Donald Sultan is considered a painter’s painter. That means that, while not widely familiar to the general public, other artists and museums respect him for the influential originality of his vision and technique.
The Contemporary Arts Center has just organized and opened a modestly sized show, The First Decade, bringing together key paintings of Sultan’s from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. The exhibit, curated by Raphaela Platow, will be on display through May 17.
Inspired by minimalism but still attracted to the narrative possibilities of figuration, Sultan in that period developed a style that accommodated and carried forward both. He used then-unusual building and industrial materials — Linoleum, Masonite hardboard, tar, Spackle and plaster — instead of depending on oil paint and canvas. He then manipulated the surfaces — like woodcuts — to conjure ghostly images of urban Americana.
As we have become increasingly post-industrial, with our urban factories in ruin and our environment at risk, these early paintings like “March 5 1982 Smokestack,” “Factory (Building/Water),” “Cigarette Dec 6 1979” and his two “Gun” images become increasingly prescient. But even when his imagery is of nature, such as “Tulip” or “Landscape with Leaves,” we still think of his work as urban and industrial because of the way he seeks to integrate the workaday origins of his materials into his art.
Sultan, in his late fifties but with a youthfully kept shock of gray hair, came to Cincinnati for the show’s opening. He also was celebrating the Cincinnati Art Museum just installing one of his early paintings — courtesy of television producer Douglas Cramer — in its contemporary gallery.
Growing up in Asheville, N.C., Sultan at an early age got interested in all aspects of theater, including set-building and lighting. At the same time, his father — who owned a tire store — would paint on weekends as a hobby, and Sultan would watch. He found himself studying painting at University of North Carolina and the Art Institute of Chicago. He poured plastic on his canvas, building a thick layer, and not only painted but also put “debris” — such as bottle caps — into it.
But upon moving to New York in the mid-1970s, he found the plastic drums too heavy to carry to his walk-up. What to do? He liked unusual material.
“I was looking for another material that would give me the same sense of weight and volume,” he says. “I was never comfortable just illustrating stuff with a paintbrush to make an image.”
The idea came to him one day while working as a handyman for a gallery.
“I was coming down the elevator and they were putting down linoleum tile in the floor,” he recalls. “In the middle was a metal circle, so I asked how do you cut linoleum so it goes around the circle and they said it was easy because it was very soft. They gave me some tiles, two white and two black. I went home and I carved a little drawing. It was the first I ever did and it’s in this show.
“I find you don’t think of new ideas, you discover them,” he says.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]