New York

Donald Sultan

Knoedler & Company

With such unlikely materials as tar, vinyl, Spackle, and Masonite, Donald Sultan builds up his thoroughly elegant paintings, which monumentalize such ephemera as the swirling of smoke rings or a glimpse of two birds landing. Other subjects are only somewhat less transitory, such as the close-up still lifes featuring elephantine black eggs placed amid ripening apples or within checkerboard patterns of yellow roses or half-ripened tomatoes. In these, Sultan seems concerned with the impressions made by organic surfaces, whose contours and colors he often renders with a delicate-looking, waxy opacity. The overall effect of his work, however, is more surreal than naturalistic. The dark, portentous eggs appearing in half of the ten paintings in this exhibit are largely responsible for this. Varying in size from work to work, their surfaces alternating between convex and concave, flat and spherical, the eggs ultimately read as both abstract and real. They seem totemic, emblematic of a juncture between the physical and metaphysical realms. One wonders if they might not even be the fruit of Lop Lop, the wraithlike bird of Max Ernst’s later paintings.

The new work seems generally starker than much of Sultan’s previous efforts, which, while unique and complex, still seemed to owe something of their vibrancy to Warhol’s Pop. This element seems pared down here in favor of purer painterly effects, especially in the black-and-white Smoke Rings April 2 1998 and Smoke Rings Feb 22 1999, where the artist’s seemingly frenzied manipulation of tar and Spackle achieves a sense of space that verges on the foreboding. Such eerie intimations are mitigated by the artist’s use of geometry in these paintings, all of which are square. The six largest (ninety-six by ninety-six inches) are each assembled of four smaller squares; the surface of Birds June 11 1998 is divided equally into sixty-four brackish squares whose rigidity sets off the randomly shaped splotches in the painting’s leaden background. This linear geometry also accents the globular look of the large apples in Apples and Eggs Feb 1999 and further emphasizes the almost pupil-like nature of Sultan’s mysterious eggs. In these hazy, lush works, it’s as if mathematics itself has become a fecundating principle.

Another tension enervating Sultan’s work involves the juxtaposition of the unwieldiness of his chosen media, which obviously require great effort to be combined and manipulated, with the gracefulness of his results. The larger pieces are mounted on the wall with bulky plywood-and-dowel platforms that—along with the fact that his work sometimes seems more sculpted than painted—contribute to their almost Herculean aura. Yet rather than an end in itself, this muscularity seems aimed precisely at constructing remarkably refined surfaces, where sunset-colored passages might float amid the gloom or mottled shadows swarm the interstices between objects. It is the surfaces of these objects, their “skin,” whether flushed or nacreous, that in part balance the weighty plasticity of Sultan’s work on the side of the ineffable.

Tom Breidenbach