Acclaimed American artist Donald Sultan to receive first U.K retrospective

Annie Carpenter
May 22 · 3 min read

The acclaimed American figurative painter Donald Sultan is to receive his first U.K retrospective at Huxley-Parlour Gallery, London, opening June 5, 2019. 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

The exhibition will feature three canvasses from his seminal Disaster Paintings series which were created over nearly a decade during the 1980s. Each is inspired by disastrous industrial or urban events, such as warehouse fires or freight train derailments, with the imagery based on photographs he found in daily newspapers. They often take the form of stormy landscapes with images of once sturdy-seeming, indestructible industrial cities, which had become a vast architecture of wood and steel, rendered fragile and dead: industrial mills of the Rust belt, vanished railways, twisted burnt oil rigs, droughts on farms, shelled cities, wastelands rendered by neglect, sacrificed to expedience, accident, nature. These were, for sultan, alluring images of cold-eyed despair. When they were shown at the Smithsonian Museum in 2017, Sultan observed:

‘The series speaks to the impermanence of all things. The largest cities, the biggest structures, the most powerful empires — everything dies. Man is inherently self-destructive, and whatever is built will eventually be destroyed… That’s what the works talk about: life and death.’

Herdon Railway, 18 August, 1988, Latex and tar on canvas, 96 x 96 inches © the artist, Courtesy Huxley-Parlour Gallery

Sultan continued to explore the boundary between the abstract and the everyday, moving from industrial subjects to the natural world, creating drawings and paintings of fruits and flowers with startling roughness and beauty. One of Sultan’s most identifiable images of this period is the black lemon, which appeared as a dense charcoal shape on white paper — both solid and void, plump and round, and undeniably sexy. These Black Lemons were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988 and preceded an in-depth investigation into the reduction of form. Sultan’s new works will be presented in the downstairs gallery are taken from subsequent series that reinvent the genre of still life, deconstructing fruits and flowers into their basic forms.

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

In 1987 Sultan told the art critic Barbara Rose that his mission as an artist was to “haul painting into the 21st century”, now almost two decades into that century, it is a perfect moment to review his progress, re-evaluate his work, and position him within the canon of post-war Contemporary Art.

For more information see: https://huxleyparlour.com/

Exhibition dates: 5 June — 29 June |Private View: Tuesday 4 June, 6–8:30 pm

Annie Carpenter

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Freelance journalist covering fine art, photography, film and tech. UK based