DONALD SULTAN—PAINTER, PRINTMAKER AND SCULPTOR—DESCRIBES HIS WORK AS “HEAVY STRUCTURE, HOLDING FRAGILE MEANING WITH THE ABILITY TO TURN YOU ON AND TURN YOU OFF AT THE SAME TIME.”
By Linda Marx
Although Donald Sultan didn’t think he could prosper financially as a painter and assumed he would have to teach…he never did.
“I didn’t think painting was a way to make a living, and I was prepared to teach but that never happened,” says Sultan, 64, who has two children, Frances and Penn, and divides his time among a Manhattan studio/loft, Sag Harbor home and Paris apartment.
The son of a tire company owner who painted abstract art as a hobby, and a community theater actress, Sultan was raised acting and enjoying the arts in Asheville, North Carolina. He graduated college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before earning his master’s degree from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Painting soon became a passion. In 1975, he moved to New York, hosting his first one-man show two years later. His diverse body of work has made him a rock star in the heady world of contemporary art, where he is best known for his ability to merge venerable artistic tradition with a new and unexpected approach to imagery and materials.
He has painted large still-lifes and landscapes, distinguishing himself early on as a true talent. Lionized for his abstract black forms set against areas of vivid color, he paints using industrial materials such as vinyl, masonite and linoleum, juxtapositioning his traditional subject matter with these unusual materials. His art can be textured, and a study in contrasts, usually making a strong and immediate visual impact.
Sultan’s works can involve creating layers of rubber atop slabs of linoleum or masonite, which are then stripped away in pieces to reveal the multiple surfaces beneath, then painted over. The art combines a minimalist aesthetic of few colors and geometric shapes with a unique treatment and destruction of surface.
The sheer size of his compositions, large pieces of fruit, flowers, eggs, dominoes, and similar objects, set against the stark, unsettling tar-black, eight-foot square background captivate the viewer. Sultan is best known for lemons and other fruit, explaining, “My subjects develop from previous work.” The oval-blossomed charcoal tulips of the 1980s became his recognizable black lemons. Dots from dice became oranges.
His work incorporates basic geometric and organic forms with a formal purity that is both subtle and monumental, rendered through an intense and singular method which is intriguing for the viewer to study.
“Now I am paring down,” he says from his New York studio. “I made a button flower which is highly polished. I add flocking, fabric and modern imagery. I call it ‘buttoned down modernism.”
Sultan, who has won many awards and has been honored internationally, recently opened a large show of his prints, paintings and drawings in Caracas, Venezuela. He will open another in March at the contemporary Baldwin Gallery in Aspen, Colorado.
“I don’t attend a lot of my shows, but I will go to Aspen,” he says. “I answer questions, and I think it’s nice to talk to people who come to see my work.”
“I call it ‘buttoned down modernism.”
In October, he will open a traveling show in the respected Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. In March of 2017, the show will move to Fort Worth, Texas, followed by other cities which are being assigned.
“This show will feature my disaster paintings of the 1980s,” he explains of his dark works inspired by warehouse fires, airplane crashes and freight train derailments. “There will be about 10-11 works with a book accompanying the exhibit. I am working on it now.” It’s not the first time he has worked on books. Sultan collaborated with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet on the 1999 illustrated novel Bar Mitzvah.
The artist is also working on brand extensions such as pillows, scarves and napkins, products he loves and enjoys creating. He designed domino dishes for the innovative tableware company Swid Powell, which once offered shapely and beautiful pieces.
In 2000, Sultan was asked to work on a hotel in Budapest, Hungary. He formed creative ideas for a year, and was then flown over amid a hodgepodge of different people asking questions. “I was ambushed,” he laughs. “There were too many cooks in the pot! But I was then put in charge of the whole project and it worked out fine.”
Thanks to Sultan’s innovation, the Art’otel Budapest has a sculpture in every room and a playful red carpet with a needle-and-thread motif that takes advantage of Hungary’s history. He also designed the hotel’s dishes, matchboxes and most everything else.
“I loved this project and would like to do another hotel,” he says.
He uses his Paris apartment on Rue Marbeuf, just off the Champs-Elysees, as a base for his work in Europe. His large Tribeca loft/studio is his daily work retreat, where he lives most of the time.
For recreation on long week-ends and in the summer, he rides a bike, uses his treadmill and swims in the ocean near his historic 1760’s Sag Harbor home. “I don’t paint here; I relax, fix things and work on the house,” he says.
Sultan is lucky to be an artist who loves his work, and who has made a very nice living creating it.