By: Malcolm Mayhew
Haunting is the word that best describes this series of paintings by New York-based artist Donald Sultan. Much different from the graphic, brightly colored depictions of flowers and fruit for which he is best known, The Disaster Paintings were inspired by newspapers headlining industrial decay, natural disasters, fires, railway accidents, toxic pollution and other environmental threats. The series made Sultan one of the most successful and important artists in his generation.
After moving to New York from Asheville, North Carolina, in 1975, Sultan was inspired by his surroundings and the time he spent in his father’s tire retread factory. During the ’80s, Sultan created between 60 and 70 large-scale pieces made on Masonite tile laid over shallow platforms of plywood.
Donald Sultan, Firemen March 6 1985, 1985
Latex and tar on tile over Masonite, 96 1/2 x 96 1/2 inches, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, Tompkins Collection—Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund, 1985.
After constructing his artwork, Sultan would deconstruct them by gouging shapes out of linoleum and then filling them in with tar. By wiping the pieces with solvent, pieces of grit and residue assisted in representing the destruction he was attempting to portray. Sultan claims that he felt more comfortable creating an actual thing rather than an illustration.
His final products invoke shivers with bleak visions of firemen silhouettes surrounded by walls of flames, tunnels leading into a dark nothingness, and deteriorating bridges and industrial structures. They remind viewers that disaster is woven into our existence. Sultan says that his radical transition in style at the beginning of the ’90s came about when the events he had been portraying began taking over the world. He’s quoted as saying, “What would I make that you hadn’t already seen? We’re constantly barraged by destruction and horror. There was so much of that I went the other way and did flowers.”
Donald Sultan, Accident July 15 1985, 1985, Latex and tar on tile over Masonite
96 x 96 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Florene M. Schoenborn Gift, 1986
Alison Hearst, assistant curator at the Modern, organized the exhibit. She explains that the Modern is the first to focus on Sultan’s seminal Disaster Paintings series, including 12 monumental paintings. “The Disaster Paintings exemplify in both media and concept the vulnerability of the most progressive manufactured elements of modern culture,” Hearst says.
Museum-goers will be left contemplating the current state of society. Inundated with daily reports of terrorism, war and other horrors, The Disaster Paintings immortalize real modern events. Usually forgetting one catastrophe when the next one occurs, this exhibit will forever be relevant.
The Disaster Paintings
Artist, Donald Sultan
Feb. 19 – April 23
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
3200 Darnell St.
817.738.9215 | themodern.org
By: Malcolm Mayhew