Sag Harbor resident Donald Sultan’s large-scale paintings of poppies, fruits, dice, and playing cards can be found at prestigious galleries and museums—including the Parrish Art Museum—but in an ironic twist, Sultan is one local artist who chooses not to paint in the East End’s famous light. “I don’t need light; I believe that painting always was and always should be viewed in a cave,” jests Sultan, whose sister, Terrie Sultan, is the director of the Parrish in Water Mill. “I work in my own light and I think even the experience of art is meant to be inside.”
With works in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney, Sultan finds the Hamptons to be more of a respite than a place of business. “I go to see friends’ gallery shows and every now and again I’ll go to a movie, but not so much,” says Sultan of his typical Hamptons weekend.
Sultan first discovered the Hamptons in the early 1980s, when he rented a house on Main Street in Amagansett that belonged to a friend of one of his collectors. “My daughter had been born in March of that year, so we took the house in August, and it rained every day,” he laughs. “I didn’t mind; I had a good time. [Actors] Brooke Hayward and Roger Smith also rented a house in Water Mill, so I ended up going over there with my friend and dealer at the time, Irving Blum. We played cards all evening. Peter Matthiessen was there, and that was where I met [artist] Richard Prince.”
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1951, Sultan was originally interested in the theater—something his mother had actively pursued. “I was acting and then I learned how to make theatrical sets and paint them,” recalls Sultan, who received the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor in 2010. “I did apprenticeships in different professional theaters.”
After he decided to devote himself to art, Sultan turned his attention to “the three main themes of painting: landscapes, still-lives, and florals.” The son of a tire company owner who painted as a hobby, Sultan says it was his father’s influence (and a limited budget) that inspired his early use of industrial materials such as linoleum, spackle, enamel, and tar as well as paint—materials he still draws upon today. “Basically they were about the juxtaposition between gesture and rigidity,” says Sultan of his early work. “All of the images of those dark pictures 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.”
Although Sultan’s work often focuses on fruits and vegetables, he admits, “I don’t eat them.” He sculpts, such as a large-scale work of rubber chains made out of neoprene exhibited at P.S. 1 and the Knoedler Gallery, and which Sultan still owns; he also makes prints and draws—including all the drawings for playwright David Mamet’s book, Bar Mitzvah. “No one ever thinks up a new idea or a new product—you discover it through working,” says Sultan. “There have been many times when I’m working on a painting, and I’ll start a new thing, and I’ll say, ‘That’s so obvious. Why didn’t I think of that before?’ But I couldn’t think of it before; I had to discover it.”
Currently, Sultan is working on a series of pictures that will be on display in Caracas, Venezuela, in early 2014. “In some sense, you always feel that you’re slightly a failure and that there’s so much to do and so little time,” he says. “I would like praise. I don’t like criticism. But I don’t know what people are going to think [of my work]. I’ll walk into an exhibition and think that this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and then the next day it’ll be the most praised moment in the history of the New York scene for that week…. I would be content that if someone I really admired would say, ‘That really moves me.’ Whenever anyone says ‘I saw a picture of yours, and I’m never going to quite be the same,’ that’s all I want.”