“I have been using flower imagery for 40 years,” says artist Donald Sultan, “only because in the 1970s, I started to see the urban environment as a source for new growth. At the time, no one in my generation was painting flowers; now, of course, everyone is.”
Based in New York and Sag Harbor, Sultan is internationally celebrated for his expert use of materials in drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures. Including works from roughly a 20-year period, an exhibition currently on view at The Drawing Room in East Hampton explores three subjects from different stages of his career: flowers, fruits, and playing cards. Emily Goldstein and Victoria Munroe, cofounders of the gallery, selected the works from Sultan’s Tribeca studio; many of them he has held onto for years.
Discussing his show, the artist explains how his compositions came to employ natural imagery. The still lifes for which he became famous in the late 1970s emerged through observations of smokestacks around the city—the vase standing in for the stack itself and the flowers for the more chaotic and elusive smoke. For Sultan, smokestacks came to represent “urban flowers.” The oil pumps in fields became dunking birds. Similarly, the series of rows of genetically produced fruits and vegetables in grocery stores became a type of urban nature, standardized in their presentation and production.
In Sultan’s lush, overscaled images, familiar objects become extraordinary. Rich, inky-black silhouettes of oranges on vines display his dexterity with charcoal, while the bright contrasting colors in his mimosa drawings highlight the rough texture and materiality of his work. By utilizing systems—in the physical construct of his compositions as well as the subjects—the content continues to evolve. Emphasizing this evolution, he says: “Everything comes out of another thing; the language keeps expanding,” developing a balance between chaos and order.
The playing cards originated through his exploration of clovers that represent clubs. Paintings of morning glories came from dots on dominos. The most recent drawing in the exhibition is dated May 2012. Here, the scarlet poppies are expanded and cropped, presenting a sensuous visual experience. Inspired at the time by the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, Sultan nods to the tradition of wearing these flowers in a lapel. While his works are fundamentally representational, their scale, palette, contrast, material, and cropping render them almost abstract.
Munroe points to this materiality as driving her interest in Sultan’s work. The gallery was founded in 2004 to showcase artists with a specific interest in drawings—as suggested by the name—and with a presence on the East End. For Munroe, this means that an artist’s attention to structure is essential. “Drawing is the foundation for art,” she explains. With Sultan’s work, she has found an ideal collaboration. Donald Sultan’s work is on display through July 30; The Drawing Room, 66 Newtown Lane, East Hampton, 324-5016.