Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan (b. 1951 Asheville, NC) is an artist who rose to prominence in the late 1970s as part of the “New Image” movement. Sultan has challenged the boundaries between painting and sculpture throughout his career. Using industrial materials such as roofing tar, aluminum, linoleum and enamel, Sultan layers, gouges, sands and constructs his paintings—sumptuous, richly textured compositions often made of the same materials as the rooms in which they are displayed. Intrigued by contrasts, he explores dichotomies of beauty and roughness, nature and artificiality, and realism and abstraction. Weighty and structured, Sultan’s works are simultaneously abstract and representational: his imagery is immediately recognizable— flowers, daily objects, idle factories—but ultimately reduced to simple geometric and organic shapes. As Sultan says, “I try to pare down the images to their essence, and capture the fleeting aspect of reality by pitting the gesture against the geometric—the gesture being the fluidity of the human against the geometry of the object.” 

Sultan’s early experiences building theatre sets at school, working in his father’s tire company in Asheville, and later in construction as a young artist in New York had a profound influence on his artistic development. These various lines of work led to an interest in industrial reproduction, heavy materials, and a practice of painting on floors and walls, à la Jackson Pollock. Sultan’s works, constructed horizontally, denote a purposely flat quality that borrows the synthetic flatness of stage sets while also utilizing the monumental weightiness of industrial materials— which harkens back to Asheville’s strong roots in manufacturing. 

Interested in the artifice of nature as it is sold and packaged within a consumerist society, a major theme within Sultan’s work is studying the representation of an object or idea—how a flower, a factory, or a fruit is consumed in the Zeitgeist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the 1980s, Sultan began depicting lemons in the style of traditional still lives. The blinding brightness of the yellow against the pitch black hue of the roofing tar he used as background make Sultan’s interpretations of these fruits hard to look at, while deferring monumental dignity to the common household good. The contrast of these natural organic shapes against the industrial materials and grid format has led Sultan to describe these works as pieces with “heavy structure, holding fragile meaning.” Playing with the dichotomy of meaning and material, perception and reality, the Lemon works began Sultan’s longstanding interest in depicting how an object is looked at, rather than the object itself. 

His 1990s series on dominos and dice continue this reflection on the still life—the ultimate, slow, and concentrated gaze upon an object. A style entrenched in repetition and tradition, the repertoire of this style is ultimately limited, but the combinations endless. In his compositions of back dots and mathematically endless arrangements of dominoes, Sultan creates a visual metaphor for the limitations and possibilities of the still life tradition, and the liberties allowed within its set parameter. 

The artist’s heavy use of industrial materials in the late twentieth century naturally led to his famous series of “catastrophic” paintings in the 1980s and 1990s. These industrial landscapes, titled the Disaster Paintings, illustrate the fragility of robust man-made structures, such as industrial plants and train cars, when faced with catastrophic events. This series was exhibited across the United States in a traveling exhibition in 2016 through 2018. The exhibition originated at the Lowe Art Museum at University of Miami and then traveled to the Museum 

of Modern Art, Fort Worth; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; and Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln. 

In recent years, Sultan has pursued his interest in disrupting the established gaze cast upon everyday objects. His recent depictions of tulips, poppies, mimosas and camellias continue to interrogate how these flowers have been manipulated in art history—and this interrogation is aimed to destabilize a wider culture of visual status quo. 

Sultan studied at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and later received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives and works in New York, NY. 

His first solo exhibition was mounted in 1977 at Artists Space in New York. He has since exhibited worldwide in solo and group exhibitions, including at the Cameron Art Museum (2022), Huntington Museum of Art (2021), Parrish Art Museum (2020), British Museum (2017), Royal Academy of Arts (2017), Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (2009), Delaware Art Museum (2008), Corcoran Gallery of Art (2000), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (1987), Memphis Brooks Museum (2000), Museum of Modern Art (1988), Musée d’art Contemporain, Montreal (1984), Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1993), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1988), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (1979). 

His work is included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; British Museum, London; Cincinnati Art Museum, OH; Cleveland Art Museum, OH; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, TX; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, MA; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Ludwig Museum, Budapest; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; Museum of Modern Art, NY; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Neuberger Museum at SUNY Purchase, NY; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Singapore Museum of Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY; Tate Gallery, London; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN. 

Donald Sultan, Mimosa Jan 16 2019, 2019. © Donald Sultan; Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX. Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York
Donald Sultan, White Poppies with Flocked Centers March 3 2002, 2002. © Donald Sultan; Collection of the Parrish Art Museum, NY. Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE Gallery, New York.

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