When Donald Sultan spoke at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, during Art Basel in December, he explained how his work evolved from paintings of industrial landscapes, to paintings of industrial disasters, to paintings of buttons, dominoes and finally, his notable flowers.
The largest cities, the biggest structures, the most powerful empires – everything dies. Man is inherently self-destructive, and whatever is built will eventually be destroyed…That’s what the work talks about: life and death.”
The Disaster Paintings
Created from 1983 to 1990, the Disaster Paintings depict catastrophic events that Sultan saw in daily newspaper photos.
“The destruction depicted in them was mostly caused by unknowable or unseeable things.” Sultan said, “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.”
The paintings, which were scattered around the country, in the Hirshhorn Museum, the Broad Museum in LA, The Met, and in other museums and private collections, were put together, for the first time, by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, for a five-city tour. They are currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Each of the twelve paintings in the exhibit is over 8-feet square. They are done in the heavy, industrial materials that Sultan is so well know for using: tar, linoleum and masonite.
The viewer is once removed from each event, not privy to cause or effect, but observing a moment in time, either during or after the disaster.
“The series speaks to the impermanence of all things.” Sultan said, “The largest cities, the biggest structures, the most powerful empires – everything dies. Man is inherently self-destructive, and whatever is built will eventually be destroyed…That’s what the work talks about: life and death.”
The Disaster Paintings will be on view at the Smithsonian through September 4.
When he spoke at the Lowe Museum, Sultan told a wonderful story about his use of tulips in a vase. He said that when he first moved to New York, and was gaining recognition, he was invited to a party at the home of an art collector on the Upper East Side. When he walked into the house he saw a round vase, in the center of a table, containing red tulips, each on standing perfectly straight. He was so impressed with the arrangement that he went out, bought tulips and put them in a vase. They flopped over the sides of the vase and refused to stand straight. Sultan called his hostess to ask how she got the tulips to stand straight. She told him that she put a wire through each stem.
“I kind of like the idea of their rebellious quality,” he said, “because it’s one of the only cut flowers, that when you put it in water, it keeps growing.”
Tulips continue to appear in Sultan’s work, in a variety of materials, like Black Tulips and Vase, done in aluminum, for sale at VFA.
Many of the other flowers he paints were created, early in his career, using tar, linoleum and masonite. As his work evolved, so did his methods and materials. With Lantern Flowers, Sultan used enamel inks and flocking, to give the piece color and texture.