Altoon Sultan‘s egg tempera paintings depict close ups of agricultural equipment with incisive color and architectural forms. Her paintings consistently reveal inner tensions: the shapes are abstracted and literal, the colors are vivid and subtle, the space is shallow and dimensional. The artist shares with Art Spiel some of her rich experience as a painter, her work process, and her on-going projects.
AS: Tell me a bit about what brought you to art, including your experience studying with Philip Pearlstein and Lois Dodd at Brooklyn College.
Altoon Sultan: When I was young the thought never occurred to me that I would become an artist; I had no understanding of what that meant. I was exposed to some art as a youngster: we lived in Brooklyn, not far from the Brooklyn Museum, and my parents sometimes took us there on outings. My favorite parts of the museum, not surprising in a child, were the Egyptian collections, the period rooms, and the Great Hall with Native American artifacts, including some enormous, dramatic totem poles; a lifetime later I still miss that Native American installation. I went to a high school that had a large and vibrant art department, where I took some art classes and enjoyed them, did well, but didn’t then think “ah, I must major in art in college”. Nope, when I got to Brooklyn College and had to start thinking about a major, I started with French, but didn’t like it much; then went to classics, but realized I wasn’t a scholar; after that was art history, but again the scholar problem (it wasn’t until many years later that I realized I liked to write and wasn’t bad at it). So I then stumbled into the art department, and was incredibly lucky that the faculty was excellent, and that I had a bit of talent.
My first drawing class was with Lois Dodd, who was supportive and helpful. The most wonderful thing she did that semester was to invite the class to a figure drawing session at her loft residence. For unsophisticated me it was a great adventure: going into an unknown part of Manhattan, being in a real artist’s work space. It made an artist’s life seem more real.
At Brooklyn College, where I got both an undergraduate and a graduate degree, my most important mentor was Philip Pearlstein. He gave students lists of shows to see, and his recommendations included a wide range of styles, instilling in me a lifelong openness to all sorts of work. He encouraged me to go to summer art schools, at Tanglewood and at Skowhegan; these experiences made me into a serious artist. When I came back from Skowhegan mired in making endless studies (Skowhegan was a more conservative place close to 50 years ago), Philip pointed out––I was a grad student by then––that I should never treat myself as a student, but as an artist; that the important thing was to figure out what I wanted to say, and to go deeply into whatever that was. He noted that I had an architectonic sensibility. And he told me that it was fine to be a modest person, but that I should not be a modest artist, but one with ambition. These bits of advice were life changing for me, and I am forever grateful for them.
AS: Egg Tempera paint seems to be central in your work. What drew you to that medium?
Altoon Sultan: I currently paint only with egg tempera, but for most of my painting life I had used oils, and some gouache. For many years I worked from direct observation out in the landscape, so oil or gouache were most suited to that pursuit. I’d been fascinated by egg tempera because of my love of Quattrocento Italian panel painting, but it wasn’t until I quit a teaching job in California and moved to Vermont in the spring of 1994 that I had the time to learn how to use it. I had Daniel Thompson’s book The Practice of Tempera Painting, which was an invaluable resource in getting me started. I fell in love with the medium, and eventually gave up working with oils.
Egg tempera’s clarity, translucence, and brilliant color are a joy to work with, and there’s the bonus that water is used for mixing rather than turps or mineral spirits. Because it dries immediately, I can layer paint and achieve a depth of color and quality of light not possible with alla prima oil painting; layering can move a color cooler or warmer, or shift its hue by floating a light glaze over it; glazing a slightly darker color over a lighter base yields a more vibrant color. The multitude of pigments available is vast, many more colors than in tube paints.
I was so enthralled by egg tempera that I wrote an illustrated instructional manual called “The Luminous Brush: Painting with Egg Tempera,” which was published by Watson-Guptill in 1999. It’s no longer in print but used copies can be found, and it’s available on Google Books as a free pdf download or an ebook. I’m now much freer with the paint than I was when I wrote the book and used the traditional method of cross hatching. With egg tempera I can achieve the precision I want in a painting, along with rich color and clear light.
AS: Looking at your previous body of work, from the 80s to 2010 it’s fascinating to see how moments in your earlier paintings come to the forefront and become the essence. When I look at an image like “Blue Silos, Wells, VT,” from 1987, the two blue silos are depicted as detail (albeit central) in a vast pastoral landscape; then gradually, those geometric mechanical-like forms transform into main players, like “Draped Tires,” from 2003, and then abstracted into “Five Circles,” from 2010. Does the use of Egg Tempera play a major role in these transitions? I am curious to know what is your take on that?
Altoon Sultan: I’m glad you see the transition in my work so clearly. I’ll go back a little farther: when I first showed in a commercial gallery in NYC in 1977, I was painting “portraits” of Victorian houses. My vision then expanded to include some landscape alongside architecture, and soon the landscape dominated. The landscape I pictured was an agricultural, working landscape; I was never interested in pure landscape, but in the contrast of natural beauty with human interventions. I began to focus on the forms of agricultural equipment because of its potential for abstraction, and its seemingly endless variety of compositional ideas. I had long admired 20th century minimalist abstraction, even trying some minimalist paintings, but realized that my strength and my love were based in representation, in illusionistic form, and in light. I’ve spent the past 15 years or so trying to move my representational images close to abstraction. Egg tempera hasn’t played a role in these changes, but has been a perfect medium to explore them.
AS: More recent additions to your body of work are abstractly designed wall textiles using the traditional technique of rug hooking, prints using cardboard and potatoes – eclectic materials and methods. What attracts you there and can you elaborate on this new body of work?
Altoon Sultan: I’m an art enthusiast: when I see work I love, I want to use it, to somehow incorporate it into my art making. Sometimes these new bodies of work are fleeting, as with my cardboard and potato prints, and my drawings based on Islamic design; others are continuing to engage me, as my textiles. I began making the prints after seeing a print show at MoMA, and the drawings based on Islamic design after the Islamic wing at the Met opened and I found a wonderful little book on Islamic design patterns. At a certain point, I lost interest in continuing both these series; I had said all I had to say.
I still avidly make textiles; they satisfy my desire to work with pure abstraction, though a bit of illusionism does creep in from time to time. I learned rug hooking so I could make a few rugs for my old house, then I saw the marvelous show of Tantric drawings at the Drawing Center in 2005 and their simplicity inspired me to make abstract wall textiles. My first piece was based on a Tantric drawing, and I’ve done others as homages to various admired artists: Mondrian, Rozanova, Malevich, Popova, Oiticica, Mangold, Marden, Palermo. But my compositions are mainly of my own invention.
AS: You live in an old former hill farm in Vermont. Throughout your whole work it seems like you draw upon Nature, gardening, and agriculture from landscape to machines. Valerie McKenzie told me that you like visiting the farmers around you and engage in conversations. To your mind – How does your rural daily life inform your work?
Altoon Sultan: Because I used to work on site, and my paintings took 3 to 4 months to complete, only working on days when the weather was compatible with the image, I got to know the farmers whose land I was standing on. I liked learning about dairy farming, its processes and challenges; I liked communing with the curious cows. Now that I work from my photographs, I don’t see the farmers that often, but do enter into occasional conversations. And because I return to some of the same nearby farms year after year, we’ve gotten to know each other casually. I’m always interested in finding out how government policies affect their business, and it’s a difficult business to be in; as with being an artist, you have to love doing it.
My rural daily life does not inform my work at all, except in that making art is part of daily life; nature does not enter into it. My art is about art; it is about form, and the emotions and metaphors that form can call up.
AS: You work in painting, relief sculpture, textiles, and drawing. Do you tend to work in series related to medium or theme? What triggers your choice of medium?
Altoon Sultan: Aside from my textiles, which are abstract, the other three mediums I’m working with currently – painting, relief sculpture, and tonal drawing – have images based on my photographs of agricultural equipment. I don’t think of them as “series”, but just as my work. Each medium stands at a different place on the representation/abstraction continuum; each medium was inspired by seeing art in a museum.
I began painting small pictures on calfskin parchment after seeing a show of manuscript painting, “The Hours of Catherine of Cleves,” at the Morgan Library. I love the sumptuous surface of parchment, and love the intimacy of small images. Although my drawings on hand-toned paper are also precise renderings of actual things in the world, they are more surreal than the paintings because of their limited means: gouache highlights and ink shadows on a single color paper. These works, my newest group, started last winter after seeing a beautiful Durer drawing on toned paper.
I began the low relief sculpture, an art form I found compelling, after seeing a show of Middle Kingdom Egyptian art at the Met in 2015. I work in clay because of its malleability. To me the reliefs are the most abstract of the three bodies of work; although they have actual form, they are further removed from representation with their single color and mysterious image origins.
During the spring and summer months I go out to farms to gather images. I look around, take lots of photos, of which I print only the ones I feel have the strongest compositions. I sometimes crop and re-crop the original image, which is already a cropped version of the actual object. I begin sorting them into 3 piles: the ones I think will work for painting, those for drawing, and those for sculpture. My choices are based on composition, on complexity or simplicity (more complex for drawings, simpler for paintings), on the objects included (drapery only for drawing or sculpture; too close to realism for painting). I often change the choices around as I look at the printed photos taped onto boards, and many images end up rejected. I think of these photos as studies because the translation into another medium is never an exact equivalent.
AS: What would you like to share about your studio work these days?
Altoon Sultan: I take enormous pleasure in working; for me it’s a sensuous activity. So I paint, or draw, or sculpt in rotation during daylight, and in the evenings I work on textiles. Even when a piece gives me a hard time, or fails and ends in the trash, I am not terribly discouraged, but take it as part of the job. I see it all as a process of subtle growth and change.