The son of creative parents, Donald Sultan grew up in Asheville, North Carolina. His father, whose hobby was painting in an Abstract Expressionist mode, owned a tire company, which may have influenced the future artist’s interest in nontraditional industrial materials. His mother was active in the theater, and Sultan painted theatrical sets and acted in summer stock on Cape Cod as a teenager. After spending his high school years at the Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts, Sultan enrolled at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with the intention of studying theater. Reluctant to take acting direction, however, he transferred to the art department and earned his BFA from the university in 1973. He went on to the School of Art Institute of Chicago, completing his MFA two years later.
Living in the gritty urban environments of Chicago and New York inspired an early body of work, which dealt with factories and the industrial landscape. Sultan’s chosen media—black tar and linoleum—complemented this imagery. To support himself financially, he worked as a laborer renovating lofts in trendy neighborhoods and as a gallery assistant at the Denise René Gallery on 57th Street. After observing workmen lay new flooring, Sultan immediately adopted a grid format in place of canvas and began to incorporate tiles and spackle into his large-scale paintings.
Consistently working with tar and tiles, Sultan launched a series of fruits and flowers—most often lemons, poppies, and tulips—in the mid-1980s. The contrast of these natural organic shapes against his industrial materials and grid format is striking, and Sultan has described these works as pieces with “heavy structure, holding fragile meaning.” A more a recent series features dominos and dice. While clearly an heir to the Abstract Expressionists’ unconventional use and application of paint, Sultan vacillates between abstraction and representational art, and thus avoids easy categorization, leading some critics to simply label him as a “Post-Minimalist.”
Sultan had his first solo exhibition in 1977 at the Artists Space and has enjoyed significant New York gallery representation his entire career. The Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition of his black lemons in 1988, and in 1992 the American Federation of the Arts circulated a print retrospective to eight separate venues. Sultan’s work is represented in the permanent collections of major museums in this country and abroad, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. Recognition has also come his way in the form of a 1980–1981 National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist Fellowship. He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates: from Washington D.C.’s Corcoran School of Art in 2000; the New York Academy of Art in 2002; and the University of North Carolina, Asheville, in 2007.