The art world can pigeonhole a painter's style. Once an artist hits on the market, dealers and gallery owners grow rapacious for more work of the same ilk. Donald Sultan enjoys a successful career as a painter and printmaker of some of the most iconic abstract flower pieces in contemporary American art. In a vast departure from his most sought-after pieces, he's mounting "The Disaster Paintings" at the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum.
For the artist, whose work features large-scale still lifes often rendered with industrial materials, this upcoming show's subject matter is quite different.
"'The Disaster Paintings' depict human systems thrust into chaos," Sultan tells New Times as he prepares for the Miami launch of his much-buzzed-about show. "This is what separates them from much of my other work — flowers, dominoes, smoke rings, and more."
Though they're taken from specific events, the paintings represent universal aspects of chaos. Based on real-life tragedies, the works feature images culled from newspaper clippings. Yet each painting in the series has a level of abstraction that imbues them with a certain universality. Firefighters, teaming up to put out a massive inferno as it wears away at a structure, are no more than shaped blotches of black tar on masonite tiles — the artist's preferred medium. Inspired by his father's business as a tire salesmen, Sultan prefers unconventional materials with a gritty and unfinished look.
The show comes to the Lowe Art Museum after an original stint at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. That museum's director, Marla Price, agreed to oversee the organization of the show in its new South Florida home. "This meant that 'The Disaster Paintings' could be expanded to include significant loans from some of the best museums in America and travel to three further venues," explains Susanne Haase, marketing and communications director at the Lowe.
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The medium and subject matter together give the work a haunting quality. Dark and elusive, "The Disaster Paintings" smolder with an air of mystery that begs the viewer to look beyond the surface.
"These paintings describe a universality unique to human history — destruction, self-destruction, strife, and carelessness," Sultan says. "These eternal events are by their nature abstract. It is the abstraction that makes them feel relevant today."
"The Disaster Paintings"
On view at the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum beginning September 29. The show will then tour Fort Worth, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Lincoln, Nebraska. Call 305-284-3535.