Most painters create their works with brushes.
But Donald Sultan uses a blowtorch.
That is just one of the unusual touches to be found in “Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings,” the exhibition up at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through April 23.
“I started with the industrial landscapes, like smokestacks and fires. And it just expanded from there to fire being attached to different structures,” says Sultan, who is known for works that incorporate industrial materials. “And then when it got to the point where I realized I was making the kind of sooty [effect] that you have in these paintings, I kept exploring that. I just kept moving ahead, finding ways to make it more dramatic.”
The 12 works in this exhibition are part of 60 paintings comprising the series, which Sultan began in the 1980s. As the title suggests, the pictures are not pretty. They are responses to various catastrophes that mix realistic and abstract styles. Many are defined with large splotches of tar and black paint, spread across a base of linoleum.
Sultan says that his fascination with building materials came out of his days as a day laborer, and from talking with construction workers.
In an interview with exhibition curator Alison Hearst that appears in the show’s catalog, Sultan explains: “I borrowed some black and white tiles and took them home [from a construction site]. I put them on my tenement stove, softened them and began cutting them. Suddenly, I had found a way to marry the thickness of paint with the hardness of industrial material and eliminate the illustrative in favor of a tangible image carved from scratch. . . . Later I discovered that black tar glued down the tile. By putting it on top rather than underneath, I had a painting material that could be worked into, and was used indoors, outdoors and was malleable. It was also cheap and easy to find.”
Hearst says she thinks the contradictions in Sultan’s works (the hardness and softness of the media he uses, for example) are one of their strengths.
“These works have a lot of interesting paradoxes. There’s order and chaos, the collision of the man-made and the natural, and the collision of industrial materials vs. traditional artistic media,” Hearst says.
The North Carolina-born, New York-based Sultan, 65, is a major figure in contemporary art and no stranger to the Modern, which is just one of five stops this exhibition will make.
“Donald rose to prominence in about 1977, and was very hot in the 1980s. He was one of the leading artists of that generation,” says Hearst. “We did a retrospective of his work in 1987. So he is an artist that we have supported for a long time.”
Not long after that 1987 exhibition, the Modern acquired a Sultan work, “Dead Plant November 1 1988,” which is part of the current show. It stands out because the 9 foot by 12 foot work is the only one of the 12 that does not measure 8 feet by 8 feet.
The “disasters” in Sultan’s paintings, which Hearst says were often pulled from newspaper pages, cover a broad range, from a fire in New York, to an oil spill in New Jersey, to a depiction of Venice with its canals dried up.
“I was not making the point that those were particularly bad times,” says Sultan. “It was more about making the statement that strong systems are fragile.”
The paintings in this exhibition are all darkly compelling. And together, they really pack a wallop. Viewing them, you can feel the total immersion of the artist.
“When I do a painting, I feel like I’m in the middle of it. I want to embrace it and see it at the same time. So everything is going to have some emotion in it, as well as cerebral thought,” says Sultan. “Like when I would paint the fire, I would paint the sound of fire.”
Although all of the works in the exhibition were created between 1984 and 1990, both Hearst and Sultan commented on how often patrons say the works speak to our times.
“It seemed like a timely moment to revisit them,” Hearst says. “They seem really fresh and relevant. And there’s a familiarity to the subject matter that I think people can connect to.”
While Sultan’s reputation precedes him in this display, even the artist does not find these paintings to be easy.
“I hope that [patrons] take away something powerful on a level they can enjoy it. These paintings require some thought. There’s a lot in there. I think anybody can get something out of it,” says Sultan.
But the artist’s reaction to seeing this exhibition, which is made up of works from a variety of museums and private collectors, was anything but cerebral.
“I know every one of those paintings very well, but I haven’t seen them in a long time,” says Sultan. “It felt like going into a bar and finding all your old buddies there.”