Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings at Smithsonian American Art Museum, through September 4, 2017

“Donald Sultan’s career as a painter, sculptor, and printmaker spans more than forty years. Born in 1951, Sultan rose to prominence in the 1980s, the same years he began his industrial landscape series The Disaster Paintings, on which he worked for nearly a decade. Illustrating an array of catastrophes, including forest fires, railway accidents, arsons, and industrial plants producing toxic plumes, the Disaster Paintings eternalize events that occur daily in contemporary life yet are quickly eclipsed when the next tragedy arises. Combining this subject matter with industrial materials such as tar and Masonite tiles, the works exemplify in both media and concept the vulnerability of the most progressive manufactured elements of modern culture.

In their large scale and impressive physicality, the Disaster Paintings echo the drama of their subjects. The series presents a merging of apparent opposites, bringing together the materials of minimalism with representational painting; stylistically combining figuration and abstraction; and making references to high and low culture, ranging from topical events drawn from newspaper imagery to nineteenth-century art-historical iconography.” — Introductory Wall Text

“The series speaks to the impermanence of all things. The largest cities, the biggest structures, the most powerful empires – everything dies. Man is inherently self-destructive, and whatever is built will eventually be destroyed…That’s what the works talk about: life and death.” — Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Firemen March 6 1985, 1985, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, Tompkins Collection–Arthur Gordon Tompkins Fund. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Early Morning May 20 1986, 1986, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. Private collection, New York. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, South End Feb 24 1986, 1986, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, anonymous gift. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Accident July 15 1985, 1985, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Florene M. Schoenborn Gift, 1986. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Plant, May 29, 1985, 1985, latex, tar, and fabric on vinyl tile mounted on fiberboard. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution; Thomas M. Evans, Jerome L. Greene, Joseph H. Hirshhorn, and Sydney and Frances Lewis Purchase Fund, 1985. © Donald Sultan. Photography by Cathy Carver

Donald Sultan, Veracruz Nov 18 1986, 1986, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. Matthew and Iris Strauss Collection, Rancho Santa Fe, California. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Dead Plant November 1 1988, 1988, latex and tar on canvas. Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum purchase made possible by a grant from The Burnett Foundation. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Venice without Water June 12 1990, 1990, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. North Carolina Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Art Trust Fund. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Polish Landscape II Jan 5 1990 (Auschwitz), 1990, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. The Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York, Gift of the Broad Art Foundation. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Double Church Nov 8 1990, 1990, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. Private collection, New York; on loan to the Butler Institute of American Art. © Donald Sultan

Donald Sultan, Yellowstone Aug 15 1990, 1990, latex and tar on tile over Masonite. Private collection, New York. © Donald Sultan

“We always think our world is completely unassailable and will last forever. 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.” — Donald Sultan

Images courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.