For a guy who paints so many flowers, artist Donald Sultan has an awfully dark vision of the world. Firemen silhouetted against walls of flame, lonely guardians about to be consumed. Skeletal bridges to nowhere in a bleak grey landscape. Tunnels funneling towards a menacing clump of black tar that seems to leak from the surface like a toxic cloud.
"We always think our world is completely unassailable and will last forever," says Sultan, looking at the ominous series of his works looming from a gallery at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami. "But then you see that's not necessarily the case. So many great civilizations have disappeared. It's usually hubris and human beings who bring about the downfall of their own structures."
Shiver. No wonder these are called the Disaster Paintings. Sultan, 65, created between 60 and 70 of them in the ‘80s, as he became one of the most successful artists of his generation in New York. But they are very different from the graphic, bright-colored still lifes, often of flowers and fruit, for which he has become known. Instead, the Disaster Paintings were inspired by news stories on chemical spills, industrial decay, fires and environmental disasters. In our own era, inundated by a flow of media depicting grinding wars and new environmental threats, this relatively little known body of Sultan's work seems startlingly relevant.
"Everything is cyclical, but this feels like a dark moment," says Jill Deupi, director and chief curator of the Lowe, who conceived the show. "[The Disaster Paintings] tap into some of the turmoil surrounding us. They're addressing universal themes of life and death, creation and destruction, darkness and light — all these things that are part of our existence and make us mortal."
And yet, Deupi believes Sultan's end time visions can be uplifting.
"There's something extremely cathartic about them," she says. "You can have these overwhelming experiences, and at the same time you are safe. You can release your angst and walk away feeling a little better."
The show, which opened at the Lowe last week and runs through Dec. 23, is the first time that anyone has exhibited these works, which have been scattered in museums and private collections, together. The exhibit was organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which will present the show after Miami; it will also travel to the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The exhibit will be on display during the global hubbub of Art Basel Miami Beach, when Sultan will speak at an annual brunch hosted by the Lowe.
In many ways, the paintings are inspired by Sultan's life and the era in which he made them. He grew up in Asheville, North Carolina, where he spent time at his father's tire retread factory, often with a guy who ground rubber, leaving mountains of black powder. "I thought it was just the coolest thing," Sultan remembers.
He moved to New York in 1975, living in a former factory in Tribeca during a grim period of urban blight, when arson left black gaps in the city. The steady stream of stories about pollution, disasters and the decay of American industrial cities directly inspired the paintings, each of which is modeled on a news photograph.
"What you're seeing is a fleeting moment where something is being destroyed or injured," he says. "At the beginning I called them events, because the terror of what was going on was in most cases un-seeable. They were gas leaks or poison smog or acid rain or the industrial heartland disintegrating, things going away that had once been the pillar of your country."
And so each painting is a glimpse of a chilling story. In "Early Morning May 20 1986," a fireman is silhouetted against a raging inferno. "Poison Island" depicts the aftermath of a chemical spill in New Jersey that sickened people on Staten Island. "Dead Plant November 1 1988" shows hulking bridges in an abandoned steel plant. In "Venice Without Water June 12 1990," tangled pillars rise from the muck left when the Italian city was unexpectedly drained. "Polish Landscape II Jan 5 1990 (Auschwitz)" shows the abandoned Nazi concentration camp and the tracks prisoners walked towards the gas chambers.
"It's really about emotion and how far did I want to go," says Sultan. "These were all in the newspaper. They were always about order and chaos at the same time."
And yet, these depictions of burned out emptiness are almost as physically solid as the structures they show. Sultan worked building and renovating lofts when he first got to New York, and as a teenager he built sets for a theater company in Asheville. He was drawn to the way site-specific and environmental artists like Gordon Matta-Clark and Alan Saret used construction materials, or made art by digging into buildings and walls.
Sultan made the disaster paintings on masonite tile laid over low platforms of plywood and pipe, as if he was building a piece of floor and putting it up on the wall. Not only were the materials cheap and easily available, but Sultan was drawn to their solidity. He wasn't making an image with paint on canvas, but constructing "boxcars that haul meaning."
"I felt more comfortable with an actual thing than with an illustration," he says. "It was more important to have the actual feel of a physical situation. It's like having an actual person with you, instead of an image."
But after he constructed them, he deconstructed them, digging shapes out of the linoleum that he filled in with liquid tar, wiping them with solvents that left grit and residue. In some ways, his methods mirrored the industrial processes or destructive forces he was depicting.
Sultan sometimes slipped 19th century references into these pieces; a fire escape is like a balcony in an Edouard Manet painting, Francisco Goya's violent war paintings, as if Western culture was also being consumed. But you don't need to get those references to be affected by the Disaster Paintings.
"The longer you look and the more knowledge you have about art and art history, the more it should be rewarded," he says. "But you don't have to know anything for it to have some meaning."
Two pieces show firemen silhouetted against swirling yellow flames. But in those years before 9/11, Sultan didn't intend them as heroic figures but as anonymous symbols of order and civilization. As guardians they seem vulnerable; they could also be stand-ins for the viewer, staring, like us, at a daunting conflagration. But there are no sentinels at all in "Yellowstone Aug 15 1990," which depicts a huge fire in the famous national park, just black slashes in a yellow field representing the incinerated trees.
"One of those was enough," Sultan says.
By the start of the ‘90s, Sultan was done with devastation.
"Events like this began to take over the world," he says. "What would I make that you hadn't seen? We're constantly barraged by destruction and horror. There was so much of that I went the other way and did flowers."
A quarter century later, as terrorism, war and environmental threats have added new atrocities to the list of horrors, and social media and online news have turned the stream of stories into a virtual flood, Sultan is grateful that his Disaster Paintings have re-emerged.
"I consider this work important, culturally and spiritually," Sultan says. "People don't know them. And I didn't want them to disappear."
If you go
What: "Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings"
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tues. to Sat., 12 to 4 p.m. Sunday, through Dec. 23
Where: The Lowe Art Museum, 1301 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables
Info: $12.50; info at loweartmuseum.org or 305-284-3535