As the visitors entered the medium- sized room they looked up to see a large floating cloud. A closer look showed hundreds of circles apparently impressed upon the translucent white mass. Not simply meteorological, because of its rather biomorphic shape, the cloud occupied virtually the entire top third of the room, yet it didn’t oppress the gazers below, who slowly began to see “how it worked.” The circles were in fact the top rims of Styrofoam cups , cups joined one to another with their pliant rims touching , without losing their circularity while still forming a uniform surface. The dreaded Styrofoam cup – symbol of the transiently mundane and lasting threat to landfills all over the world – had been etherealized; in sufficient mass and artfully configured, the cups could look like the proper resting place for Renaissance putti. Tara Donovan, a very playful artist, makes serious work out of masses of industrial and commercial objects. But instead of the classic sculptural processes of casting or carving, she generally works by gathering and amassing in ways that turn the small or apparently indistinguishable things of everyday habits into something not only large but quite altogether different.
This past winter the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston showed seventeen Donovan sculptures (or sites , or assemblages , or roomfilling installations) in an exhibition that drew great crowds and clearly enchanted all.1 A recent Mac Arthur Award recipient , the young arti st (born in 1969) not only extended some of the more promising esthetic values of Minimalism, but also gathered up issues in contemporary sculpture in a way that makes her one of the more engaging artists currently on view. Most of her pieces are more than that, which is to say in their presence it wasn’t so much “pieces” that I experienced, but environments as well as objects. Their scale tends to take over the rooms in which they are located, but in addition to their scale there is the sense of lightness – many of her works could be said to be “about” light – and an ingenuity that delights in play, that wants to go beyond where it seems the material would set a boundary. In the traditional dialectic between figure and field, Donovan yields to neither, and at her best she uses the limitations of each to test and further enrich the other.
Each of the works in Boston was large, and many of them nearly filled the room in which they were located, or covered one of the walls. In a sense, the material was of a narrow range – Styrofoam, Mylar, adding machine tape, plastic buttons, cups, drinking straws, and polyester film – but its source in various industrial processes didn’t produce an effect of sameness. Instead Donovan was able to transform the material, not in any cute or tricky way, but by seeing it with the eyes of a sculptor. This is to say she thought out the several senses of volume and space, the curves lent by light, the special ministrations of scale, and the alterations made possible as things passed from one level of mass to another. Other problems mulled over by contemporary sculptors, as well as installation artists and those exploring scatter art and industrial esthetics, formed part of her project: the experience of the temporal aspect of art viewing, the thematics of standardization, the heroics or boredom of repetition, the questions of frontality and circumspecularity, to name a few.
One of the more striking pieces greeted viewers just as they entered the exhibition. This was a rectangular aperture cut through a sixinch thick wall, forming openings, filled with clear glass panels, on both sides of the wall. Inside the aperture Donovan had piled or curved upon itself what seemed like hundreds of feet of sepia colored polyester film. Standing on either side of the wall, you saw mainly the edges of the film and slight areas of its reflective surface . The curled film created parabolic or tear shaped openings through which the distant landscape could be fitfully viewed. In this case the landscape was the far side of Boston harbor, as the aperture was set in a wall that faced out through the large glass window that forms the north side of the ICA. So the undifferentiated, industrially produced film, usually associated with motion pictures or photographs, was turned into a lens or filter which cut the visual field into thousands of small “takes” that came into and passed out of view as you walked along the wall.
What the aperture and the cloud of Styrofoam cups (both called “Untitled,” the former 2008 , the latter 2003) had in common was that both had an unusual mass whose ‘skin’ was highly marked. Between their bulk or extensiveness and the fine reticulations of their outermost surfaces, a tension was created as the eye roamed freely while the mind tried to grasp the overall structural principle. This tension typified the effect of other pieces as well, for example, “Haze” (2005). A wall of one room, otherwise empty, was covered end to end with thousands of ecru plastic straws whose open ends were the only parts visible; they were packed to a height of about seven feet and formed a covering of the wall that – because they were not set flush with one another – had contours and lumps that made the wall read like a vertical relief map of some uninhabited planet. But with a closer look the relief map began to read like a vast honeycomb. The openings at the ends of the straws proclaimed a regularity that the undulating surface contradicted.
What some of these tensions in Donovan’s creations call up is a traditional pair of terms developed by Wolfflin in his classic text on art history: the linear and the painterly. The linear concentrates on “the perception of individual material objects as solid, tangible bodies,” whereas the painterly seeks “the apprehension of the world as a shifting resemblance.”2 Some might argue that these terms simply extend the older notion of the relations between parts and whole. But this neglects just what counts as a part and what is the organized principle that accounts for the integrity of the whole. And in Donovan the “solid tangible bodies” are often eventually known and felt as discrete items, since their very industrial uniformity re-asserts their material objecthood. Likewise there is always some element of a “shifting resemblance” in the total effect of Donovan’s sculpture, whether it’s an invitation to experience it as a site or to muse on its suggestive mimesis. She seems not to be interested in total abstraction in her work, which is one of the ways we might separate her from the Minimalists who have so obviously influenced her. The linear element in Donovan’s work draws the eye to outline the myriad parts, while the painterly element urges us to see an “all-over” construction that dominates the space we, and it, find ourselves in. (The characteristic individual line, or figure, in the exhibit was the circle or parabola traceable in the yielding materials, while the overall field of the resemblance was frequently a landscape or large biomorphic shape.)
However, a more current terminology for discussing early twentieth-century abstract sculpture invokes two concepts: inferiority, in which the sculpture is seen on the outside as expressing and containing natural forces within it; and relations, whereby some elements in the sculpture are experienced as controlling or subordinating other elements. These terms are often used interchangeably with the analysis of paintings (and further back they were used in discussing paintings with narrative and psychological elements). I suspect many viewers today rely on these ideas, consciously or not, since they tend to look at sculpture as if it were governed by the same esthetic principles as are found in painting and drawing. But contemporary sculpture differs (sometimes greatly) from contemporary painting as they both have developed away from the principles of modernism . The difference can be accounted for in several way s , some of which Donovan’s work embodies. Perhaps the most striking is her resorting to commercial material, which can be read in different contexts. For example, to use lead and felt, as Richard Serra and Carl Andre do, has been interpreted as a clear-eyed commentary on post-industrial society and the leveling of “classical” distinctions between and among various materials and forms of facture . A different , perhaps complementary, reading would take the “sculpting” of industrial material as an Utopian attempt to salute its everydayness and thereby implicitly claim a democratizing redemption of all things mundane or mass produced.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, esthetic values derived from concepts of interiority and relations were championed as features of modernism, in sculptors like Giacometti and Rodin, thus linking them to the great artists of the past while allowing for distinctive innovations and redefinitions . Indeed, these concepts were redefined in ways that have been lucidly set out by Rosalind Krauss in Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977). Kraus coined the term “double negative” to signify what she saw as a desire to go beyond an exhausted existential drama by rejecting the two governing esthetic values of modernist sculpture. It was a negation of relations (especially hierarchical ones) and interiority (whether of natural forces or imagined emotional values) that marked off the work of sculptors like Serra, Andre, and Donald Judd from the famous early twentieth century figures. Since interiority and relations had most fittingly been crafted out of certain sorts of material, like wood, bronze, and marble, a rejection of the modern masters led Judd and Serra to turn to a different sort of materials altogether. This is where the widespread use of commercial substances came into play, joined with industrial processes such as milling and welding.
Tara Donovan takes this use of commercial material into new directions by further exploring the “double negative” that led to the use of new material, and combining it with a playful use of the blurred lines between painting and sculpture. She creates works that are best appreciated in their historical dimension as extensions and comments on the Minimalists. Though the Minimalists wanted to be impersonal and to remove traces of the hand of the sculptor from the work – to create an undifferentiated object – they often ended up with stylistically marked production that was at odds with the purest formulation of their theory. Donovan, using some of the feminist esthetic of recent decades, presents herself as eager to play with, and to play off of, the overly aggressive rejection of classic sculpture, which rejection often – in the different cases of Rodin and David Smith, for example – relied on a masculinist sense of powerful will. (In the 1950’s, milling and welding virtually became rites of passage for American sculptors.) Released, as it were, from the higher strictures of Minimalism by her playfulness and her lack of fear of mimesis, Donovan can “make” a cloud just by assembling and gluing. She can easily create a set of geological formations; one, “Bluffs” (2006), is made out of a cluster of clear plastic buttons, stacked to various heights, that resemble stalagmites, while another, “Untitled (Mylar)” (2008), is composed of differently sized semi-globular pieces, resting on the floor, and made from Mylar strips. The Mylar shows as both black and grey, and the resultant dome shapes suggest rounded basalt boulders, bubbles of magma hardened into a landscape . Donovan uses mimesis suggestively, however, and her ingenuity is more likely to be appreciated at the level of inventive manipulation rather than striking verisimilitude.
In many artists today the melding or even active confusion of genres occupies a high place on the scale of interesting practices. As remarked on by many commentators, for contemporary sculpture this means the blurring of the lines that separate the genres of the plastic arts, allowing artists to explore the painting as a sculpture and the sculpture as a painting. Donovan resorts to this possibility with insouciance. She can allude to a famous sculpture by Tony Smith, “Die”, a six-foot, black painted steel cube, by creating a similar cube made out of magnetized straight pins, “Untitled (Pins)”, (2004). (She has also made a companion piece , “Untitled [Toothpicks]” ,[ 1 996] , of the same size , constructed from toothpicks, held together by glue.) The feel of the thousands of pins suggests the sort of painstaking attention to detail we associate with realistic painting, while the bulky right-angled structure suggests the abstraction associated with a monolith. Donovan relates the source of this piece to an experience she had emptying a box of straight pins one day and seeing that they had come from the box in one apparently solid mass. Sculpture is not usually made out of so many individual, non-differentiated pieces, especially in a way that subordinates them all into one singular structure or formation. With the straight pins, however, there is a marginal feeling that they have somehow been placed individually into the mass they comprise and, like a child’s house of cards, they rest and impinge on one another almost like brush strokes.
Though the anecdote of the spilled box of pins possesses a simple charm, it raises another issue. This is the question of Donovan’s modification of the Minimalist commitment to impersonal work. She clearly offers little or no narrative or autobiographical or confessional themes in her work, relying instead on the erasure (or the non-appearance) of personal style or high rhetoric to convey a more intensive engagement with the materiality of her sculptures and the impersonal forces at work on them. This engagement has several armatures: the viewer is often dazzled byDonovan’s technique (the hidden marks of which add to the dazzle), and there remains a certain coolness in the viewing of extensive pieces that occupy or dominate rooms, advancing an invitation to adjust our temporal frameworks so as to ponder and absorb the various sculptural values on display. This different sense of time bids to compensate for the absence of narrative or subjective meaning , even as the enigmatic sense of facture – who made this? and why in this way? what makes it come together? – reorganizes our participation in something like a spectacle, but a spectacle that leads more to a hush than a catharsis.3
Donovan asks us to formulate a different take on the idea of sculpture as conveying a strong sense of artistic will, even as she implies that we need to look closely and at greater length, not so much at strongly wrought work, but at alternative and even tentative ways to appreciate scale and presence. This nuanced set of demands (or suggestions?) presented by the work relies on an impersonal approach, but not simply a purely geometric or abstract one .Ina video about Donovan shown at the ICA she came across as modest, suggesting a touch of the bricoleur who prefers to fiddle with odd bits rather than stamping out huge or rigid templates. Yet her works are scaled at the level of the museum room and the rise of her reputation suggests that she is no stranger to push and drive.