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“Donald Sultan:

In the Still-Life Tradition”

At the Corcoran Museum of Art to July 17

Traced to its source, still life is an altar to the gods of plenty and privation. Back before it became an engine for the generation of propositions about painting or an arena in which a painter could exert total authority over the real, still life was about wanting the things we didn’t have and holding on to what we had. Citing Amos’ vision of a basket of summer fruit, offered by God as a preface to his withdrawal from the people of Israel, Guy Davenport, author of Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature, writes, “[A] still life becomes a symbol of what we shall have taken from us, though at the moment it is a sign of God’s goodness and the bounty of nature.”

Donald Sultan emphasizes still life’s more modern ends (though even they have to do with our being at the mercy of a creator), but he can’t shrug off the genre’s historical ghosts. The first vision offered to a visitor to his show of 20

8-foot-square paintings now at the Corcoran is, as it were, of three baskets of summer fruit. They feel curiously unsummery, though. His huge oranges and lemons radiate out of tarry blackness like winter suns, hitting you with bright, cold blasts of light. Sultan signs his pictures along their edges, giving each the date of its completion. He may have worked on them for a couple of months, but Lemon, November 28, 1983, Oranges, February 27, 1987, and Four Lemons, February 1, 1985 were all finished in the late fall and winter. Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters be damned—some fruit needs to be served out of season.

In a gallery to the side of the Sultan exhibit, pieces from the museum’s permanent collection offer a minihistory of (mostly American) still life. Nineteenth-century artist Charles Bird King inverts the horn of plenty, whipping self-pity into self-flagellation while reserving wrath for society’s neglect. In Poor Artist’s Cupboard, he supplants the banquets of his more successful comrades with bread and water. In place of cuts of meat, game freshly killed, and bowers of fruit is a meager library, among its volumes Miseries of Life, Pleasures of Hope, Advantages of Poverty, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and, most pointedly, Cheyne on Vegatable Diet. A trompe l’oeil scrap of paper announces a “Sheriff’s Sale” of “The Property of an Artist”:

Consisting of One Cradle, One Blanket, Two pair of Ruffles, Peticoat, Silk Stockings, and Peck of Potatoes. Four Pictures, of Roast Pigs, Turkies, Decanters of Wine, and Plumb Cake Painted from Recollection. Fall of the Giants, and View of Paradise, sixteen feet by twenty. Comforts of Matrimony, odd volume. Short Cut to Wealth. Sermon on the Vanity of Human Pursuits.

When Sultan came of age, artistic privation was imposed not by the uncomprehending critics and ungenerous patrons of King’s Philadelphia, but from within. In the mid- to late ’70s, the artists who would be collected in the Whitney’s 1978 “New Image Painting” show and their colleagues were coming to terms with representational imagery in the wake of minimalism and conceptualism. Though at best a loose constellation of often disparate artists, the New Image crowd was in general looking for a reconciliation of imagery with the abstract field rather than organizing an aesthetic overthrow. At times, the results could be laughably, perhaps even deliberately, timid, such as when Nicholas Africano’s tiny figures walked out onto the bare stage of his canvases, staking a claim to them but unsure of whether they’d be shooed off. And Susan Rothenberg’s chalky horses were daring only in light of the stranglehold of academically enshrined late modernism. Sultan’s own Colorformslike pictures from this time seem afraid of overarticulating their basis in real-world observation.

But with Lemon, November 28, 1983, the earliest picture at the Corcoran show aside from one of two inadvisably included 1-foot-square grace notes, Sultan embarked on a series that would bring him into his own. He still was straddling the line between abstraction and representation, as he continues to do to this day, but with a new authority. The single giant lemon, popping in acid-yellow silhouette against the incised circumference of an otherwise invisible platter, was both object and eye, the double meaning of its outline announcing a new challenge to—and a new conciliation with—the viewer.

By the time of a 1988 interview with Barbara Rose, Sultan had grown confident enough in his course that he could announce, “I paint still life because I thought it was the perfect vehicle for advancing art. If I was going to be involved in abstraction and painting and figuration, still life was perfect because it could be very abstract and I could put a lot of things back into abstract paintings that had been removed, like space and volume and light. I could put in meaning and I could use black lemons and industrial things. I could work with scale and eroticism and sexuality and all of the kinds of things that you find in life.” Although Sultan produced series of industrial landscapes and disaster paintings at the same time that he did the still lifes, it was the lemon that became his emblem, mark of all that had been excised from painting that he saw fit to put back in.

Paradoxically, by “advancing art,” Sultan has gained one of the broadest audiences of any painter working today. His paintings can show up, in articles and ads, anywhere from House & Garden to ARTnews to Artforum. He is listed in the rosters of 35 different galleries in Art in America’s most recent annual. Although now pushing 50, he is frequently one of the few young lions in a list of dead blue-chippers. That’s because despite the radical pedigree of the still life—it having been absolutely crucial to the development of impressionism and cubism—it is also viewed as a conservative genre validated by tradition. (There may be no surer proof of old-guard appeal than the current show’s itinerary, which starts with Tennessee and continues through Missouri, Florida, and Arizona.) Sultan is abstract and foreign enough to earn the coveted “Anybody could do that” award from the ignorant, yet concrete and comfortable enough to be deemed choice decoration for the dining rooms of the rich.

Sultan is frequently at odds with the aesthetic legacy of still life. When Rose asked, “What’s the most important thing about your work that people don’t understand?” he replied, “That beauty is not an issue.” And though at the press preview last month Sultan protested that he is no romantic, Ian Dunlop, in a 1986 catalog essay, wrote that the large still lifes “have a dark, brooding quality which suggests Sultan has more of a Romantic sensibility than he would be prepared to admit.” Considering the debt to minimalism owed by his massive tile, masonite, wood, and metal supports, along with his talk about his paintings being built to haul objects around and about his dealing with objects because that’s what we’re surrounded with, you might be tempted to call Sultan a formalist. But he rejects that tag, too: If he’s anything, he says, he’s an expressionist.

That’s tough to credit when you consider his paintings of dominoes and buttons; these cool, mathematical pictures most clearly elaborate Sultan’s nontraditional intent. When I asked him why paintings such as Black Button, April 3, 1997, Domino, June 8, 1990, and Nine and Eleven, August 16, 1995 qualify as still lifes, Sultan said that the genre encompasses many things; not just fruits and flowers, but pipes, playing cards, and so forth, as if I’d forgotten about Chardin. What I was thinking, though, had less to do with items than with their arrangement in space. There’s a reason Davenport’s book is called not Objects but Objects on a Table. The pictures of buttons and dominoes intensify Sultan’s inclination toward frontality and flatness. They are abstract in a way that even the most two-dimensional realist still lifes—the rack pictures of Harnett and Peto, for example—are not. These paintings are more concerned with planar geometry than anything Sultan has done since the ’70s, having chiefly to do with the scale and placement of circles (either dots on dominoes or holes in buttons) within larger circles (the buttons themselves) and rectangles (the dominoes, and in all the paintings, the 8-foot square). One title gives the game away: Stacked Dominos, October 28, 1994 would more accurately be described as “scattered.” They are stacked only in relation to the verticality of the picture plane; the space on and around a tabletop scarcely comes into play.

With the buttons and dominoes and with paintings such as Three Molding Limes and a Clementine, February 19, 1988, whose composition has the astronomical heft of an alignment of planets, Sultan tips the scales of still life from transience to permanence, from natura morta to stilleven. It is painters who worked under the former designation, however, albeit avant la lettre—Sanchez Cotan and Zurbaran—who with their silent, dark spaces and isolated objects constructed Sultan’s true still-life tradition. Elsewhere, fruit rots and flowers fade; here, form endures. CP