A Conversation With Altoon Sultan

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© Altoon Sultan and Figure/Ground
Altoon Sultan was interviewed by Jeff Hogue. October 4, 2013.

Altoon-Sultan_headshotAltoon Sultan was born in Brooklyn, not far from Coney Island. She was educated in the borough, getting her BA and MFA degrees from Brooklyn College, where she studied with Philip Pearlstein and Lois Dodd. Summer painting programs at Tanglewood and Skowhegan encouraged her to take her art work seriously. Her first painting exhibitions, in 1971 and 1973, were at a co-op gallery in Soho, but soon she was represented by the prestigious Marlborough Gallery, where she had her first show in 1977. She went on to have many solo shows in NYC, at Marlborough and at Tibor de Nagy and throughout the United States over more than 30 years. Altoon’s work has been included in numerous group shows including many at museums such as the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Philbrook Museum of Art, the Hood Museum, the Fleming Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Altoon’s awards include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, an Academy Award in Art from the American Academy, and a medal for painting from the National Academy of Design, where she was elected a member in 1995. Her work is in many museum collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Yale University Art Gallery; the Library of Congress; and the Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont.

Wanting to share her love of egg tempera paint, Altoon wrote an instructional book on the medium, The Luminous Brush, which was published in 1999 and is currently available at Google Books. She now paints exclusively in that medium. More recent additions to her body of work are abstractly designed wall textiles using the traditional technique of rug hooking, prints using cardboard and potatoes, drawings based on Islamic design, and small boxed paintings. She is also writes a blog, Studio and Garden, which attempts to integrate her daily life on a beautiful old hill farm in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont with her art work and her musings on the arts, on nature, and on some of life’s questions.

Altoon, you’ve enjoyed a long career as a painter. Tell me a bit about your beginnings and your early work. Who were your influences as a young painter?

I have friends who knew from the time they were children that they wanted to be artists. Not me. But I was lucky in my parents, who had some respect for art. We had a series of books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I pored over as a child. They often took us to the nearby Brooklyn Museum: I still have vivid memories of the Egyptian collection, the Native American collection housed in the great rotunda, the marvelous period rooms. I was lucky in my high school, Abraham Lincoln, which had an excellent art program; then I was lucky in my local college, Brooklyn College, which when I finally eliminated other courses of study, had an outstanding art department which included Harry Holtzman, Sylvia Stone, Alfred Russell, Robert Henry, Lois Dodd and Philip Pearlstein. Pearlstein was my major influence and mentor during my undergraduate and graduate studies. He saw something in me and was very supportive, offering me my first experience at “art camp”, a summer program run by Boston University at Tanglewood. That, and another summer program at Skowhegan, where Gabriel Laderman was one of the teachers, introduced me to many wonderful young artists and to the notion that making art could be taken seriously. During my first year of graduate school at Brooklyn College, I painted abstracted still life paintings, using the composition of an actual setup, but inventing the color. I might have been thinking of some of the brightly colored paintings that Jack Beal was making in the late 1960s. After Skowhegan, which I attended in 1970, I began to work more faithfully from the motif, whether still life or cityscape. At that time, Philip Pearlstein said three things to me that were of enormous importance and saved me from years of making timid studies: Don’t treat yourself as a student, but as an artist; no matter what you choose to do, go deeply into it and push the idea as far as you can; and, you can be a modest person, but you should not be a modest artist. I often think that had I attended a different city college, Hunter College for instance, where the emphasis was on abstraction––Robert Morris was teaching there, among others––that I would have been a very different painter, especially considering the work I’m doing today, over 40 years later.

Altoon Sultan, Shadow Ladder, 2013 egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 inches

Altoon Sultan, Shadow Ladder, 2013 egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9 1/2 x 7 1/4 inches

I’m intrigued that Philip Pearlstein was a primary influence and I can see his impact in your rigor for detail combined with your compositional refinement. I think his suggestions are applicable:  “No matter what you choose to do, go deeply into it and push the idea as far as you can”; and, (2) you can be a modest person, but you should not be a modest artist.” So upon completing school, tell me about your early professional years. Given the prestigious list of teachers and influences you worked with, you were not exactly a stranger to the blue chip art world in your early years. For many of us, erecting a viable professional career as a painter is far less than a given. What were your early years like as a professional artist? Did you maintain contact with any of your teachers as sort of transitional mentors or did you move on to others?Maybe more about your early days with Marlborough? Talk about the shift from early career post school to recognition and success.

It was wonderful to be a young artist in New York City: there were the museums and galleries, but also a large community of artists, within which you could easily find a peer group with similar ideas and aims. My community began with my friends from graduate school and Skowhegan and expanded outward within a large group of representational painters. The two centers of my artistic life in the early 70’s were my co-op gallery, and the Alliance of Figurative Artists. The artist run co-op, First Street Gallery, was one of three to be established on the Bowery, later moving to Soho. Although it was fun to exhibit work, the great joy of the gallery was getting to know the other painters, those in my gallery and the other co-ops. The Alliance was also a great place to talk art: every Friday night at the Educational Alliance on the lower east side of Manhattan, a large group of artists met to discuss a topic; there were panel discussions and lectures and “bring work” nights. Some of the artists who spoke there were Fairfield Porter, Paul Georges, Alice Neel, Philip Pearlstein, Leland Bell, Lois Dodd, Lennart Anderson, Gabriel Laderman, Rosemary Beck, Sidney Tillim, and many many more; I believe that Alex Katz and Alfred Leslie were involved in the establishment of the group. After the formal meetings, we’d adjourn in groups to a bar for further art talk, with a mix of younger and older artists together, all madly arguing; I learned a great deal from lively conversations with Gabriel Laderman, Sidney Tillim, and Lennart Anderson. Philip Pearlstein continued to be supportive. It was a marvelous time and a great foundation for being an artist. My paintings at this time were both perceptual and conceptual: smallish images of architecture, mostly Victorian houses, with their interesting balance of details upon large planes, which were painted on site during summers away from the city; small still life paintings; larger figure compositions––studio works––looking toward Italian High Renaissance painting, with one or two or three figures in an architectural setting. The geometries of architecture suited my sensibility, as did the light playing across forms. In 1976, after having two shows at First Street Gallery and being in several group shows, one of my architectural paintings was in a large group show organized by the co-op galleries. It was noticed, serendipitously, by a NY Times critic and by the director of Marlborough Gallery, and so began the next phase of my art life. It was very exciting to be plucked from a downtown co-op and added to the roster of an uptown blue chip gallery, although by this time Marlborough had lost its luster because of the Rothko estate trial. My career, through thirty years of exhibitions, was always of a modest level of success, which was fine for me. Although I never made enough money to paint full time, the recognition, even with the occasional bad review, was an encouragement. As I look over the catalogs from my ten shows during twenty years at Marlborough, I can see my paintings changing, though always tied to the visual world, always precisely rendered with an attempt at an objective eye. After a few years I abandoned my waiting-list-ready architectural works, stopped doing figure paintings and still life, began spreading my field of vision out from the houses into the landscape. My interest shifted to the working landscape of farming; I painted on site in summer, and large studio compositions in winter, so I continued the perceptual/conceptual aspects of my work. The content of the work became more important: the architectural works were mainly formal (though I did finally realize that I was motivated to paint them by my childhood summers at the Jersey shore); with the farm landscapes I was thinking of issues of land use and abuse, the growing of food dependent upon petroleum, beauty amid machines and work. In the spring of 1994, after teaching for three years in California, I moved full time to Vermont, continuing to teach part time. The wonderful thing about my move, aside from the beautiful surroundings, was that I then had time to teach myself egg tempera, something I’d been wanting to do for years because of my love for Quattrocento panel paintings. I became enamored of the medium; it suited my precise and clear way of painting form, and had great luminosity. I even wrote an instructional book, The Luminous Brush: Painting with Egg Tempera, published in 1999. By 2002, when I was showing with Tibor de Nagy Gallery, I was working exclusively with egg tempera; my second and final shows there were of egg tempera panel paintings. As is my wont, the paintings kept changing, shifting from objects in a field to the objects themselves, now seeing them as abstracted still life. This continual movement in my paintings, from sure things to attempts at something different, has not been good for my worldly career, but it keeps me happy and interested in the studio.

Altoon Sultan, #9, 2013 egg tempera and graphite on hand toned paper, 15 x 15 inches

Altoon Sultan, #9, 2013 egg tempera and graphite on hand toned paper, 15 x 15 inches

One of the first things I noticed when I originally encountered your work were the newest works based upon Islamic design, the graphite and egg tempera drawings and the Hooked Wool Textiles. The wholesomeness of these works gave me pause. I was struck by their almost spiritual qualities. I think it should be noted that these works are deceptively simple. I find it’s far more difficult than it looks to pare an image down to it’s bare essence. In my mind, you’ve succeeded masterfully. When one traces your work beginning with your current more traditional egg tempera paintings of simplified “perceptual” paintings to the decades of painstakingly rendered paintings you are perhaps best known for, the evolution of your work makes sense. I can’t help realizing as well that your blog entries of the Vermont countryside where you reside along with all of the images of your home grown vegetables, fruits and flowers etc. have infiltrated your work. Do you care to talk more about this transition in your life beginning with your move back to the Northeast from California and how you feel your environment has affected your work.

In the past few years some of the work that has come from my hand has been a surprise to me; I have a new idea and follow it wherever it may lead; this was especially true for my recent series of drawings. When the new Islamic wing opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was thrilled by the collection. I happened to find a small book in their bookstore called Islamic Design: A Genius for Geometry by Daud Sutton. Fascinated by the pattern of six circles around one, which has religious and spiritual significance, I tried finding my own designs within it. Although not religious myself, as I worked I felt as though I was part of a long spiritual tradition, and that the work was coming from somewhere other than my own mind and brush. I love Tantric art; its simple forms, repeated over generations, carry a depth of feeling beyond color and shape. My work, however, is not directly influenced by it, though I would love my work to have a similar quality and ability to move viewers, to have meaning beyond its formal elements. While my drawings are based in a sacred tradition, my textile work is not; my first piece was based on a Tantric design, but my textiles are inspired by 20th century abstraction. In 2006 I learned rug hooking in order to make rugs for my old house; I soon realized that it was a perfect medium with which to explore my long time love of minimalist abstract painting. Over the years I tried to make non-objective paintings and failed, so textiles became a way for me to take part in that tradition. The textiles have in turn influenced my paintings along with reductive painting, pushing me towards simper, more abstracted compositions. When I think of my various endeavors––paintings, textiles, drawings, prints––I see a common interest in traditional mediums. I paint exclusively in egg tempera, now on calfskin parchment, used in Medieval manuscript painting; rug hooking is a fairly recent 19th century craft, begun as a way of using scrap materials; my use of cardboard and potatoes in printmaking might also be seen as a traditional use of ordinary things. When I moved to Vermont, the barn and shed were full of stuff; nothing was discarded because you never could tell when it might come in handy. Life here is like that, all aspects useful, all teaching me to pay attention to the world around me. Through my camera, a thoroughly contemporary tool, I’ve learned to see things in nature that were hidden to me before. With the wonder of rural high speed internet I’ve been able to share my delight in it all, in a blog that encompasses my thinking on a wide range of subjects, from old and new art to my own work, from nature to garden to recipes, from film and books to design, and anything else that strikes my interest and catches my eye. In this way, I hope to pull every aspect of life under the umbrella of art. Living on a hill in rural Vermont, away from the art world of New York City, I’m able to play in the studio, to try things out, experiment, play, without the pressure of exhibitions. When my New York gallery and I parted ways four years ago, I was devastated; it turned out to be a blessing and a gift of freedom, a time to explore the numerous aspects of my art personality, from precise formalist to imperfect improvisationalist, for which I am grateful. My studio output may look scatter shot, but to me all of it is in interested and lively conversation.

Altoon Sultan, Cherry Ribbon, 2013 hand dyed wool on linen, 16 x 9 inches

Altoon Sultan, Cherry Ribbon, 2013 hand dyed wool on linen, 16 x 9 inches

The works that most assuredly stopped me in my tracks were the gorgeously subdued tonal studies of the Islamic influenced drawings. The color is magical and warm, some conjuring garden colors in very low light. I know that in earlier works, your color was generally spot on local color. Are you aware of various associations you readily make in working with the tonal range found in these works? Works such as Cherry Ribbon and Chartreuse Ribbon struck me immediately as well. You’ve all but abandoned the notion of painting and 2D work in general with these. I have found that fiber works  resonate deeply with my sensibilities and my feel for our present time. It’s difficult to pin down how these works strike me so profoundly.  Can you talk about these and your other Textiles more?

It’s interesting that you ask about color. As you remark, my earlier paintings were all about local color; I considered myself a draftsman, never a colorist. It’s only recently that I see that I am indeed working with expressive color, first in my textiles, then later in my small paintings on parchment, and most recently in new bodies of work, drawings and prints. I use the word expressive in a sense of having feeling, mood, or simply formal interest, rather than being merely descriptive. Most of my thinking about color is formal and abstract, with no narrative implied, but there can’t help but be responses to color relationships. Red next to blue will have a very different feeling than red abutting yellow or black; tertiary colors have different qualities than primaries and secondaries. When I’m working on sketches for a textile project, I think about what kind of color mood I’m after or the composition asks for. In the small paintings on parchment I’ve been doing since 2010, although the color is based on the local color of an object, it has added presence and character because of the close cropping and abstract nature of the image. I’ve recently started a series of paintings of folded cloth, organic as opposed to the geometry of the agricultural machine paintings. In these I’m able to choose wild color combinations that I would never find on a farm. In my new series of drawings based on Islamic design, color runs free and I love it. I tone paper using a size mixed with pigment, working with four sheets of paper at a time, making each one different in hue, value, and transparency. I then choose a design to work with from among my studies, making color choices based on an intuitive understanding of color relationships and what kind of mood I’d like in the work: buoyant, somber, strident, quiet. My shelf of art books comes in handy for color ideas, especially a catalog of a recent show of Indian painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900; Indian painters are for me the greatest colorists of any time or place. When I share my work on my blog or on Facebook, I’m always interested to hear the reactions of viewers since everyone, including me, brings their own color associations to their experiencing of an artwork. I don’t see myself as having abandoned two dimensional work at all in my “ribbon” works: my textiles are all flat, two dimensional works, unless we see them as low reliefs because of the loops of wool. In a few pieces I actually make them into low reliefs by cutting off some of the tops of the loops, but in general I might describe them as richly two dimensional because of the texture of the wool fabric, cut into strips and hooked through a backing. The “ribbon” pieces––I made four, in four colors––are flat, but illusionistically volumetric. I enjoy playing with illusionism; in painting I’ve long been interested in the tactility of the image, the sense of being able to touch a thing, caress its volumes and planes. I have done a few textile pieces with volumetric images previous to the ribbons, but they were always bounded by a rectangle, which reinforces flatness. With the technique of rug hooking I can easily shape work, so decided with the “ribbons” to have the edges of the piece coincide with the edges of the image, which greatly enhances its illusionistic qualities. I like the play of having a flat work, made up of strips of wool, imitating a curving piece of fabric, as though it is mimicking its origins. In addition to the formal interest of the textile work, giving me the opening to explore the abstraction that I love, I take great pleasure in the repetitive work needed to make these pieces. It is satisfying and relaxing to sit in the evening and work at my hooking, the TV going in the background; I understand better the tradition of hand work and its appeal. I continue making these works because they allow for development of an aspect of my artistic personality different from that shown in my painting, a part of me that loves minimalist abstraction, strong design, materiality, and color; a part of me that likes a bit of humor at times which also shows up in my paintings, and that likes imperfection. I don’t believe that an artist can deliberately imbue a work with feeling or a deep sense of meaning; the best we can do is work with interest and enthusiasm and attention and intelligence, trying to achieve what we see as a successful piece. It then moves into the world, where the mystery of communication takes place.

Altoon Sultan, #13, 2013 egg tempera and graphite on hand toned paper, 15 x 15 inches

Altoon Sultan, #13, 2013 egg tempera and graphite on hand toned paper, 15 x 15 inches

I often think of what Rollo May quoted Giacometti as saying: “A work of art has soul by its imperfections.” So you “don’t believe that an artist can deliberately imbue a work with feeling or a deep sense of meaning,” but are you aware of an intention toward such, even in the context ultimately of a lack of such control? Shall we talk a bit about some of your philosophical influences?

I’ve been interested lately in imperfection because of my very imperfect work in printmaking and  textiles. When seeing them, viewers have brought up the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, which accepts impermanence and imperfection. It certainly brings a different quality to work than that which seeks a perfect expression, which is what I’ve aimed for in my paintings. Accepting imperfection is both frightening and exhilarating; with a sense of freedom from exactitude comes great uncertainty. With this understanding, I have to disagree with Giacometti because I see much of the history of art as presenting objects of exquisite perfection, which elevate and enrich us with their remarkable beauty. In Islamic art, it is said that practitioners would include a deliberate mistake in order not to offend God, who alone is perfect. But standing in front of a an Islamic work, or a Vermeer or Bellini painting, I  would not be thinking of imperfection as giving them their soul. Some artists are quite deliberate in their intention to express meaning in their work; I think of Malevich, for instance, in his Suprematist works. Sometimes such a quest is successful, but I believe it has less to do with intention than with the formal qualities of the work which lead us to feeling and meaning; a poorly executed work will be only an illustration of an idea. Of course I hope my work moves a viewer, and means more than the sum of its formal parts; I’m sure all artists feel that way. Sometimes I even have a particular feeling about the work as I make it, but whether that feeling is communicated is not something I can control, or would want to. This attitude may come from my desire for humility in daily life and in the studio. Romanticism, heroic struggle, have no place in my life. I realize that art making is not an everyday activity, yet for me it is everyday and completely ordinary. It is simply what I do, which does not preclude beauty and the possibility of transcendence. In a documentary about his film Five: Dedicated to Ozu, the director Abbas Kiarostami said “Even daily life should ultimately reach an essence that is akin to poetry”, a thought that for me seems true and real. Something else important to me, as I mention above, is to “pay attention”––to the world around me, to nuances of light, nuances of feeling in others, to small things often overlooked––to bring a quality of attention to my work. One of the favorite quotes in my commonplace book comes from William James, in his essay “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings”: “To be rapt with satisfied attention…to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance.”

Altoon Sultan Studio

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Suggested citation:

Hogue, J. (2013). “Interview with Altoon Sultan,” Figure/Ground. October 4th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com