The Pop Life of Lemon

We are in 1986, the year that Halley’s comet passed. Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand announced the construction of the Channel Tunnel, while Arnold Schwarzenegger chose to marry Maria Shriver the same day as the disaster of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Gorbachev and Reagan meet in Reykjavík. Music news in 1986 are quite joyful, as Cabaret Voltaire releases its album Drain Train and Philip Glass composes a crystalline electronic music for the texts of David Byrne and Laurie Anderson in Songs from the Liquid Days.

In contemporary art, 1986 is marked by the installation of “The Colonnes de Buren“ (“Les Deux Plateaux“) designed by artist Daniel Buren at the Palais Royal in Paris. In the United States, Andy Warhol completes his monumental cycle “The Last Supper“ based on the eponymous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, while Sigmar Polke invests the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale.

exploration of an emblematic genre of European Art History

The two preceding decades from the Sixties until the end of the Seventies were marked by the dominant positions of pictorial abstractions and the emergence of major avant-garde movements such as Pop art, Fluxus, and Conceptual art. They overturned the status of the artwork while bringing the painting into doubts of an existential crisis, so much so that it was thought to be dead.

The 1980s saw a return to figuration. Strengthened by the metamorphosis of the formal and conceptual language developed by abstract art, some artists go back to painting in a figurative way, while others, such as Donald Sultan, chose to develop an artistic position in-between, that opened up a space for questioning the history of art, the media and their techniques, the representations and the images produced by their time. He thus justifies his exploration of an emblematic genre of European Art History:

“Here we are in 1986: I think doing still life is pretty funny and exhilarating! (1)

a synthesis of what an iconic image can be between abstraction and figuration

In another 1988 interview with Barbara Rose, Donald Sultan clarifies his position: “ (…) still life was perfect because it could be very abstract, and I could put a lot of things back into abstract paintings that had been removed, like space and volume and light. I could put in meaning and I could use black lemons and industrial things. I could work with scale and eroticism and sexuality and all of the things you find in life.(2)

His lemon-themed works particularly reveal the bridges that Sultan builds between the contributions of abstraction and the possibility of renewal of a genre and technique. Sultans subtle solutions to questions concerning representation and imagery are exemplified by the etching “Lemon” from the 1986 portfolio “Still Life with Pears and Lemons”. Unlike the direct strategies of Pop art, Sultan offers a synthesis of what an iconic image can be between abstraction and figuration. At first glance, the fruit appears as a satin black mass floating on a paper with very large margins (3).

The game of reflexivity

The position of the copper plate mark reinforces this floating. This mark is as much a subject of the work as the lemon is. Sultan sets up a strategy specific to heraldry of “mise en abîme (4) ” : the lemon “which floats on its support floating itself on its support” and transforms the fruit into a coat of arms. The tradition of the still life, reinvented through the system of signs. The game of reflexivity in which Sultan indulges is found in the link between aquatint and lemon.

The acidity of the fruit refers to the acid used in etching printing to reveal the different values of blacks. His reflection on the traditional technique of aquatint leads him to invent other technical gestures : “he blew and brushed powdery resin around the plate before heating it to achieve hazy contours and granular surfaces.“(5)

a broad and clear way, by huge masses and out of scale

Sultan innovates and experiments the limits of etching by questioning its ability to render dissolving textures, random dispersion, close to charcoal drawing. On October 29, 1986, the young French art critic Philippe Dagen wrote, “This singular artist has not denied anything of his abstract education. He composes in a broad and clear way, by huge masses and out of scale, and uses color only sparingly. He is not interested in illusionism, but rather in a concern that one might have believed to be outdated, that of putting into paintings and etching what he sees, what he does – and even what he eats (…). There could be the symptoms of a work of great quality.“ (6)

  1. Extract of the interview with Donald Sultan by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, this article appeared in Flash Art, May/June issue, 1986.
  2. Extract of An Interview with Donald Sultan by Barbara Rose, in Sultan, New York, Random House,1988, p.39.
  3. Various sizes of margins are formed around the print motif once it has been printed. Like a frame, the margins isolate the design and make it easier for the viewer to read.
  4. French ‘placing into the abyss’. A formal technique in Western art of placing a small copy of an image inside a larger one.” Dictionary of Media and Communication, Oxford University Press, 2011.
  5. Extract from the article Works by Sultan and German Expressionists at Wesleyan, by William Zimmer, New York Times, Sept. 7, 1986.
  6. Extract from the article Les nectarines de Donald Sultan (“The nectarines of Donald Sultan”), by Philippe Dagen, Le Monde, Oct. 29, 1986.



Freitag, 21.04.2023
ab 17.00 Uhr
Galerie aKonzept
Niebuhrstraße 5
10629 Berlin
Do – Fr 15–18 Uhr
Sa 14–19 Uhr

Text by Emmanuelle Rapin, 2023. Find out More about The akonzept Galerie and Donald Sultan here.


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