In the 1970s, disaster was repackaged as mass entertainment. Movies dealt with towering infernos, cataclysmic earthquakes, chaos at the airport, hijackings, crashes and the Hindenburg, and television settled into its still ardent affair with the lives of cops, firefighters and other first responders. Donald Sultan began making his large, brooding, wall-commanding “Disaster” paintings about a decade later, in the early Reagan years, which to many seemed just as bleak and anxious, though with a thin veneer of buoyant patriotism and nostalgia papering over things like the AIDS crisis and the growing confrontation with the Soviet east. Reagan is remembered, today, as a genial figure who ended the Cold War; but visit Sultan’s paintings, on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and you will reexperience all the gritty terror of those years, when the leader of the Free World indulged a flippant bellicosity that unnerved allies and enemies alike (“We begin bombing in five minutes,” Reagan joked on an open microphone in 1984).
Sultan’s paintings aren’t explicitly political, and he took his subjects mainly from newspaper photographs of accidents, fires, chemical spills and other urban distress. By the time he had built up these paintings, using carved linoleum tiles, tar and smears of lurid color over the surface, they were doing something very different than what disaster as entertainment does. The source of the original images was detectable mainly through a few telltale silhouettes (a fireman’s helmet, a row of streetlights, the metal architecture of an industrial plant or railroad), while the larger image seemed to bubble and ooze and bleed into abstraction. A particular shade of yellow in many works recalls the ugly glare of sodium vapor lights, as noxious a mnemonic as is the smell of naphthalene or the cling of cheap polyester on a hot day.
Disaster entertainment promises proximity, a safe vantage from which to scrutinize terror and suffering. Sultan’s paintings capture the horror, but little of the animating detail. You feel that you have glimpsed the disaster as if waking quickly from sleep, or passing by it at night on the highway. It is a snapshot that quickly dissolves into a visually indistinct but emotionally charged remembrance of having seen something horrible. Even Andy Warhol’s silk-screened multiple images of car crashes made in the 1960s — also based on newspaper photographs — allow the viewer more into the scene, and play more on the ghoulish appetites that make disaster imagery a rich source of public entertainment.
Remove the word “disaster” from this series, however, and you might be hard-pressed to find any distinct sense of danger or destruction in them. “Dead Plant November 1 1988” looks like one of Whistler’s smoky views of the Thames; “Yellowstone Aug 15 1990,” which shows dark tree trunks against Sultan’s familiar industrial yellow, could be one of van Gogh’s olive groves; several of the industrial scenes have echoes of Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler and George Bellows. The ambiguity of Sultan’s titles, which often reference the date and sometime the place of a disaster without any specifics of what happened (“Early Morning May 20 1986” and “South End Feb 24 1986”), recall a famous conceptual project, On Kawara’s date paintings (begun in 1966), that include only the date of the day they were made rendered in white against a solid background.
Kawara was painting his age, in a literal sense, recording the passage of time, as if the painting is merely the label one might find on a box that contained the news and events and personal dramas of that particular day (they were, in fact, packaged with newspaper clippings). For Sultan, disasters aren’t specific, they are rather a mode of understanding the world. If Kawara’s work says, “every day there is another day,” Sultan’s says, “every day there is another disaster.” Like reading the horoscope and scanning the obituaries, both of these extended visual explorations belong to a world that feels artificially constructed by media, by the fire hose of newsiness that never turns off and can only be escaped by detaching oneself from the source.
It’s gratifying, reading through an interview with Sultan published in the exhibition catalogue, that he avoids the cant and sentimentality that would probably be essential to this work if it were being created today. He doesn’t talk about memorializing the victims or the tragic fate of the innocent; when asked about first responders, he spoke in broad, systematic terms: “These figures, if you are lucky, are always between you and the catastrophe. They are there to deal with it. So all human systems have a system to deal with that chaos, eventually.”
Sultan stopped his series in 1990. Asked why, he acknowledged the toll taken by the implicit subject of his series — that everything is ephemeral — on him: “Now every day there’s a new catastrophe. So, they don’t need me. I’ve got nothing to say about that.”
Of course, the news medium that inspired the disaster series was also beginning to change. Cable news was making disaster more intimate, and seemingly more frequent; in 1986, images of the space shuttle Challenger exploding in flight became part of the ever-expanding global archive of horrifying tape loops. In 1991, the bombing of Baghdad rendered images that feel as if they were painted by Sultan, and animated in a computer. Social media hasn’t just glutted the market with disaster imagery, it has made us all painfully familiar with the everyday disasters of each other, the personal traumas and griefs that make my pain your pain and your pain my pain. Or, at least, elevate our anxiety about pain to an almost unbearable degree.
The other reason he stopped, perhaps, is sought out in the paintings themselves. By 1990, his disaster paintings were becoming too beautiful. The Yellowstone painting, and another of Venice (drained of its water) also made in 1990, begin to live independently of the project as landscapes and cityscapes. References to the history of painting take more prominence, and you realize the lodestar of this work was never disaster, it was always painting itself. At the point that the artist runs the risk of merely using disaster for his own ends, of perhaps even trivializing it in service to his art, he pulls back.
Now the series is safely contained within the decade that inspired it. Taken together, these works feel like a monumental series of history paintings, minus the particulars of history. If they are too dark and clotted to allow us to figure out what it is that menaces the world, that’s no matter. For taken together, they assert an age-old idea that we forget almost as soon as we fold up the newspaper or turn off Facebook: that the world is always menaced, and nothing lasts forever.
Donald Sultan: The Disaster Paintings is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Sept. 4. For more information visit americanart.si.edu.