Gone are the days of fussy ideologies separating representational painting and abstraction. In past decades, of course, a divide was deep and intense, yet a handful of artists and critics, especially those interested in landscape painting, saw a productive union or practical non-differentiation in methods. One was Willem de Kooning, who in 1941 claimed that although European abstractions derived from the still life, his referred to the landscape. Edwin Dickinson, Fairfield Porter, Neil Welliver and Nell Blaine are among the other artists who saw no tall fences.
This is a helpful context in which to appreciate the work of Altoon Sultan. Over the course of her 35-year career, Sultan has gone completely end-to-end across the landscape-abstraction continuum. Widely known for her finely detailed panoramas of farms shown at Marlborough Gallery for two decades, then at Tibor de Nagy, she has, in more recent years, taken to small-scale abstractions in the form of egg tempera paintings and hooked wool textiles.
In March, Sultan’s textiles made their New York debut at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects‘ optically charged booth at Scope. This coming out, as it were, along with the significant interest being given to abstraction right now, made it seem like a good time to ask Sultan a few questions about what’s been happening in her studio.
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Rob Colvin: How would you describe your transition and shift of interest from landscape painting to textiles?
Altoon Sultan: I haven’t been a landscape painter for many years, ten to fifteen depending on how narrowly we define “landscape.” In the late 1990s I began to focus on agricultural implements in large oil paintings; previously I had been doing more conventional sweeping landscapes of farming. As time went on I focused more on the objects, while the landscape surrounding them began to disappear.
In 2002 I bought my first digital camera, and in learning how to use it, I took a lot of still-life photos. These made me see differently when I went out to farms to gather images for my paintings: I moved closer to the subjects, which were mainly farm machines, and saw them much more abstractly, as compositions of color and shape closer to still life than landscape. The heavy duty content in the earlier paintings — issues of land use and abuse and the cultural meanings of landscape — began to take a back seat to my love of 20th-century abstraction. This distillation of image has continued today, as I paint small egg temperas that might be said to be a realist/abstract hybrid.
I had moved to an old farm house in Vermont in 1994. In 2006 I thought it would be fun to make some rugs for it, so I learned the traditional technique of rug hooking. It’s a very simple process that grew out of 19th-century women using discarded scraps of cloth hooked through a backing; old burlap sacks were used in the later part of the century. It’s become a widely practiced craft throughout the U.S. So I made three rugs for the house. Then I began to think of the great show of Tantric painting that I’d seen at the Drawing Center in 2005, and it inspired me to make a small, 12-by-10-inch hooked rug for the wall, a simple composition of triangle and circle. A giant lightbulb moment! Here was a way for me to engage with my beloved minimalist abstraction.
I had made some attempts at nonobjective painting, but they were failures; I continue to be very tied to the resonance and depth of depicting things of this world in my painting and to the frisson of pleasure that comes from the illusion of the tangible. My textile work has certainly influenced my paintings, as they have become more and more abstract over the past couple of years.
RC: Your process with materials is quite extensive, especially in dyeing your own fabrics to achieve very specific colors. What is your studio process like, and how do you see color functioning in your work?
AS: I seem to be an artist who loves process; I’ve worked exclusively in egg tempera paint since around 2000, making my paint using pigment and egg yolk and preparing grounds with true gesso. For the past two years, inspired by a manuscript exhibition at the Morgan Library, I’ve worked on calfskin parchment, stretching it over panels, preparing my paint with glair, which is beaten egg white. So the the task of dyeing wool is not very daunting to me. Rug hookers tend to use exacting formulas to get the color just how they want it — 1/8 of a teaspoon of this plus a 1/32 of a teaspoon of that dye color — but I just mix colors like the painter I am, eyeballing it in the mixing jar, dropping a bit onto a white coffee filter to test it, until it looks right. But it rarely comes out exactly as I had expected, which is fine, because I like the element of surprise. It reminds me of printmaking, where the print is usually different from what you thought you were making on the plate.
After dyeing the wool in enamel pots, I dry it and cut it into strips for hooking, using a hand-cranked stripper machine. I copy the design onto the backing linen, which I stretch over a frame and pull the strips of wool through it. The design work and dyeing takes thought and concentration, so I work on these during the day, while the handwork of hooking the wool is repetitious activity not demanding much presence of mind, a very relaxing pastime for evenings in front of the TV.
Color is a delightful plaything in my textile work; I can be much freer and wackier with it than with my painting, using very saturated colors at times. It has an expressive quality, though my work is mainly formal: How does this color interact with that? How do I make or deny spatial effects by using color and value? Thinking of the emotional impact of color is sometimes a part of my planning process; I occasionally want to change the mood through color or value. I grab color ideas from everywhere: nature, art — from Indian miniatures to contemporary painting, and the brilliant piles of leftover wool from previous projects.
RC: The hooked-wool drawings take on a lighter, looser improvisational character next to the textile pieces, with their all-over compositions and push-pull relations of space. How do you view the two bodies of work?
AS: The “drawings” may look improvisational, but they are not any more so than the fully hooked works. Both start with thumbnail sketches, which I enlarge to actual size in a working pencil drawing, which I then transfer to the backing linen. Here’s how the drawings came about: I am an active blogger and get lots of very helpful feedback from my readers. At times I showed the textiles in progress, and a couple of valued observers commented on how much they liked the simple line work on the linen before it was filled in completely. This response encouraged me to try something different, to create a body of work that is more lighthearted in feel, that combined wool and egg tempera paint.
The drawings are more unique in their approach to the materials; I think of Richard Tuttle a great deal, and for me there’s a relationship to his funky minimalism in my drawings. The fully hooked textiles are closer to a traditional approach and have a more complex use of color and structure.
RC: Both bodies of work display a rich interaction with the history of abstract painting — sometimes it’s by quotation and homage, other times by extending formal projects from various historical periods. Yet more often, the work leaps into entirely new visual territory that is uniquely your own. How do you relate to abstraction’s history in the work?
AS: I think of all my textile work as an homage to 20th-century minimalist abstraction, into the 21st. Russian constructivism is very important to me in its search for essential form: I’ve done works that quote or are based on Malevich, Popova, Rozanova, Rodchenko. Then there are Mondrian, Brancusi, Reinhardt, Helio Oiticica and, more contemporaneously, Blinky Palermo, Richard Tuttle, Joel Shapiro, Mary Heilman, Ellsworth Kelly and Tantric painting. Making these works has enabled me to absorb their ideas, to soak them into my hands and heart.
The great thing about working with hooked wool is that I can get away with all this quoting, all this wandering about in different imagery; it would be harder to make it work in painting. The medium, with which very few artists are familiar, holds it all together. My compositions and color sense are my own, and I’m doing fewer homage works, but the medium, as I mentioned above, is not my own. It is widely used by craftspeople and artists, but my long career as a painter places my textiles within an art world rather than one of craft. But I am very aware of my debt to the world of rug hooking and its traditions, just as I am to the history of medieval painting and to that of reductive art.
RC: Do you have any last thoughts?
AS: In recent years I’ve begun to think of all my various endeavors — painting, textiles, photography, blogging — as part of a whole artistic life, broader and more ordinary than my New York art-world life. I want to make art out of the overlooked, whether in photographs, in paintings of farm machines or in using a common craft technique. I am interested in “being rapt with satisfied attention,” as William James wrote, and I agree with the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami when he said, “Even daily life should ultimately reach an essence that is akin to poetry.”