Interview | Donald Sultan

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Donald Sultan, Archive Studio Portrait, © the artist, Courtesy Huxley-Parlour Gallery

The acclaimed American figurative painter Donald Sultan currently has his first U.K retrospective at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, London. Sultan is 68 now, and this show entitled, Dark Objects: Works 1977–2019, will be his first in London in 10 years and follows a major presentation in the Smithsonian in 2017.

Sultan rose to prominence in the electrified atmosphere of New York’s downtown art renaissance in the late 1970s and 1980s. Before the use of graffiti and post-modern figuration appeared in the galleries and art magazines, Sultan’s simple iconography and complex technique of gouged, spackled, and painted tar-encrusted grids of linoleum tiles attached to Masonite captured immediate and enthusiastic attention.

Sultan was one of the first to employ industrial materials to describe the iconic landscape. His use of such materials, particularly tar, was influenced by his father’s tyre business, and his interest in the industrial world came from is formative years in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute. The result of mixing unusual materials with industrial subjects, as in his early paintings of factories, is both familiar and disquieting.

Lines Down, 11 November, 1985, Latex and tar on tile, 96 x 96 inches © the artist, Courtesy Huxley-Parlour Gallery.jpg

Arranged over two floors, Dark Objects is comprised of 17 works produced between 1977 and 2019. It features three canvasses from his seminal Disaster Paintings series, early smaller-scale experiments from the 1970s, as well as works in charcoal from the artist’s Black Lemons series (exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988) and more recent investigations into the reduction of form.

We had the chance to speak with Sultan in more depth about the exhibition and his career so far.

When did you first decide you wanted to be an artist, as I read you initially enrolled to major in Dramatic Arts before transferring to Fine Arts?

I had spent most of my childhood and teen years in the performing arts working amateur at the Fessional theatre in both acting and stage craft and university I realize the drama score was not challenging enough and that I could never take direction I moved to radio television and motion pictures and formed a cooperative with the students to make films I realized that filmmaking required too much money and collaboration I decided that to be a real auteur the only avenue was to make my own art  and painting was  the logical move .

Lines Down, 11 November, 1985, Latex and tar on tile, 96 x 96 inches © the artist, Courtesy Huxley-Parlour Gallery

You also worked in set design; do you think your early experience working in theatre imbued within your paintings a taste for theatrics?

Painting is the ultimate theatre work inside design helped me think about scale.

Dark Objects features three of your ‘Disaster paintings’; in the past you have referred to this body of work as ‘Industrial Landscapes’ and ‘Catastrophic event’ paintings, which terminology do you prefer, or feel is most suitable?

Catastrophic event paintings is really preferable but disaster paintings start with my dealers.

It seems now that these disaster paintings from the ‘80s almost anticipate some of the awful things that have happened in the world we find ourselves living in today, were you aware of any political relevance whilst painting these?

I wasn’t making political statements with these pictures (catastrophes) my concerns were A. abstraction, B. a new way to paint the landscape and C. to at once engage chaos and order. Right now, chaos is winning.


Black Lemons, 31 May, 1985, Charcoal on paper, 48 x 60 inches © the artist, Courtesy Huxley-Parlour Gallery

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?

The scale of a painting is contained within the work itself; a small painting can pack a powerful punch, but a large painting is required for certain genres. A small industrial landscape would not convey the same sense of drama. The scale changes the meaning of the work.

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

I only wanted to use what I called industrial materials. Mainly those engage in architecture and building it. They were cheap and could marry the image to the architecture. By the way, today oil paint in tubes is a manufactured material. I wanted to force the paradox between architecture and impermanence.

The exhibition also includes a number of your more recent still life works, can you say more about these and your interest in the reduction of form?

The more one makes a definitive statement the more abstract it becomes I try to pare down the images to their essence and capture the fleeting aspect of reality pitting the gesture against the geometric, the gesture being the fluidity of the human against the geometry of the object.

Fifteen Oranges, 17 September, 1992, Tar, oil, spackle on tile over masonite, 96 x 96 inches © the artist, Courtesy Huxley-Parlour Gallery

For more information see: https://huxleyparlour.com/
Exhibition dates: 5 June — 29 June


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