Donald Sultan, Iconic Painter

Meyerovich Gallery
Sep 7, 2016 7:17PM

Iconic Painter Donald Sultan Shows Seminal 1980s Works, The Disaster Paintings, On National Tour by Adam Lehrer, Aug 31, 2016, in

Forbes Lifestyle.

Iconic North Carolina-born, New York-based painter Donald Sultan, who achieved international fame and success through his still-life paintings made from industrial materials such as tar, linoleum, and plaster, has decided to re-visit an important but oft-forgotten body of work from his early career. Starting on September 29 at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Florida (and continuing through tours at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, The Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, and the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the Sheldon Museum), Sultan will be presenting his seminal “disaster paintings,” from the 1980s. It is the first time these paintings will be presented together as a  group.  

  Donald Sultan, all images courtesy of the artist  

Between 1984 and 1990, Sultan started painting catastrophic events that he saw in the newspapers. Particularly those types of events that are of an unseen nature, wreaking havoc with a whimper and not a bang. Sultan says, “The destruction depicted in them was mostly caused by unknowable or unseeable things. You don’t see the actual executioner; like shelling from artilleries 100 miles away. The destruction of the earth by oil rigs and refineries. And the poisoning of the waters. So you don’t see the direct result of the event but the fall out from the carrying of the wind.”

Sultan’s disaster paintings thematically differ quite a bit from the still-life paintings of flowers and fruit that he would later become known for. The disaster paintings are dark, foreboding, and almost apocalyptic, while his still-lives are exercises in beauty and an abstracted serenity. That being said, the disaster paintings still highlight an important development in Sultan’s uncommon technique. They were the paintings that saw him introduce industrial materials to his art making, such as spreading tar over 12-inch floor tile-covered masonite. The paintings that result from his technique are textured, heavy, and dense. The disaster paintings are also abstractions, and Sultan has maintained his interest in abstraction in his work today. “I don’t want [my paintings’ subject matter] to be seen as a just a button,” says Sultan. “So they have to be read as not a button or a flower but something abstracted from which you can derive meaning.”

  Sultan, now in his mid-60s, is as vital now as he was during the 1980s when he found himself named amongst the other “art stars” of the time: Basquiat, Haring, Schnabel, Fischl, Salle, and others. Unlike some of his 1980s contemporaries, Sultan doesn’t fall into any of the trappings of the “difficult artist” cliché. Speaking at his plush TriBeca studio, the bespectacled Sultan is warm, amiable, and an avid conversationalist. Over hot coffee, Sultan and I spoke at length about his decision to revisit the disaster paintings. But veering off course at times, Sultan also shared his thoughts on world affairs, the slow death of Hollywood cinema, the over-inflated fine art market, and (my favorite subject) the gentrification of New York City.  

  Donald Sultan, ‘Veracruz Nov 18, 1986′


Adam Lehrer: So this is the first time that the disaster paintings will be shown as a group, it seems like that body of work has become more immediately relevant to the culture with things like climate change and corporate greed.. Were you aware of any political relevance whilst painting these?

Donald Sultan: Not really. I thought of them less as disasters and more as events. But I also used them as reference to the materials that I was using: linoleum, tar, and plaster. So the materials fit the content. And I wanted to reference other art. I referenced Manet’sThe Execution of Emperor Maximillian, and Monet.

I thought of them as not romantic landscapes but true landscapes. And also dark pictures. I was thinking of Clyfford Still and Pollock. Part of the American way of painting was industrial. I never was comfortable with illustration; I was interested in the way paintings were made.

Adam Lehrer: You’ve said something to the effect of, and I’m paraphrasing, you paint only what you can see. You’re not interested in painting your dreams or the unconscious. Why is that?

Donald Sultan: The closer you work from reality the more abstract things can get. Like if you just did a cigarette with smoke in a painting than that’s very abstract.

Adam Lehrer: When did you stop painting the disasters?

Donald Sultan: People asked me why I quit and it was because the imagery I was using became pervasive. That’s not why I did them. I did it because that was the way the world was going. Part of the American way of painting was industrial. I never was comfortable with illustration; I was interested in the way paintings were made.

  Donald Sultan, ‘August 12, 1990′


Adam Lehrer: But something must have reignited an interest in the disaster imagery within you?

Donald Sultan: Also, what I like about these paintings is that they are all different. You have to confront each one and they are all quite hard to read. During an actually disastrous event it’s confusing. When the World Trade Center came down,I thought, “Is that really true?” We were never afraid. The further from Ground Zero people were, the more frightened people were. People in the Midwest were more frightened than us who were right at Ground Zero. it’s interesting that when you’re at the thing it’s not quite as scary. Because it’s confusing.

Adam Lehrer: And you hear about people living in war torn countries that hear a bomb go off next door, and it doesn’t phase them. Because it becomes a part of their existence.

Donald Sultan: Of course if it keeps coming….

Adam Lehrer: Then you better get out of there.

Donald Sultan: (laughs)of course. One of the things I find interesting is that I don’t know the type of harm that social media does. But it’s enormously harmful. You think about [Arab Spring in] Egypt and the guy from Google was going to have this big role in the government, and that they were going to overthrow the dictator with all of these people from social media. The idea that social media is going to save you is preposterous.

Adam Lehrer: I just read about the Arab Spring and Egypt especially that it really wasn’t the revolution of the people it was the revolution of a disgruntled upper middle class. So what seemed like a glorious moment in fighting the power was actually a coup of a few rather many.

Donald Sultan: They got screwed. That’s what happened in Iran. When I was growing up, Iran had all these moderate, anti-Shah leaders talking about overthrowing the Shah, getting the U.S. to help, and bringing forth a new Iran. As soon as the Shah went down they hunted him down and killed him.

  Donald Sultan, ‘Southend February 24, 1986′


Adam Lehrer: There’s this magazine called Dust Magazine  that just dedicated an entire issue to the examination of the modern Middle East and they did a history of Iran’s revolutions, and it’s literally just one dictator after another, each running on a bill of improved human rights.

Donald Sultan: The oppressed becomes the oppressor. Look at Russia, it’s heading back to Stalin.

Adam Lehrer: Was it a confluence of all these events in the world that made you want to bring the Disaster Paintings back out?

I just think not enough people got to see them. My son owns a painting that I gave him as a baby for his trust. He was born in ’88 and never saw these paintings.

Adam Lehrer: The disaster paintings were done in the ‘80s. Was there anything about that decade that bled into the work?

Donald Sultan: In the ‘80s the parties were happening but New York was dangerous. It felt dangerous. Though I come from Chicago and New York always felt comparatively safer than Chicago. But those days you could dance in the bars like any other sane part of the country. And then [Rudy] Giuliani killed it. You can’t dance in bars which turned the whole dance scene over to the clubs. I don’t understand how people can even go to clubs. They are too noisy and you can’t meet anyone. And don’t even get me started on “VIP areas!”

  Donald Sultan, ‘Forest Fire, May 14 1985′


Adam Lehrer: Giuliani is the worst.

Donald Sultan: The worst!

Adam Lehrer: Giuliani and Bloomberg saw this city get so unreasonably expensive. I do love living here and being young here, but you aren’t saving any real money, and I can’t help but think, “This would be by far the best city in the world if it was just a little cheaper.”

Donald Sultan: I see these young women working at galleries and they are pretty and nice and come from nice families and they get paid nothing,but they are out at restaurants that cost $300 a meal. Where do they get the money? It’s very hard here.

Adam Lehrer: So you saw it change a lot?

Donald Sultan: Well, it got fancier. But you don’t really see it [in TriBeca] like you do in SoHo. I loved SoHo back in the day. There were galleries and artists and great lofts. It was fun. I’m sure it’s fun in Brooklyn when people have their own scenes, but it is Brooklyn.

Adam Lehrer: Studio 54 founder Steve Rubell one said, “Art stars of the ‘80s were like the rock stars of the ‘60s or the fashion designers of the ‘70s.” Basquiat, Schanbel, Haring, you. Art stars now feel like their fame is limited to the art world. But you guys were widely known by anyone reading magazines back then. Was it strange to have such fame thrust upon you?

Donald Sultan: No, it probably affected me but it didn’t feel strange. It was just what I was doing and it was a small world. A lot of people did well. Most people that are known now are known through branding. It’s really about money. The value of art is how much it’s valued at art auction houses. The auction houses didn’t even sell contemporary art until Mary Boone and Saatchi started manipulating the market and holding auctions for younger artists and as a result jacking art prices way up. That created a monster.

Adam Lehrer: (laughs) You showed with Mary Boone, correct?

Donald Sultan: I did, that was my first gallery. I left her for the Willard Gallery. It was probably a business mistake, but I went with them because I thought they really had terrific artists at the time. But they weren’t great dealers. So I left and joined Blum Helman which was a terrific dealer. I always liked uptown. I never showed in SoHo again after Mary’s. And I never showed in Chelsea until recently. I don’t like Chelsea.

Adam Lehrer: Well there isn’t much reason to go there other than the galleries.

Donald Sultan: These big mega galleries, you have to fill them up, and everyone judges them by the scale of the gallery and not the actual art. There’s a reason artists make huge works and if it’s just to fill a gallery space than the point of it is missed.

Adam Lehrer: I read that you said the scale of a painting has no effect whatsoever on the impact of a painting. Do you still feel like that?

Donald Sultan: I think you can make a small painting just as powerful as large paintings.The smaller paintings were still lives but they could hold a big space and that was the idea. Scale has something to do with it. But the size has to be because it’s what the painting needs. You talk about big paintings, the French 18th Century painters, it’s hard to make paintings bigger than that, likeThe Coronation of Napoleon or The Wrath of Medusa. They were made to fill palaces, not galleries. We don’t have the same lifestyle to support paintings that size.

Adam Lehrer: Do you think your early experience working in theatre imbued within your paintings a taste for theatrics?

Donald Sultan: Yes. I’ve always thought of [my paintings] as stages. My big book is called The Theater of the Object. It asks, “What is the drama around the painting?” The thing about painting though is it doesn’t tell you the story right away. It’s not like there is a beginning, middle and end. You ,as a viewer become, a part of the its finish. And a painting should be deep enough that you should be able to get something out of it despite your knowledge of art.

Adam Lehrer: Why did you give up set design for fine art?

Donald Sultan:. I wanted more control. Painting was the only way to do it yourself. Movies require too many people. You can have an auteur vision but there’s a lot of money involved. And there’s a lot of people telling you what to do.

Adam Lehrer: And in movies now, there’s only maybe 10 American directors that have full creative control.

Donald Sultan: I’m not even sure they have full control. Not even Coppola can get funding.

Adam Lehrer: It’s crazy to me that the piece of shit superman movie gets a $200 million budget while the new PT Anderson film gets $10 million.

Donald Sultan: They don’t have the audience. Movies are just spectacles now. And Hollywood does spectacles well. I like the new James Bond film quite a bit (laughs).

Adam Lehrer: Spectre, yeah, I thought it was great

Donald Sultan: Yeah, they do these kind of explosions, but then people get however much for a painting, and you think, “Low budget picture,” (laughs).

Adam Lehrer: Do you feel most in your element undergoing really strenuous or difficult labor and tasks?

Donald Sultan: I don’t know. I like to move through the work. I like to do new things. That creates a challenge.There’s a period in which the paintings must convince people they are good. When I first started doing paintings, people couldn’t understand them. Then they started to sell, and eventually everyone was doing flower paintings.

I have so many ideas that I don’t have the time to do them all. Someone tells me to get more assistants, but I don’t know that you can grow that way. You need the painting you just finished to find what to do next. [American painter and photographer] Chuck Close said a lot of the artists are just CEOs of art making enterprises. Why would you want to give up the fun part? Making the work, that is. I’d get completely lost doing that.

Adam Lehrer: Your art is so physical so if you weren’t connecting with the physical act of making it, it wouldn’t work?

Donald Sultan: It’s what I’m comfortable with. I like the architectural quality. My work feels like it’s impossible to just walk by, it doesn’t fit in.

Adam Lehrer” I wanted to talk about Arte Povera, what spoke to you about their philosophy of only using every day materials?

Donald Sultan: It was about American everyday work. Abstract Expressionists weren’t dandies, they were real people, blue collar almost. Arte Povera artists weren’t like that but they valued simplicity in materials. I used them economically. I could buy tar at hardware stores and didn’t need to build a huge supply of oil paints. I figured: “paint, tar, it’s all manufactured anyways.” In the old days I would spread the tar, and think this is where [mid-20th Century American labor leader] “Jimmy Hoffa was.” It came from Jersey (laughs) I like the strength of the material. Pushing it is a wonderful feeling .They sometimes change the materials within the tar so the paintings change with the material.

Adam Lehrer: With art having gone digital, and as someone who believes in physical craft, do you think we’ve lost something as craft has gone wayside for concept?

Donald Sultan: No. Art has always grown with technology. Nothing is lost. People are creative, and people will keep creating. Whatever medium you choose. I used to do a lecture about how painting has evolved with technology, from cave paintings to wooden panels, which allowed illusionism. And then the invention of oil paints. A lot of people might not be able to paint but they still want to create.

Meyerovich Gallery