MAURICE SULLINS (1910 - 1995)
Legend has it a dream about a water fountain in France first compelled Maurice Sullins to paint at the age of sixty. The year was 1970, and Sullins was an airplane waxer at the municipal airport in Joliet, Illinois. Armed with an insatiable appetite for reading and a vivid imagination, he began to paint obsessively and produced some 1,200 paintings, most of which have never been seen before. Entirely self-taught, he became a true master of his craft and developed a total command of color, composition and technique.
Over the course of his short career spanning fifteen years (1970-1985), Sullins worked in near isolation and never showed his paintings. He stopped painting in 1986 at which time he was introduced to a columnist at the Chicago Tribune who wrote an enthusiastic article about his paintings and persona (read article). This attracted collectors from around the country and resulted in a retrospective at the Illinois State Museum in 1988. The exhibition received critical acclaim and the following year, the SEITA Museum in Paris held a solo show for him during the centennial celebration of the Eiffel Tower. The Frank J. Miele Gallery in New York City then represented his work for several years.
Maurice Sullins died on March 21, 1995 at 84 years old. His family placed the paintings in storage, where they remained out of sight for twenty-two years. In 2017, Hana Pietri became the Sullins exclusive dealer and presented his first exhibition since 1995 in Chicago that same year. Produced in partnership with the French Consul General of Chicago, the show attracted major attention and marked the beginning of a series of events re-introducing his works to the public.
Sullins’ retrospective at the Illinois State Museum in 1988 received noteworthy press (see articles below). Critics celebrated him as “an artistic genius” and “one of the most important outsider artists of the 20th century.”
Capturing the essence of an environment without ever having set foot there is quite an incredible feat. An intuitive, almost subliminal connection to the universe would explain one’s ability to visualize and record the mystical sceneries that exist in other parts of the world. Maurice Sullins had such capacity and graced us with his dreamlike visions of the universe, filled with poetry and color. For Sullins, “art was total living (…) and everything in the world, everything in the Universe everywhere, everything ties together.”
His works, set in brilliantly imagined scenes in Tahiti, France, Spain and Chicago, often reference European or American masters. While he never copied other artists, he transformed and construed famous recognizable motifs into his own fresh and unique painterly language, believing his purpose was to continue their great work.
Sullins employed many original techniques in his paintings. He manipulated his pigment with combs or brush handles and worked with masking tape to form elements of his composition in what he referred to as “X-outs.” He would often hold a paint tube close to the canvas, squeeze a drop of paint out and then pull it up, an approach he called the “eye stop.” His methods of applying paint had many terms including the “Naughty Line,” a horizon line representative of Mother Earth that forms the lower back and buttocks of a female figure; a wavy line squeezed directly from the tube was a “Master Stroke”; a “Grand Stroke” was a horizontal line made in one sweep and a “Grand Sweep” was a horizontal line that went off the canvas and “into eternity.”
Maurice Sullins was undeniably one of America’s great self-taught artists. He was at the cusp of receiving major attention when he died in 1995, leaving behind an exceptional body of work yet to be discovered. After decades away from the public eye, the Maurice Sullins collection is being unveiled by Hana Pietri through a series of exhibitions, offering an unprecedented opportunity to witness the extent of his strikingly original talent.