Donald Sultan was a huge noise in the New York art scene in the late Seventies and Eighties, now a retrospective at the Huxley-Parlour Gallery reveals that the time is right to re-evaluate this extraordinarily gifted painter, writes David Tuson
It is a surprise to discover that this is Sultan’s first show in London in 10 years. There have been many shows elsewhere, of course, including a major presentation at the Smithsonian in 2017. That exhibition focused solely on his so-called ‘Disaster Paintings’ series from the 1980s. Huxley-Parlour, however, has cast its net wider, bringing together a raft of earlier and later works, a survey that allows a full consideration of his oeuvre.
Arranged over two floors, this exhibition is comprised of 17 works produced between 1977 and 2019. The first thing the viewer experiences on entering the gallery are three, monumental works from the aforementioned Disaster series.
Rendered in a palette of yellows, blacks and browns, these extraordinary paintings are imbued with an unnerving power. It is not stated what inspired my favourite of the three, Lines Down November 11, from 1985 (pictured above and reproduced here courtesy of the Huxley-Parlour Gallery) but according to the art critic Ian Dunlop, who has written an essay for the catalogue that accompanies this show, this doesn’t matter. “…as you immediately sense something bad has happened and you are immediately struck by the powerful diagonals of the composition (perhaps an echo of Franz Kline great black and white expressionist paintings) and the pitch-blackness of the industrial wreckage silhouetted against a pale acid yellow sky.”
“Wow!” he adds. “Here is a painting with real ‘umph’.” Indeed.
For these works, Sultan employed a range of industrial and non-art materials, including tar, latex and rubber, largely as an experiment in mediums but also because they were cheaper than paint, a consideration when he was starting out – the paintings, which are applied to wood and canvas, really are very large, and, dare I say it, portentous.
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.’
Looking at them forty years on, they appear germane to the times we live in, where catastrophe, natural and man-made, are commonly accepted occurrences. However, while these are the exhibition’s headline attractions, the other works are equally compelling. On display are early smaller-scale experiments in tar, tile and Masonite from the 1970s, as well as works in charcoal from the artist’s celebrated and much sought-after Black Lemons series. These were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988 and preceded an in-depth investigation into the reduction of form.
There has in recent years been a resurgence of interest in Sultan, and this intelligently-curated show amply explains why. Of all the artists who are associated with the New York art scene of the 1980s – Basquiat, Schnabel, Clemente, et al – he is the one who resonates with our age. It is that prescient quality, along with the quality of the painting, that makes this show a must see for anyone who likes to take the occasional walk on the dark side.