Artist Donald Sultan’s career began with his first solo exhibition in 1977 in New York City, when he was just 26 years old, and he rose to prominence in the 1980s. A painter, sculptor, and print-maker, Sultan is regarded for his ongoing large-scale painted still lifes featuring structural renderings of fruit, flowers, and other everyday objects, often abstracted and set against a rich, black background; but he is also noted for his significant industrial landscape series that began in the early 1980s entitled the Disaster Paintings, on which the artist worked for nearly a decade. While Sultan’s still lifes depict and strengthen fragile and ephemeral objects, the Disaster Paintings often illustrate robust, man-made structures, such as industrial plants and train cars, that exhibit a level of fragility in their propensity to be unhinged by catastrophic events. Distinguished for combining such subject matter with industrial materials, such as tar and Masonite tiles, the Disaster Paintings exemplify in both media and concept the vulnerability of the most progressive manufactured elements of modern culture.
Sultan’s Disaster Paintings are renowned for their sensitivity to natural and man-made events in a modern, postindustrial age. The paintings are large-scale and demonstrate great physicality in the artistic process, subject matter, and finished form. Sultan’s series comprises a confluence of seeming dichotomies, merging the industrial materials of Minimalism with representational painting, stylistically combining figuration and abstraction, and making references to high and low culture, ranging from topical events to art historical iconography. Featuring a wide array of disasters as subject matter, such as forest fires, railway accidents, arson, and factories producing toxic plumes, the Disaster Paintings eternalize the real-life modern events we are faced with daily in contemporary society yet quickly forget when the next catastrophe occurs. It is a timely moment in history for the Disaster Paintings to be reconsidered.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.
Whether or not you go, Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings provides a survey of Sultan’s monumental landscape series. Working at the intersection of abstraction and realism, Donald Sultan has created a unique painting technique that defies categorization. This multifaceted consideration of Sultan’s Disaster Paintings includes an expansive critical essay that situates the series within the tradition of landscape painting and draws connections to the Italian Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. The book also features an in-depth conversation between the author and Sultan, a poetic response to the work by his longtime collaborator Max Blagg, and numerous illustrations of the works along with archival drawings and photographs. The book provides readers with a deep understanding of the underlying themes of Sultan’s iconic series, his elaborate technique, and the catastrophic events that inspired the paintings.
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