Donald Sultan

The images… are really about the architecture in the paintings; they seem so massive and strong and permanent but nothing is permanent. The image in the front is very fragile, but it conveys the loaded meaning of everything that is contained in the painting.

–Donald Sultan

The Surrealism of Witness
Reviewing Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings exhibit

How to process the persistent horror that earth is being consumed by an unstoppable, self-inflicted inferno? Coping mechanisms… irreverence, nihilism, denial? If none of these sit right with you—if you prefer to fill your lungs with smoke and rot, squint through pollution and shadow, and submit to tragedy rubbernecking—we have good news! New York based artist Donald Sultan spent the better part of the 1980s creating his 59-work series The Disaster Paintings, twelve of which are currently on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC. Though The Disaster Paintings are most known for depicting bleak, industrial, post-war America, the exhibition takes viewers on a comprehensive tour of apocalyptic atmospheres, all of them man-made, and most fiery: environmental, urban, humanitarian, historical, at home, and abroad.


About Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan’s large-scale still life paintings are filled with rich iconography—provocative objects, like bulbous fruits, set against a tar-black background. Although primarily classified as a still lifes, Sultan maintains that his works (despite their representational objects—flowers, lemons, eggs, buttons) are first and foremost abstract. Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Sultan moved to New York City in 1975 upon completion of his advanced studies. He is recognized as a painter, printmaker, and sculptor, and best known for his large compositions made following a unique technique: in place of canvas, Sultan covers masonite with 12-inch vinyl floor tiles, from which he cuts geometric and organic forms. Sultan fills the negative spaces with tar or plaster, followed by a layer of paint; his resulting images are distinctively textured and equally balance the contrast of positive and negative space.


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