Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

Memphis, TN



Donald Sultan: In the Still Life Tradition


The work of Donald Sultan is voluminous and varied. Since 1975, when he arrived in New York, Sultan's creative energy has manifested itself in the media of paint, printing, and sculpting. His extensive body of work has placed him at the forefront of contemporary art, where he has become best known for his ability to successfully merge the best of yesterday's artistic tradition with a fresh, modern approach that is unique. Continuing through April 9, 2000, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, is Donald Sultan: In the Still Life Tradition. Organized by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, this exhibition focuses on Sultan's untraditional approach to a traditional theme -- Still Lifes. Featured are twenty of the artist's large-scale paintings (8' x 8'), including his well-known vases and flowers, lemons, dominos, and buttons as well as his latest works of red tomatoes. (left: Four Lemons, Feb. 1, 1985, 96 x 96 inches)

The representation of an assemblage of objects from the everyday world has captivated artists and their audiences throughout history. Still lifes find their origin in the ancient ritual of hospitality; the ability to offer one's guests flowers or fruit, as a sign of prosperity and generosity, eventually found its way into artistic representation. Throughout art history, from the mosaics of antiquity through Dutch seventeenth-century still life paintings to cubist compositions, fascination with still lifes has remained constant. Donald Sultan's works fit perfectly in this tradition, while at the same time offering a springboard into the next century.

Sultan's still lifes have been described as studies in contrast. His powerfully sensual, fleshy object representations are rendered through a labor-intensive and unique method. Instead of canvas, Sultan works on Masonite covered with 12 inch vinyl floor tiles. The format is dictated by the tiles: one-foot squares, eight-foot squares, or most recently, four-foot squares. Sultan cuts the shapes he desires into the vinyl. He fills in the cutout space with plaster and/or tar, and then paints over it. These multiple layers create the texture and subsequent richness that are so appealing. (left: Stacked Dominos, Oct. 28, 1994, tar, oil, latex paint, on linoleum, 96 x 96 inches, courtesy of Knoedler & Co., NY)

Although his paintings fit into the criteria of a still life, Sultan describes these works as first and foremost abstract. The largeness of Sultan's compositions, huge pieces of fruit, flowers, dominoes and other objects, set against the stark, unsettling tar-black, eight-foot square background, dominate the viewer. He is best known for his lemons and fruit, and states that his subjects develop from previous work. The oval of his lemons has led to a series of oval-blossomed tulips. Dots from dice have become oranges. What does not change with Sultan's work is the powerful statement his forms make. Sultan's work incorporates basic geometric and organic forms with a formal purity that is both subtle and monumental. His images are weighty, with equal emphasis on both negative and positive areas. Sultan describes his work as "heavy structure, holding fragile meaning" with the ability to "turn you off and turn you on at the same time."

Born in 1951 in Asheville, North Carolina, Donald Sultan received his BFA from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and his MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. He moved to New York in 1975. Sultan has been given numerous exhibitions dedicated to his work, as well as having been included in a number of group shows. His work is included in the permanent collection of many prestigious institutions including The Museum of Modern Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (right: Packed Vases, Jan. 31, 1995, tar, oil,plaster and silkscreen on linoleum over masonite, 96 x 96 inches, courtesy of Knoedler & Co., NY)

Since his first one-man show in 1977, Donald Sultan has enjoyed a distinguished career as painter, printmaker, and sculptor. In this past year he collaborated with the playwright David Mamet on the book, Bar Mitzvah. Also last year, Marco Fine Arts released Visual Poetics: The Art of Donald Sultan, a very impressive, limited-edition livre d'artiste, which includes several specially commissioned poems by Beat veteran Robert Creeley.

Donald Sultan: In the Still Life Tradition is organized by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and curated by Dana Holland-Beickert. The exhibition is being circulated by Pamela Auchincloss, Arts Management. Funding for the national tour and catalogue is provided by FedEx.

Images and text courtesy of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

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