Exhibition | ALTOON SULTAN | Essay

Altoon Sultan: modern grid and mystic forms

by Rachael Arauz

In 2005, Altoon Sultan, an established realist painter with an impressive resume of New York gallery shows, taught herself rug-hooking to warm the floors of her old Vermont farmhouse. Although she had always admired the work of many abstract artists, her own painting had remained attached to “the things of the world.” The process of hooking thin strips of wool through a linen textile base, however, catalyzed Sultan’s ability to loosen her visual forms from the constraints of representation. Rug hooking quickly became part of her studio practice, and a new body of work emerged. Over the past decade, Sultan has created dozens of small, visually potent textiles based on geometric forms, curving and straight lines, and inventive color studies. The textiles clearly assert her dialogue with a long, illustrious quest for non-representational forms in modern art, and she often writes informally, on her blog, about the works as an homage to abstract art. It is easy to find the formal vocabularies of Arthur Dove, Blinky Palermo, Ellsworth Kelly, or Sol Lewitt in her work. Most intriguingly, though, her textiles inherently build upon the simple structure of the grid, a form implicit throughout the history of abstraction. In 1979, art historian Rosalind Krauss asserted that “the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real.” Seen in this context, Sultan’s textiles manifest a quietly brilliant contribution to modern art.

The woven grid of canvas is implicit in all painting, yet textiles as an art form, especially needle crafts closely bound to domestic labor, have often been excluded from big conversations about modern art. Recently, however, fiber arts have been the subject of important museum exhibitions, most notably in the Boston area with Fiber: Sculpture 1960–Present at the ICA Boston. In these exhibitions, many of the artists who work with fiber investigate a raw state of their materials, or present them in a transformative manner, through scale or process, that complicates their traditional associations. Sultan’s process remains quite traditional. Rug hooking involves using a crochet-type hook mounted on a handle to pull loops of yarn or wool through a woven backing such as linen or burlap. In Sultan’s case, she dyes and cuts her own wool strips and uses a fine linen textile as her base. This craft tradition is closely associated with New England and Canada, and rooted in practical impulses by poor and rural 19th century families to make use of discarded fabrics to both warm and beautify their bare domestic interiors. Over time, the craft has been embraced by hobbyists, but has rarely been elevated to high-art ambitions. While Sultan is a great admirer of past and current artists working in various fiber arts, she is clear about the distinct nature of her own interest in this field. Sultan’s work does not explore the drawn potential of a fiber line, knitted or twisted, and does not strive for the sculptural transformation of her materials. Instead, Sultan adheres to her medium’s traditional process, and describes her textiles as small paintings, each hooked strip of wool akin to a single, compact brushstroke. The works are meant to hang on the wall like a painting, and form, color, and composition are paramount. For Sultan, her materials are simply the medium through which she has been able to create abstract art. Unlike Sheila Hick’s monumental, cascading and piled yarn forms or Robert Morris’s slumping mountains of cut felt that foreground materiality, embrace tangles and gravity, and defy associations with domesticity, Sultan’s materials and process capitalize upon the structure of the grid inherent in her woven linen base and the meditative nature of careful handwork. Her work has an affinity with Hick’s small weavings made over the last five decades, and more significantly, early needlepoint works made by Sophie Tauber-Arp and her husband Hans Arp in the 1910s. These deceptively modest works utilize the grid as an organizing principle for the leap to abstraction. For Taeuber and Arp, the stiff, open-weave canvas used for needlepoint offered a ready-made grid upon which to create arrangements of shape and color; Hicks builds the grid herself through the process of weaving, simultaneously enforcing and disrupting its rigid structure depending on her choice of materials. Sultan’s woven linen base not only provides a literal, finely gridded structure upon which to lay out an array of tight, organized loops, but also offers a conceptual ground that liberates her mark-making from representation.

A direct relationship between the invisible grid of the linen backing and the conceptual goal of abstraction is clearly evident in her 2012 textile Portal 2 (Homage to Josef Albers. In this work, Sultan presents a rectangular field of intense yellow with squares of bright orange at each upper corner. The lower half of the composition is entirely yellow, while in the upper half, the two orange squares at each corner create a third square from the yellow field between them. Sultan orders each yellow loop horizontally, in contrast to the vertical loops that compose, and distinguish as separate, the orange squares. Each loop of hooked wool articulates the structure of the grid, which is further reified by the orange and yellow squares precisely delineated from the overall rectangular form. The horizontal, 9 x 12 inch composition initially reads as a simple play on Albers’s mid-century Homage to the Square series of paintings and prints, in which he explored the retinal effects of color in a figure-ground relationship established by concentric squares. Sultan’s interpretation of Albers’ masterwork, however, abandons his preference for concentric forms and instead pushes the square to the edges of her composition. Most significantly, Sultan creates optical intrigue not only by juxtaposing fields of color, but by creating a subtle textural shift between the left and right halves of the textile. In a process unique to her medium, the wool loops on the left half of her rectangular composition are all clipped short, which creates a subtle vertical divide that splits the yellow field.

In the 2007 triptych Primary Colors, Sultan also explores the simple geometry of the square with basic forms and color, and capitalizes upon her medium’s rigorous mark-making system. Primary Colors recalls instruction drawings by Sol Lewitt, in which he created art from systematic arrangements of lines and color. Sultan divides the red square diagonally, creating opposing triangles of low relief loops and cut loops. The yellow square features a clipped square at its center, surrounded by organized loops that radiate in a precise, mitered pattern to the outer edge of the form. The blue square is divided horizontally in thirds, with a wide horizontal band of clipped wool loops across the center, and bands of organized vertical loops across the top and bottom of the square. This triptych, like so much of Lewitt’s work, finds elegance in the systematic division of a single shape into multiple configurations. Her minimalist color and form, backed by the grided armature of the linen, enables Sultan to reveal the subtle variables inherent in a structure of repetition.

Sultan’s textiles are not all rigid geometry. In a beautiful work from 2014, Translucent Curves, her composition of bright pink and olive green features two curving lines that move across the horizontal field. As I mentioned earlier, Sultan dyes her own wool, and in this work, her skill at combining colors to achieve depth is clearly evident. Moreover, she unifies the tonal shift between the deeper and paler pinks by hooking those colors in the same direction; the darker and lighter greens, however, are hooked differently, so that the lower, lighter field of green suggests a landscape, with each loop placed like a blade of grass on a hill, in contrast to the darker green which undulates in unison with the dark pink, like a distant hill against a brilliant sunset. In a blog post, Sultan writes that she considered and then rejected an overt reference to landscape in the title for this work, but Translucent Curves nevertheless brings to mind the late abstract landscapes of Arthur Dove, such as his 1938 Sun on the Lake in the collection of the MFA Boston. Dove’s paintings, distinct from so much of twentieth century abstraction, appear relatively unanchored to concepts of the grid. In the variety of art historical associations Sultan embraces, one can see the flexibility and freedom she gains by undergirding her work with an established order that she may then extend or contradict.

Sultan’s body of textile works also includes a significant group of hooked wool drawings. In these works, the linen is often bare, more assertively revealing the woven grid, and her hooked loops function more clearly as a drawn line. As with the hooked wool “paintings,” these drawings play with a lively and intelligent vocabulary of modern art. Drawing #12, 2012 presents a large pink, painted circular form emerging from the upper right corner of the vertical textile, and a beige painted circle just left of the center. The painted shapes are egg tempera on the bare linen, and at the center of each one, Sultan has placed a hooked circle in the matching pink or beige color. On the flat painted surface, the hooked shape offers an appealingly thick and tactile contrast. In the lower right, a large, empty circle hooked from the same beige wool floats over the solid, yet flat painted forms. Drawing #12 also calls to mind the abstract forms of Arthur Dove’s work, most notably his 1929 painting Fog Horns, in which concentric circles of pale color suggest the radiating sounds of a distant horn. Sultan’s Drawing #30, 2011 suggests the visual economies of Richard Tuttle, another artist she admires. The work offers a nearly empty linen ground, activated by a thin, angular line of hooked green wool that zigzags across and down through the center of the vertical composition. The line seems to end abruptly in the lower center of the linen field, where it points at a red triangle in the lower right corner. Sultan’s placement of the red shape and the green line, as if forever in a frustrated attempt to meet, directs the viewer’s eye to the empty expanse of linen. This space between them implies both blankness and fullness, a grid loaded with endless potential.

Having belabored this theme of the grid in Sultan’s work, I want to turn finally to an encounter, and an early textile, that delightfully problematize all that I have suggested thus far. Sultan’s pursuit of abstract form was surely enabled by the order of the found grid, inherent in her rug hooking materials and process; the grid provided a structure and a way to compartmentalize her mark-making that freed her visual forms from representation. However, Sultan’s leap to abstraction was inspired by an art quite distant from the modernist grid. In early 2005, nearly simultaneous to her introduction to rug hooking, Sultan visited the exhibition Field of Color: Tantra Drawings from India at The Drawing Center in New York. These watercolor and gouache drawings predominantly from Rajasthan are based on illustrations initially copied from seventeenth century religious texts. The simple forms or small patterns on antique paper, now long separated from written language, function as aids to meditation and “reflect the highly symbolic world view of Hindu Tantrism, using color to help the viewer achieve a heightened state of enlightenment.” After seeing the exhibition, these elegant drawings lingered in Sultan’s mind, their visual simplicity and their conceptual unfamiliarity steering her toward something new in her own work. Sultan’s first textile Blue Circle, Red Triangle presents the two geometric shapes on a white field. In the upper left, her hooked loops radiate out from the blue circle, filling nearly half the composition with repeating, concentric white circles. In the lower right, the angular form of the red triangle establishes the linear pattern of white loops that fill the rest of the composition. When I first saw this work in person, it seemed clear to me that the work referred to geometric paintings by Kazimir Malevich, and indeed Sultan counts the early modernist Russian painter among the artists to whom she has paid homage in her textile work. But there, in the catalogue from the exhibition of Tantra drawings, is the true inspiration for Sultan’s shift to abstraction: a spare presentation of triangle and circle, intended to assist the viewer in spiritual enlightenment.

Sultan’s textiles therefore offer an abstraction not only bound to an illustrious history of Western modern art, but also connected to an ancient tradition of mystical forms. As famous artists of the recent century have embraced and rebelled against the grid as a defining structure, anonymous artists on the other side of the world have quietly defined their own abstract forms within the framework of spiritual meditation. Drawing upon both sensibilities, Altoon Sultan impressively navigates a wide range of sources to develop her own vision of non-objective art. Most importantly, her use of the hooked wool medium—not conventional painting or drawing—uniquely establishes her version of abstract art distinct from historic and contemporary colleagues. Her choice of rug hooking as the medium best-suited to the iconic vocabulary of modern art refuses easy dichotomies of high and low. The found grid of her medium aligns her practice with twentieth century abstraction, and with some of the best-known Western artists in recent history. Yet the geometric forms, the patterns, and colors she constructs upon that grid reference a timeless, anonymous universality that defies narrow, egotistical boundaries. Sultan’s hooked wool textiles are smart and potent in their exploration of abstraction’s deep heritage.


1 Altoon Sultan, blog post, 2 November 2009.
2 Rosalind E. Kraus, “Grids” October, no. 9 (Summer 1979), reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), p. 9.
3 There are a number of useful websites that discuss the history and process of rug hooking, including a basic Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rug_hooking.
4 Altoon Sultan, blog post, 5 December 2014.
5 Drawing papers 50: Tantra Drawings from India, The Drawing Center, New York, 2004, p. 1.

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