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Donald Sultan, the New Hero on the Horizon

November 29, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

And it came to pass in Artland that a mighty mountain erupted from the flat earth and the people were awed and called it Mount Minimus. And a great host gathered at the foot of the mountain and among them were heroes and priests. The gods ordained that a great craggy rock would be rolled up the mountain to honor them. And heroes would make the work and priests would pronounce when it pleased the gods.

Thus did each in his turn labor to roll the rock in the cubit of his hour. And Manet the Mute did roll the rock and the priests spoke it worthy. And Cezanne the Serious did roll the rock in his hour and after him came each hero in his hour . . . Vincent the Vulnerable and Picasso the Priapus and Duchamp the Droll and Pollock the Warlock and Johns the Just and Andy the Raggedy . . . until the 10th generation when the rock came unto the summit.

And lo had labor worn the rock smooth as like unto a great ball and shining as unto a mirror. And the multitude cried hosana to the heroes and the heroes dwelt in the summit of Mount Minimus and beheld their aspect in the reflection of the ball and their aspect was even like unto that of the gods.

And thus were the gods vexed in the pride of men.

And thus did the gods render the rock clear as water and no man could see its outer limits nor know its inner substance. And the heroes were afraid and could not find their work. And the priests were lost and babbled in tongues of strange lands and the people heard them not.

And they cried out for a hero to be born to deliver them from sorrow and thus they came to the awed ceremony of Begetting by Battle.

And Kelly the Elegant did gird his loins and take up his shield and the shield was formed as a flying wedge to enchant the enemy eye. And Serra the Swearer did bind his loins and take up his mace and the mace was spiked to smite the mind. And Serra struck the bewitched shield and a spark sprang forth and rooted in the ground and belched forth smoke even unto the blacked sky. And from the smoke came fire and from the fire came a hero new created and they called him Sultan.

And it came to pass that Sultan heaved the great rock aloft and cast it down the hill even unto the fifth generation. It came to rest in sun and shade and the heroes could see the work and the priests could speak its aspect and the multitude could hear its tale and rejoiced.

And Sultan sat on the mountain and rested.

Actually, to tell you the truth Donald Sultan didn't chuck the ball down the mountain all by himself.

Donald Sultan is in reality just a flesh-and-blood guy of about 35 who grew up in North Carolina, went to art school in Chicago and now makes art in New York where he has become a notable figure in a generation where reputations rise like comets and fizzle like sparklers, a generation whose sensibility is as thin as it is complex, and whose goal--aside from attracting a lot of attention--appears to be to push art far enough back into the past so that it is as consumable as a Silhouette Romance. It is always a little droll to think of such debutante stars as the inheritors of the whole thrust of the history of art, but that is in some ways the standard they have set themselves.

Considering how hard a lot of people worked to make art esoteric, challenging and inventive, it was going to take the efforts of more than one guy to make the tide recede. Sultan needed the force of a growing conviction that modernist art as we had known it had gone about as far as it could go. He needed a conservative backlash in the culture at large and he needed the moral support of a whole generation of artists seemingly dedicated to a standard of success dictated by People magazine and "The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

Like a lot of heroes, Donald Sultan probably shaped circumstance much less than he was shaped by them. All the same, his reputation and a little of his work preceded him to the West Coast, so we've had a natural curiosity to check him out for ourselves. Thanks to the Museum of Contemporary Art we now have the chance. A survey of about 30 examples of his work from the '80s has just come to roost in MOCA's Temporary Contemporary space on Central Avenue through Jan. 10.

We've had enough peeps at Sultan's art so that its general look comes as no surprise (there is in fact a concurrent exhibition at the Cirrus Gallery to Dec. 5). We expect to see such trademark images as big silhouettes of lemons or industrial landscapes at night, and we do. What is revealing about this show (organized by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art) is the personality bodied forth by the ensemble.

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