Donald Sultan: Black Lemons

Having graduated from The Art Institute of Chicago, Donald Sultan began his career as an artist in New York in 1975. Since, his oeuvre has spanned from industrial disaster paintings to still lifes depicting everyday objects such as flowers, dominoes, fruit, and buttons. Sultan’s work bridges the divide between conceptualism, abstraction and figuration, whilst a heavy emphasis on materiality has further been associated with the process artists of the late 1960s. Sultan began painting lemons in 1983 – the subject for which he was to become best known – and in 1988 the Museum of Modern Art, New York held a solo exhibition of the artist’s monumental Black Lemon aquatints, made contemporaneously with a series of charcoal drawings of the same subject.

Black Lemons, 31 May, 1985, sees the negative space of three lemons exceed the perimeter of the picture’s frame. In this the lemons take on a sentience of their own, as if outgrowing the confines of the paper which supports them. Rendered in effusive charcoal, the curator Charles Wylie has described them as taking on the power of ‘the abstract minimalist object’, in that the lemons seem to refer only to themselves, superseding any wider context. There is an unspoken juxtaposition between the banality of the object depicted – the lemon – and the depth implied by the medium of charcoal. The lemons appear before the viewer as shadows, or scorch marks left after a disaster: foregoing their status as everyday objects to take on a monumental, ominous presence.

In Jean Baudrillard’s 1979 work, Fatal Strategies, the sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist discusses the ‘fatal strategies’ of global capitalism. Of particular emphasis is the supremacy of the object. He argues that in the West, objects have become ‘ecstatic’; they surpass themselves, exceed their own boundaries, and leave the subject in a state of anxiety and inertia, unable to chart, manage, or even comprehend the mechanisms of contemporary society. Sultan’s lemons are able to speak to this anxiety; despite their place within our understanding of the everyday, these giant, dark lemons take on an uncanny presence, suggestive of insidious movements which seek to outwit the viewer.

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