Prophetic Art: Donald Sultan’s new book on an industrious career


After more than three decades as a painter, printmaker and  sculptor, Donald Sultan has amassed an impressive body   of work. Known for his iconic and diverse images of poppies, industrial landscapes and scenes from nature, Sultan’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney, among others. 

And though he is a renown artist on the New York City scene, Sultan still comes out to his Sag Harbor home pretty much every weekend where it’s a different kind of scene. 

“So what’s going on with Bulova?” asks Sultan as soon as he gets on the phone for an interview.

Sultan has been a Sag Harbor resident long enough to know the ins and outs of the political and social workings. He recalls that when he purchased his home in the village, he caused somewhat of a stir — not a difficult proposition in this tight knit but loose lipped village.

“I bought the house in ‘84 or ’85,” says Sultan. “At the time it was the highest price ever paid for a village house — $250,000. I didn’t even think about it, I figured it was less than a one bedroom apartment in New York.” 

“I just adore it,” says Sultan of Sag Harbor.

This weekend Sultan comes back to the East End again. This time to take part in a signing of his new book “Donald Sultan: The Theater of the Object” at BookHampton’s East Hampton location on Saturday, December 13. The newly released book is a comprehensive monograph of nearly 300 works covering 30 years. Sultan explains that the book offers viewers a chance to see the span of his art over time and is divided into three sections that reflect the subject of the work — industrial, natural and artificial. The book is not only a compendium of Sultan’s career, it also allows viewers a chance to examine some of his older work in the context of the turmoil the world has been experiencing as of late. It turns out that much of Sultan’s work from decades ago, particularly that which falls under the industrial moniker was ultimately prophetic.

“I’ve wanted a book out for a long time,” explains Sultan. “A lot of the work you see today are images I did a long time ago. There are things people haven’t seen or have forgotten. Especially the dark landscapes in the ‘80s, and all the things that have been going on since 9/11. Seemingly permanent things are apt to go down — like steel mills and factories.”

Back in the 1980s, Sultan’s “catastrophic event” paintings were often inspired by images from newspaper photos. The subjects included bombings, chemical spills, drought and other destructive forces that had the power to strike terror into the hearts of mortals. Images of formerly formidable cities, once proud industrial plants and abandoned railways appeared in his work. The fall of man’s dominance over nature. 

“Most of my ideas were to put imagery back into abstract painting,” explains Sultan of his artistic inspiration. “Some of the ones that look the most abstract are actually the most realistic. Building canyons and dominos, the landscapes. There’s an image in the book and in the reproduction you see the image more clearly than you do in the actual painting. The painting has twisted blobs of tar, what I was trying to capture was the ephemeral quality of giant disasters and how in some cases, you don’t know what’s going on.” 

“I realized with the World Trade Center, the further away people were, the more terrified they were — like in Michigan,” says Sultan. “There’s something to be said for actually experiencing it. There’s a reason New York didn’t vote for Bush — either time.”

Even in the face of the current economic crisis, Sultan has managed to find parallels in the world of Wall Street and art, as disparate as the two may seem.

“Finances are almost like art, it’s based on belief in the ephemeral,” says Sultan. “It’s not an actual thing — the structures are abstract. Just like these huge steel mills and industrial plants and architecture like the World Trade Center and countries and empires are so structurally imposing that they crumble.”

Sultan grew up in Asheville, N.C. in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are, by the way, also crumbling (at one point, they were bigger than the Alps notes Sultan). Sultans’s father owned a successful tire business in Asheville, and though Sultan earned his BFA from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and his MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, as an artist, he has always looked to the tradition of the laborer in perfecting his working style.

“I felt more comfortable working with the materials,” explains Sultan. “My father was a physical person. I just felt most comfortable making things and moving things. Part of the whole American experience I came out of was the empire building mentality — physical labor. My grandfather was on the assembly lines of Detroit in the Depression. It was the way it was.”

So rather than using traditional canvas and paints, Sultan found his medium through the tools and supplies used by workers of the world. As a grad student, his materials were wood, found objects and liquid latex. But after Sultan moved to New York in 1975, he found that lugging barrels of polymer up the steps to his tenement apartment wasn’t logical. 

“I was painting in my studio and trying to figure out how to do more physical work,” says Sultan who had taken on jobs in the construction trade building lofts in the city in order to earn some money.

“I was working at a gallery and saw men working in the elevator and cutting linoleum,” says Sultan. “In the center of the elevator was a round disk where a key would go and I asked, ‘How do you cut that so it goes around a circle?’ They said, ‘It’s easy, you just heat it up and it gets soft.’ So I said, ‘Let me have a couple of those tiles.’”

Sultan took the tiles to his apartment and heated them up over his stove. He had discovered his medium.

“It was easy. I felt more comfortable making the things rather than using a brush. I liked using the knife.”

Linoleum tiles turned out to be an ideal working material. They were inexpensive, flexible, plentiful and easy to work with. Sultan was able to create powerful images by gouging, cutting, painting and spackling them. On top of the squares, he applied black tar thus creating a blank canvas on which he could create. By cutting into the black tar — a layer of butyl rubber — Sultan found he could expose the colors of the tiles beneath. It turned out to be the key to a career, although Sultan never looked at it that way.

“I was kind of the last generation who never thought of art and money,” says Sultan. “There was no possibility to make money as an artist really. There were a lot of artists coming up in our age. But there were few galleries. I met a lot of interesting people and a lot of artists working in construction. I thought I’d just give it a shot.” 

“If someone would’ve told me in grad school that I’d be making abstract expressionist art on heavy surfaces and would make pictures of a vandalized Coptic church in Greece, I would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy,’” says Sultan. “But your work takes you where you go.”

Donald Sultan signs copies of “Donald Sultan: The Theater of the Object,” published by The Vendome Press with essays by Carter Ratcliff and John Ravenal, from 7 to 9 p.m. at BookHampton (41 Main Street, East Hampton) on December 13, 2008. Sultan’s art will be featured in “The First Decade” from February 7 to May 11, 2009 at the Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center. 

Above: Donald Sultan in his studio