Donald Sultan’s fascination with industrial materials began at his father’s tire shop in Asheville, North Carolina, where rubber was ground off old tires, heated and placed onto new tires and then into molds.
“I grew up working in that shop.” Sultan said, “The buffing room was a room with a big machine and a guy that chained-smoked Camels and was tattooed and had no teeth. And there were piles of soot. Black Rubber. And that’s where I liked to hang out because it was really sooty and gritty and interesting to me.”
Sultan’s father burned rubber for a living, but was also an abstract artist. His mother was interested in the theater and they encouraged their son to pursue his work as an artist. After receiving a BFA degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1973 and an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, Sultan moved to New York in 1975.
Donald Sultan’s Continuing Use of Industrial Materials
In New York, Sultan worked on construction sites, renovating lofts and using the industrial materials of the trade to create his paintings.
In the 1970s, linoleum tile was used as a substitute for marble and flocking was used as a substitute for velvet. Sultan used leftover linoleum tile as the basis for many of his early works, and continues to use flocking for texture in his recent work.
Many of his sculptures are made of Cor-ten Steel, an alloy that creates a beautiful patina as it weathers. He also uses painted and polished aluminum, juxtaposing the toughness of the materials with the softness of flowers.
“Part of my work is industrial.” he says, “I love the idea of the crossovers between using objects that are art and making the art an object, and that you don’t have to be precious with it. You can hold it and have it and it’s not something ordinary. It’s not like a toothbrush holder or anything like that.”
A work of art, even if you find it on the street somewhere, you’re going to know if it’s a work of art. It could be three stones placed on the sidewalk, but if it’s done with that intention, when you’re walking you won’t see that as just three stones. You’ll know somebody put that there for some reason. It’s one of the last magic things we have.”
One of the Last Magic Things
Donald Sultan’s works are easily recognizable, unmistakably his, even though they continually evolve. He “keeps shuffling the dots,” he says, “so that now they themselves are the subject, rather than just being the centers of the subjects.”
Sultan still works with tar and flocking, sculpting and printmaking, and he continues to be amazed by the composition and textures that he says he discovers as he works.
A master painter, sculptor and printmaker, much of Sultan’s work looks simple, at first glance. He often works in a grid, with repeated images. Even his large scale paintings have a simplicity of design that belies extraordinary complexity of composition and use of materials. He works the same magic with his screenprints. Silver Flowers, a print that appears so simple in design, is an elegant 12-color screenprint with diamond dust.
“A work of art, even if you find it on the street somewhere,” he says, “you’re going to know if it’s a work of art. It could be three stones placed on the sidewalk, but if it’s done with that intention, when you’re walking you won’t see that as just three stones. You’ll know somebody put that there for some reason. It’s one of the last magic things we have.”
The End of the Disaster Paintings Tour
Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings began touring the country with its first stop at the Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables in 2016, then on to the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, the Smithsonian and The North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh in 2017 and is now on the final leg of the tour at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska through April 6.