"Early Morning May 20 1986" by Donald Sultan (1986)
"Early Morning May 20 1986" by Donald Sultan (1986)

The title of Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings at the Smithsonian American Art Museum evokes Andy Warhol’s Disaster series. Unlike Warhol’s silk-screened reproductions of newspaper photographs, Sultan’s work connects to rich traditions of painting.

There’s one footnote to the exhibition (and this review): Any write-up (including this one) of this exhibition will inevitably include a reproduction of an image of Sultan’s work. Small reproductions of Sultan’s paintings are a disservice, since they almost immediately reveal their subjects. In person, however, the 8-foot square paintings have a commanding presence, courtesy of both their scale and the way their structures sit proudly on the wall. These aren’t simple easel paintings. Instead of canvas, each painting is on latex tiles mounted on masonite, sitting on a structure that likely shares its family tree with a shipping palette. It’s a weird support for a painting—like looking at old wooden tablets and altar pieces from the early Renaissance. They are as much heavy object as they are painting.

Like a Warhol “Death and Disaster” piece, imagery in this Sultan series is derived from photographs. However, at first glance, a painting like “South End Feb 24 1986,” among others, has greater kinship with the Abstract Expressionist works of Clyfford Still, whose paintings of blocky colors are separated by jagged boundaries, like torn paper. In contrast to Still, each of Sultan’s paintings is a duotone, with black silhouettes carved out by a single color: most often a yellow, warmed by orange. And, of course, the edges within his duotoned paintings have softer edges.

Take a step or two back, and the subject of a painting reveals itself. Depictions of fires and chemical plants dominate the exhibition of 12 paintings. Although most are quick reads, none is an easy read, for the quality of paint handling adds an element that a photograph, or a straight reproduction, can’t. Unlike the Warhol prints of disasters, these paintings have a gnarled surface of built-up tar and paint, coupled with expressive mark-making of splashes, scribbles, washes, and streaks. Sometimes the tar reads shiny, other times matte. There is also a hint of smokiness to the medium of tar that supports the fires depicted in the paintings, or the subtext of poison leeching into the environment from the chemical plants.

Unfortunately, there are ambiguities for what amounts to history painting. For example, Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”—which depicts the survivors of a shipwreck, lost at sea, writhing in the agony of days surviving on cannibalized remains—points to a very specific event in French nautical history. Sultan’s paintings do the opposite. While a painting might pinpoint a date, “Early Morning May 20 1986” for example, we don’t know exactly what that date refers to. It could be the date of the incident, or it could just as easily be a start or end date of the painting, since—according to the catalog—later in this series there is a painting titled “Early Morning August 1 1986,” that is nearly a replica of “May 20.” Fungible dates are certainly an enigma in the body of work, and it is exacerbated by the fact that we have no clue where the location of this fire is.

With exception to a few titles that include specific locations—like Venice, Vera Cruz, or Yellowstone—that fire, or that plant, could be anywhere. Just like how lead was once a concern in D.C. drinking water, it’s now a national issue. Nearly every state in the union has at least one problematic city or county. That burning fire could be much closer to home, which makes the history of Sultan’s paintings anyone’s history.

At the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum to Sept. 4. 8th and F Streets NW. Free. (202) 633-7970. americanart.si.edu.