There are artists who shape the history of art through their outsize presence in the collective consciousness. There are other artists who shape the history of art through their quiet commitment to craft and their dedication to teaching. Don Suggs was one of the latter.
The painter, known for his wry, carefully composed investigations into the nature of art making — say, analyzing every shade of paint used in Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” then rendering those shades in abstraction — was also profoundly dedicated to his students as a professor of painting and drawing at UCLA, where he taught for more than three decades.
“He was never the person who wanted to appear in the spotlight,” says Elizabeth East, a director at L.A. Louver, the gallery that represented Suggs . “But he became to many people, the sun to which they were drawn.”
Suggs died July 30 at age 74 after being struck by a vehicle near his Los Angeles studio. The death was confirmed by L.A. Louver and his wife, painter Linda Stark.
“He encouraged me and mentored me, patient, kind and brilliant,” said Stark via email, “and helped me develop a way to draw as a singular practice.”
“We were on call for each other at a moment’s notice,” she added, “to extend advice or just respond.”
He was never the person who wanted to appear in the spotlight. But he became to many people, the sun to which they were drawn.
In an Instagram post that helped to deliver news of his death, L.A. Louver described Suggs as “a person of integrity, intellect and conviction,” someone who “helped lay the foundation of our Los Angeles community.”
Suggs had a long history with the gallery, the two maturing together as artist and institution. He participated in L.A. Louver’s first exhibition, a two-artist show in 1976 that also featured work by painter Vida Hackman. The gallery was also the site of Suggs’ first solo exhibition a year later. And he was the first artist to be picked up for full-time representation there.
At the time, Los Angeles stood at a distant remove from buzzy cultural centers and art markets in New York and Europe.
“The county museum had only been around [as a standalone museum] since 1965,” says L.A. Louver’s founding director Peter Goulds. “The community of artists that formed here, that generation ... it was Rabelaisian, it was anarchic, almost. And Don was the master of this. His influence was enormous.”
In this universe, Suggs was never the showman but instead functioned as a steadying presence.
Tall, gravel-voiced, with an easy manner, he had the ability to deliver a dry joke or a sardonic jab. He was an educator who was swayed not by trends but by the urge to help students refine their ideas; an artist who put more effort into art-making than career making — producing meticulously crafted works that served as paeans to color and concept, building his own tools when those that were available fell short.
He also rarely repeated himself, resisting the pressure to make art that settled into a rut of the easily recognizable — a habit that kept him under the radar.
Suggs produced, over a career that spanned five decades, wildly different sorts of art: totemic sculptures made out of cheap plastic objects acquired at flea markets, paintings that investigated the nature of color in art history, and large photographs that, upon closer inspection, fragmented into myriad shards. These disparate works were all united by an unrelenting, years-long investigation into the nature of art and looking.
In 2007 he was the subject of a survey at Otis College of Art and Design’s Ben Maltz Gallery that pulled together works produced over 38 years. The title of the show, “Don Suggs: One Man Group Show,” nodded to the ever-evolving nature of his work — something that Times contributor David Pagel praised in his review.
“Every time you turn your head, there is something new to see: 25 lima beans glued to an aerial photograph of the suburbs or brightly colored plastic service dishes nestled inside one another to form super-size blossoms Suggs calls ‘Fleurs du Mall,’” he wrote. “Every path through the gallery feels off the beaten path, far from the streamlined, prepackaged experiences mainstream culture serves up.”
Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1945, Suggs was raised in San Diego but moved to Los Angeles to earn his bachelor’s in the arts at UCLA in 1962. He then ended up sticking around for two master’s degrees.
Teaching jobs in Florida and New Hampshire followed. But soon he made his return to Los Angeles, holding positions at the University of Southern California and at Otis. He landed as a professor at UCLA in 1983 and remained there until his retirement in 2014.
There he built a fierce following among students for his ability to sharpen their work — whatever that work was.
“He would walk into a student’s space and could assess what they were doing, without projecting his own agenda,” says painter Rebecca Campbell, a friend and former student.
“I was at UCLA, but I’m not a theory-heavy person,” she adds. “I came from this very religious environment that didn’t want me to be an artist and I end up at this place where the people there have been to MOCA every weekend. I needed to speak some narratives and he recognized that.”
If Suggs inspired his students with his dedication — he was renowned for showing up at their openings long after they had left the university — he also inspired them with the quiet devotion he had for his own work.
“It was this ever-evolving pursuit of curiosity,” says Campbell. “He was interested in so many things: science, politics, formalism. He didn’t put parameters on the work.”
That meant never sticking to a single, formal style.
In the ‘80s, Suggs created paintings that placed bands of color — suggestive of the patterns of national flags — over images of people’s faces and landscapes, as much a comment on minimalism and portraiture as it was about nature and nationalism.
A decade later, he was digging into photography, creating large composite photographs of tourists at prominent landscapes out of a quilt-like arrangements of photographic fragments. The uncanny repetitions and cubist placements could leave viewers feeling as if they’d stepped into a glitch in the Matrix.
His work, however, was united by long-running intellectual threads, says curator and critic Doug Harvey, who helped organize Suggs’ survey at Ben Maltz.
“He was able to draw on all kinds of contemporary and historical stylistic modes to explore the relationship between the formal and narrative qualities of art,” Harvey said via email, “and how they they combine or interfere with one another to generate meaning.”
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Suggs was equally inventive when it came to the fabrication of his works.
When he was working on his “Patrimony / Matrimony” series, circular tondos that explored the use of color in historic paintings, he enlisted the help of sculptor Ross Rudel to help build a contraption that would allow him to better paint circles. This consisted of a Lazy Susan-style base, on which the canvas would rotate, while he would hover over it with a paint brush (like a human record player).
“I remember scratching my head,” says Rudel. “I was like, ‘You’re going to do what?’”
“He had a large cantilevered bed, with his head dangling over, and this support for his head,” he recalls. “And a tray with dozens of mixed paints that were in order and calculated perfectly for how they would merge and expand. These took hours of planning.”
Rudel, Suggs and Stark shared a studio for years. That space, like Suggs’ classroom, was a site of mutual support.
“Generosity was core to Don’s being,” says Stark. “In 2011, when I had broken my ankle and was unable to paint, he set me up in a padded chair and made a drawing table that rested on the arms of the chair, so I could start drawing.
“I will sorely miss our honest and enlightening studio conversations,” she adds.
His legacy, says Meg Linton, a curator who helped organize the show at Ben Maltz, will extend well beyond Los Angeles.
“He’s important for the artwork he made,” she says. “But also for his connection with hundreds of artists that are now dispersed around the world through his teaching at UCLA.”
Suggs is survived by Stark and a sister, Carol Ambrosia.