Artist Donald Sultan was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1951 and rose to prominence in New York City in the 1980s with his signature, brightly colored still-life images of poppies and jet-black lemons.
In the NCMA's new exhibition Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings, 11 large-scale (typically 8 x 8 ft.) paintings eternalize a variety of quickly forgotten calamities, including floods, fires, and industrial disasters. This exhibition marks the first time these paintings have been shown together as a group, and they are as far away from his flowery still lifes as you can get. The works in this series, created between 1982 and 1990, invite visitors to consider the fragility of our contemporary world.
The [Disaster] 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…
With the rise of photography in the late nineteenth century, images of disasters, destruction and war increasingly became part of our popular culture. Soldiers recorded images of the American Civil War, and, with the rise of mass media after World War II, photos of war and disaster increasing saturated our visual world. The works from this series show our continued, dark fascination with the industrialized world and the fickleness of fate. The representations are foreboding, apocalyptic, and chaotic. Sultan says in the exhibition catalogue,
In the paintings, I start with newspaper photos, then I add more layers, such as the surface of the paintings or panels, which makes it all harder to decipher. I wanted the works to be like that—to mirror how in an actual event it’s hard to fully grasp what’s happening. Imagination is more powerful than action.
Sultan is best known for his use of industrial materials, such as Masonite tiles and tar. Although he uses materials associated with minimalist (bare bones, abstract) art, his works are representational. Sultan builds up the surface of his work with tar, creating paintings that are three-dimensional and sculptural.
Although Sultan created this series several decades ago, many of the same social and cultural anxieties expressed in these works remain relevant today, making this a timely exhibition. The massive scale of the works encourages the viewer to consider the impermanence of our seemingly indestructible contemporary world.