By Annette Hinkle
As an artist, Donald Sultan has found his vision through the merging of the contemporary and the classic. His iconic botanical imagery may be still-life at heart, but whether the subject is poppies, oranges or lemons, its’ offered with a distinctive twist — a contemporary abstract edge and uniformity of style which grew from Sultan’s desire to infuse the world of modern art with a sense of the traditional.
It’s a style that has served him well ever since.
This weekend, the Drawing Room in East Hampton opens an exhibit featuring a selection of Sultan’s work. The show includes several drawings dating as far back as the early 1980s, along with a new painting “Lantern Flowers,” inspired by Sultan’s own Sag Harbor backyard.
“It was based on these flowers on a Chinese lantern in my garden,” explains Sultan. “It came from Chinatown, so I took this funny drawing out of it and made a flower motif. I thought it was sort of cartoony. It doesn’t exist as far as I can tell.”
And that’s the way it works in Sultan’s world, where a flower is never just a flower and a fruit isn’t the organic shape that nature alone provides. There’s always an abstraction of form that speaks to the larger issues of uniformity, human tampering and industrialization of the natural world. It’s an art form he began perfecting decades ago.
“I started the botanicals in the ‘80s with still-lives,” he says. “I wanted to put those themes back into contemporary art. The fruits were all industrial food. You don’t see a lemon like the kind I paint on your tree. These are the ones you get in the grocery store that are modified and dipped in wax.”
While the poppy imagery in Sultan’s work may have initially been inspired by the flowers in his garden, it is also a reference to W.W. I and the famous Flanders Field where red poppies were said to have grown on the graves of fallen soldiers. But Sultan adds that his imagery is more reminiscent of the paper poppies sold on Memorial Day by veterans than the real flower.
“I use a technique similar to lacquering furniture and polishing cars,” explains Sultan of the high gloss finish of the red poppies in his paintings. “It’s enamel paint and I polish it down until it gets shiny.”
This industrialization of the natural form is key to the process and Sultan notes that in the 1980s, his work in this realm was a reference to what was going on at the time with the collapse of entire industries in this country.
“It was the disillusionment of the American industrial heartland,” he explains. “If you look at this country and the structures that companies built, there were whole businesses that supported these cities.”
It was a reality he sought to explore through his paintings, and eventually the seemingly incongruous botanical still-life became a way to reference that industrialization.
“The first ones were smoke stacks and fire,” says Sultan of his work. “I thought of them as urban flowers. Then came the idea of the stem as the more permanent smokestack and the flower as the fire, or the flower pot as permanence and the floral thing coming out of it as more transient.”
“The flowers evolved into a more abstracted look,” he adds. “A still life has so many kinds of meaning to it. It was like putting it all together again after cubism.”
“It was really the transient quality of permanence — that’s what it was,” says Sultan.
Nothing stays the same, of course, not even cities made of glass and steel, and Sultan has witnessed huge changes in New York City since moving there in the mid-70s — a time when the city was certainly not the envy of the world.
“I remember [President Gerald] Ford said to New York, ‘Drop dead,’” recalls Sultan. “The city was broke and people were afraid of crime. I think I said at the time, the crime would drop on its own once the people committing it got older. It did get to be safer. There was also a population shift and people began moving to the city because it was exciting.”
While New York City today is vibrant, gentrified and a far cry from what it was when Sultan first arrived, there are still things to lament in its turnaround, particularly from an artist’s perspective.
“It was nice then because it wasn’t all about money and the arts weren’t just about money,” says Sultan. “There were a lot of things you could do for free. You could eat and drink without spending a fortune and rents weren’t killing you. Salaries were different too.”
“The whole obsession with money has had an impact on all the arts and brought many more artists into the world,” he adds. “Now schools are pumping out thousands of people with degrees and promises of big money. Institutions depend on it. Everything changes in the face of money.”
“I want people to be interested in the art, not the stock value of the art,” says Sultan.
What hasn’t changed through it all is Sultan’s artistic focus. He notes that his signature imagery of fruit and flowers – black lemons, red poppies, primrose — remain central in his themes. Though he still creates his art at his Franklin Street studio in lower Manhattan, Sultan calls Sag Harbor home these days. An avid follower of village politics, it’s where he chooses to cast his vote.
It’s also a very appropriate place for him to settle, given how the village’s industrial past frequently collides with the natural world these days. Sultan bought his historic 1760 home here in 1984, and has since cultivated a cozy hidden garden, complete with an expansive side lawn (he bought the property next door as well to make it work). It’s a space that offers pastoral respite and no doubt inspires the botanical imagery in his work.
Yet mere feet away from his front door there is a massive undertaking going on at the old Bulova Watchcase factory as the transformation of Sag Harbor’s industrial past into new luxury condos takes place before his eyes.
It’s a transformation not unlike what Sultan witnessed in New York City over the years and he wonders what it will be like when completed — though if it were up to him it would have been turned into a park — the ultimate example of industry merging into nature.
But that’s an unlikely outcome given the progress that’s been made at the site in recent months. And as far as Sultan’s own transformation as an artist over the course of the last 40 years?
“I think I’m less frivolous. The work itself changes on its own, so it’s hard for me to see what has changed in the work,” says Sultan. “I do different things, different imagery, but it’s still basically tied to the dialogue between the manmade and the natural, the chaotic and the stable and things switching. Things stable become chaotic and things that are chaotic seem to become stable.”
The work of Donald Sultan will be on view at The Drawing Room (66 Newtown Lane, East Hampton) from June 28 to July 30. The show opens with a reception this Saturday, June 30 from 5 to 7 p.m. For more information call 324-5016.