It seems like every discussion of Donald Sultan starts off by saying that he was born in Asheville, North Carolina in the United States, in 1951. Who am I to argue? Sultan, a composed, confident gentleman, exudes much of the finest that North Carolina has to offer, from his warm Southern accent to his gracious manners. As a boy, he went to a prep school in Massachusettts, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he finally decided to be an artist over an actor. From there, he went on to get his Master of Fine Arts degree at the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives now in New York City, and spends a few months every year in Europe, mostly St.-Tropez, and in both hemispheres he enjoys artistic and financial success.
He is very much a modern artist, struggling to find new directions for his art. His work can be seen as a dialectic between the representational and the abstract, taking a small library of representational images, depicting them in dissonant ways, and depicting in them abstractions. Working with such simple forms as the still life, silhouettes, single objects, and geometrical shapes, Sultan seeks to get within and beyond the simple image, using it instead as a vehicle into understanding. His work is often industrial in nature, from the fires and smokestacks of his tar-on-linoleum work to the mechanical repetition of works like "The Rain," he is exploring the empty supermarket perfection of modern American life. In that vein, he has made many series of print works, exploring different subtle transformations on simple forms.
This deck was originally executed in March of 1989 as charcoal (for the black) and conté crayon (for the red) drawings on hand-made paper. Sultan has since made another complete set of cards, stylistically very much the same as these, as aquatint prints, using his own particular technique to create the smoky edges, reminiscent of charcoal drawings, that he is so well known for. He has also made a series of prints exploring the geometry and symmetry of dominoes. The deck I have is from the unlimited "trade" edition, published by A/D (who will sell you one for $25), though a limited edition of 100 also exists. The deck consists of the 52 standard cards and two jokers, and includes two insert cards identifying and describing the deck.
Sultan's deck is very different from most artists' decks of cards I've seen. He was less interested in the identities of the cards and in the stories they tell, than in the mathematical symmetry. On the surface, he's exploring the arbitrary ranks of the cards, the symmetries within and between the cards, and the order and repetition of a deck. Underneath that, he's experimenting with rejecting that very order, by moving and turning the pips on the cards, breaking the internal symmetry by refusing to line everything up, and exploring the arbitrary order of the cards with his ten of spades, which comes equipped with twelve pips. And similarly, his face cards have no faces at all, only a suit and an abstraction of a symbol, though in that symbol can be found pieces of the identity behind the cards (the king being a crown, the queen being a waist, and the jack being a smile). What is meant with the joker, the wry heart above on the right, which appears in the deck in both red and black, is still an open question for me.
In some sense he is pushing to escape out of the rigid structure of a deck of cards, and at the same time never leaving its reassuring order, since his deck is still very much a deck of cards, for all that it is disordered on the inside. In fact, Sultan has a book out (with introductions by card sharp Ricky Jay and playwright David Mamet) which displays the entire deck in the context of a game of blackjack being played out. If ever one wanted a reassurance that an object was meant to be taken as a deck of cards, there it is.
Or, anyway, that's what-all it says to me. What it may say to Donald Sultan is an interesting question, and I'm sure one he'd be happy to answer. But he won't require you take his feelings as your own. Sultan doesn't have a specific, preconceived meaning in mind when he begins a work, but only an image and a mechanism. And those can change during the course of the execution. As he works, he begins to get a feel for what it is in him which is making the work, and when he's done, he knows what it is that the work says to him. But he knows that it will say different things to other people. That may be part of why he works with so many subtle variations on a particular image in his work - he's exploring all the different things that a particular image, motif or organization can say. I hope he explores cards more. Whether or not you agree with his vision, his explorations will illuminate the subjects.
All images © 1989, Donald Sultan, displayed here for commentary,
analysis and appreciation only.