Donna Summer’s Passionate Paintings Come Into Focus with a New Documentary and a Christie’s Sale

“I have a secret life,” singer Donna Summer says in the new HBO documentary Love to Love You, Donna Summer. “You’re looking at me, but what you see is not what I am.”

It is one of many times that Summer speaks directly to us in Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano’s film, released in May, which demonstrates care while revealing the singer’s personal demons and darkest days. 

Summer, a reluctant sex goddess turned born-again Christian, performed “Donna Summer” and her sex-drenched stage presence like an actress. Comprising confessional audiotapes from her 2003 memoir, Ordinary Girl, and lo-fi home movies shot and directed by Summer, the film shows her unguarded, comical side. We witness Summer, who died at 63 in 2012 after a battle with lung cancer, in another light, as a musical theater geek who loved fairy tales, and as the dramatic heroine of her own life.

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Sudano should know, as the daughter of Donna Summer. In the film, Sudano says that her mom would “shapeshift in and out of characters,” and take on different personas.

In Love to Love You, Summer undergoes many incarnations. Born in Massachusetts in 1948, Summer and her six siblings were raised by their parents, a butcher and a schoolteacher, in an overly religious household. She evolved from a Boston church girl who sang gospel, to a hippie-turned-frontwoman for the blues band Crow in New York, to a bubblegum pop singer in Germany. She married Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, and raised their daughter, Mimi, while processing abrupt fame and intense postpartum struggles. 

By the late ’70s, international hits like “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” and “Bad Girls” made her the undisputed “Queen of Disco,” a reputation that was fueled by her fruitful musical partnership with her producer and mentor, Giorgio Moroder. The five-time Grammy winner’s unforgettable three-octave mezzo-soprano voice was recognized across many genres including inspirational, dance, rock, pop, and R&B.

Painting brought Summer great joy. “There was color around me,” she says in the documentary. When she performed on stage, she left “empty-handed,” but painting felt like a direct result of her talent, a “tangible product,” with no interference from agents or managers.

Summer, who had no art school education, began painting in her teens, working with acrylic and watercolor. It wasn’t until the 1990s that she exhibited her canvases at the Circle Galleries in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Bal Harbour.

A woman in a black jacket with shoulder pads and a red dress holding her arms together.
Donna Summer, Chairman of the Board, 1988.
©2023 Christie’s Imaging Ltd.

Her acrylic paintings are exuberant, the femme-centered images burst with color. Summer’s 1983 pop-rock monster hit, “She Works Hard for the Money,” became a feminist anthem for American working women in the ’80s, and women’s empowerment wound its way into her art too. In Chairman of the Board (1988), Summer conjures up Chaka Cohen, a woman who wears a shoulder-padded jacket and holds a cigarette. Meanwhile, in Scarlet Starlette (1988), Summer imagines a pseudo-pop star, a flashy party girl, or maybe a Hollywood “it girl” starlet. Her heart-shaped crimson bustier and magenta permed hair are emblematic of the decade’s excess. 

Summer knew her art history, and even subverted it. One undated painting called The Black Odalisque depicts a topless Black woman, her sexuality on display for all to see. White European men often wielded the historically problematic trope of the odalisque, exploitatively sexualizing their female models; many times, these were enslaved women, and so the trope is also rooted in Orientalism. In reclaiming this image, Summer was taking it back from white males who had used it for their own sexual and voyeuristic pleasure.

To some degree, the painting may also be Summer’s commentary on the financial predation and misogynoir she faced in the music business. At one point in the film, she likened the music industry to “being raped and abused over and over again.” It’s not hard to imagine that she may herself have been this Black odalisque.

Summer’s process was spontaneous and liberated. She rarely sketched, preferring to work intuitively. She never used a paintbrush, instead opting for a scraper. She worked across figuration, abstraction, and still life, usually painting large-scale with a loud, expressive color palette, and centered women yearning for liberation. She painted her fantastical world on her terms, and was its compelling narrator. 

There were abstracted landscapes too, like the Technicolor Faces of Rio, and there was also an ode to classic Manhattan, yellow cabs and all, titled New York City from Above the 10th Floor in the Rain (1988). The undated abstract piece Riding Through a Storm,with its heavy brushstrokes in jewel tones, feels like guttural confessions on the canvas, where Summer expresses a complex array of emotions.

An abstract landscape composed of blocks of vibrant color.
Donna Summer, Faces of Rio, n.d.
©Christie’s Images Limited 2023

By the early ’80s, she lived a slower, idyllic life. Summer remarried, to musician Bruce Sudano, and had two daughters, Brooklyn and Amanda. She began to paint prolifically on their 56-acre ranch in Thousand Oaks. In her garage studio, she’d give her daughters paint and canvases, inviting them to make art alongside her.

Her art, along with glitzy stage costumes, rare photographs, handwritten lyrics, and other personal mementos, recently sold at Christie’s New York for nearly $1 million. 

The sale, which took place both online and in person during Pride month, also included items from the Reagan administration, like an official thank you letter from the President’s inauguration committee, and a satin bomber jacket emblazoned “Donna.” Summer performed at the inauguration of President Reagan’s second term, in 1985, a choice that has aged horribly, given his anti-HIV/AIDS stance and gross inaction during the height of the epidemic. 

Then there were the homophobic and hypocritical “Adam and Steve” comments that Summer made during a performance in Atlantic City in 1983, as reported by the Village Voice. It was noble of Williams (who’s also queer) and Sudano to address this, given that LGBTQ+ people were central to her fan base. Some felt betrayed by Summer’s becoming a born-again Christian during those pro-conservative Reagan years. “AIDS was God’s punishment,” Summer reportedly stated, in an alleged remark that dogged her legacy for decades. 

“I never started a war against gay people,” she responded in an interview with the Advocate in 1989, penning a letter to ACT UP later that same year, once again refuting the false remarks, in which she said, “I did not say God is punishing gays with aids, I did not sit with ill intentions in judgement over your lives.”

A woman seated on the trunk of a car with one heeled foot raised.
Donna Summer.
©Peter Muhldorfer

Love to Love You also explores how Summer was sexually abused by a church minister in her teens. Once she became an overnight celebrity, she nearly ended her life, stepping out on a window ledge at a New York hotel in 1976. She felt like an absent mother toward Mimi, and her depression was “crushing” her. At the time, she was dating German artist Peter Mühldorfer, whom she said envied her rising stardom and even physically abused her.

Loved ones in her orbit faced similar forms of violence. When she was 19, Mimi revealed that she had survived sexual abuse as a child by their housekeeper’s relative. 

Perhaps painting was a release for Summer’s healing—a form of therapy that allowed her to work through compounded generational trauma and other inner battles. Just like in her songwriting, through art, Summer could lay bare her flaws, superpowers, and vulnerabilities.

In Love to Love You, Mimi explains that art had great impact for her mother. “She was really in her space” while working, Mimi says.

It was one way the artist’s family connected to her, and Sudano echoes that sensibility when she says, at another point, “I think the most profound thing was allowing us to love her.”

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