Monday, April 03, 2006

Artist of the Week (04/03/06)

As noted previously, I generally reserve the Artist of the Week column for folks who are perhaps under-recognized, but occassionally I'll see an exhibition that so impresses me I wish to research more about that artist and, well, this weekend that artist was Tara Donovan. As I noted the last time I featured a better known artist, I'll also offer a bit more of a critique than I normally do as well.

Virtually everyone who's seen her current exhibition at Pace Wildenstein on 22nd Street has raved, and so I took a little time off on Saturday and went over myself. Donovan's new installation is immediately mesmerizing. Part of this is due to its scale, and part is due to its rhythm. Here's an installation shot that gives you a sense of its scale:

Tara Donovan, Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006, plastic cups installation dimensions variable, approximately: 4' x 54' 5" x 49' 8" (image from
PaceWildenstein website).

I'm not sure you can appreciate its rhythm without seeing it in person. It's up until April 22. Don't miss it.

Ken Johnson noted in his review in the Times, the untitled piece is made of 3 million plastic cups. He also noted what I consider the work's central weakness (if I might be so bold as to suggest it has one):

People who have never seen one of Ms. Donovan's installations are in for a treat. If you have seen other examples, like the luminous and seemingly undulating wall of stacked drinking straws that she created at Ace Gallery three years ago, then you lose out on some of the surprise factor. Nevertheless, the leap from the mundane to the miraculous in her current show remains visually and poetically exhilarating.
There was a point when I stopped focussing on the scale and rhythm of the installation and began to focus on the individual cups and after that point, I never quite felt the same magic I initially did, but that only made me more curious about her other works (most of which I've only seen in photos). Do works that turn on the very difficult and impressive task of making us see things we take for granted in a new light then suffer from our then absorbing this new awareness into our general sense of their common-place-ness? I don't know. However, the exhibition Tara had at the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles in 2005 gathered a wonderful assortment of her large scale installations and provides an online opportunity to consider this question. (Mind you, I don't do this to try and take anything away from Tara or her work, which I find exhilarating, it's simply an honest question I've not been able to get out of my head since I saw the installation.)

Here are some of the pieces in that exhibition (I'll show a full and detail view for each):

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2003, paper plates, glue, dimensions variable. All images below from Ace Gallery website.

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2003, paper plates, glue, dimensions variable (detail).

Here's another:

Tara Donovan, Colony, 2002, Pencils, Glue , 3 1/2"(H) x 9'(W) x 9'(D)

Tara Donovan, Colony, 2002, Pencils, Glue , 3 1/2"(H) x 9'(W) x 9'(D) (detail)

And perhaps her best loved installation (at least here in New York, where this installation shot is from [Ace's old New York Space on Varick], actually, and of which I'll include two details):

Tara Donovan, Haze, 2003, Stacked Clear Plastic Drinking Straws 12'7 1/2"(H) x 42' 2"(W) x 7 3/4"(D)

Tara Donovan, Haze, 2003, Stacked Clear Plastic Drinking Straws 12'7 1/2"(H) x 42' 2"(W) x 7 3/4"(D) (side view)

Tara Donovan, Haze, 2003, Stacked Clear Plastic Drinking Straws 12'7 1/2"(H) x 42' 2"(W) x 7 3/4"(D) (detail)

For me at least, despite how amazing these installations are, I'm a bit more amazed by Donovan's cubes, for which she relies on tension and gravity (i.e., not glue, as she has some installations) to keep them together. The mind-numbing obsession these require is staggering, for example:

Tara Donovan, Toothpicks, 2001, Toothpicks Held Together by Friction & Gravity Only, 35"(H) x 35"(W) x 35"(D)

Tara Donovan, Toothpicks, 2001, Toothpicks Held Together by Friction & Gravity Only, 35"(H) x 35"(W) x 35"(D) (detail)

But even as I question the longevity of some of these works, something that strikes me as almost cruel given how wonderous they are initially, looking at the installation shots of her untitled 2003 ceiling installation of styrofoam cups and seeing how breathtakingly beautiful it is (see below) suggests I'm nitpicking. Work that can do what this installation does requires no defense. Just see it and let your jaw drop.

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2003, Styrofoam Cups, Hot Glue Dimensions Variable


Anonymous onesock said...

Her work has been a major influence for me and other artists. Has anyone read Saltz's review of her new installation in the voice? It is kinda-sorta negative and mentions something that that Ed picked up on and that is when you see the cups the magic is gone (I am paraphrasing). What do you all think about that? I haven't seen this in person, but I know from how I try to make things that sometimes materials should assert themselves at least a little bit for that surprise or double-take to happen.
The tricky thing here is the degree that that recognizable thing is transformed. It seems Donovan choose the organization device of stacking for this new piece. Perhaps the recognizability of these objects is too pronounced because we experience stacked cups all the time (but hardly experience stacked drinking straws).?
ANyway, as I said I have not seen in person but I am sure I would be blown away. I was just thinking about the similarity between Ed's comment and Saltz's review.

4/03/2006 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Hmmpf... Dammit, Jerry...will you please stop beating me to the punch! ;-)

I hadn't actually seen Jerry's review...this was based on my own viewing of the installation. I think your comment about us experienceing cups stacked all the time is on the mark. We have stacks in the gallery that I've moved a hundred times and already have a keen sense of how bendy they become when stacked too high, etc., and I couldn't help but expect to see some dust or something in the bottom of one of them in Donovan's installation (but didn't), like I do if someone who shall remain nameless leaves the bag untied, etc. so there's a bit of the contempt that comes with familarity working against this piece perhaps.

4/03/2006 09:54:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Donovan's show at Ace was spectacular, impressive and cold.

4/03/2006 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Fitzer said...

I have the feeling that I would come to the same conclusion as ml if I could see it in person. The work seems more about technical feat than anything else. The form in the first pic is beautiful but ultimately loses out when you realize what it's made of. The subtleties of the undulating form get obliterated in my head by what I understand a plastic cup to be (and my experience is similar to yours Ed).

4/03/2006 10:39:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...


Love it, love it, love it

4/03/2006 12:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never seen this work before. And my reaction has been, in the last 5 minutes, in chronological order, BEAUTIFUL - WOW - COOL - HOW DID SHE DO THAT - HMM - HMM (again) - WHY - WHY BOTHER - WHATEVER. So maybe we all end up the same place.

4/03/2006 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ahh, Anonymous, than perhaps I have done that last piece a disservice with this post, because it remains stunningly beautiful for me.

4/03/2006 01:03:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

why bother?

You bother to make something you have never seen or experienced before. You bother because you challenge yourself. you bother because no one else does. you bother because you feel love.

4/03/2006 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous resocked said...

Just a note note about that last installation at Pace. It looks like she had to light the piece before making it! Interesting!

4/03/2006 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...

I always find it interesting that household materials get this type of reaction... the "then I realized what it was made out of" reaction. We never do that with oil paint, acrylic paint, ink, photo paper, etc. Why the adverse reaction JUST because of what it is made out of? Who gives a rip?

It's made out of material. Period. Look at it for what it becomes, not what it is.

Lastly, I never understood why people have the reaction "how did she do that?" to this type of work but not to a great painting. This is easy to figure out (stacked cups for those who don't know yet). How in the hell Marylin Minter painted the now famous hooker's high heal in the Biennial is beyond me. I kept asking, "how the hell did she do that?!"

Not that it matters.

4/03/2006 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

I'm usually not a big fan of installation art, when viewing this type of work, I always get the thought that "anyone who is somewhat creative can do this", but Tara Donavan's work does have a definite flow that appeals to me. Labor intensive and visually pleasing, but still that same thought begins to creep in, "anyone who is somewhat creative can do this".

4/03/2006 04:02:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

in my little review of donovan's show, i mentioned that i think her work is more than the sum of it's parts, i.e. it's the back and forth between object and objectness that is most intriguing. Essentially it's gimmick - there's no way around it. But they are sublimely beautiful objects.

4/03/2006 04:02:00 PM  
Anonymous scott said...

While I like her work - I am sometimes am suspect (ie: how loong can this work last?) of art that could just as easily be displayed in a science museum. Donovan's work not as much - as similar but more gimicky (along similar lines) as Devorah Sperber's or Robert Lazzarini's.

4/03/2006 04:39:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I saw it for the third time over the weekend.

Sometimes we just need to look at something, to have an experience without excessive conceptual mediation. This piece went way beyond just being a sum of its parts. What struck me on the third visit was its amazing opticality. It's just a bunch of cups but the color of the piece was dependent on the lighting, the cement floor and how tall each stack of cups was. The colors ranged from gray to golden. In the parts of the interior of the work appeared unfocused or hazy, like mist in a valley. I understand why it appears the way it does, but I didn't let that or the fact it is made up from plastic cups, get in the way of my experience.

4/03/2006 04:54:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Yeah, I saw it for the third time on Saturday too. I am a huge Donovan fan, and this is my least favorite installation of hers I have seen, but I am consistently buying her sthick. Two interesting threads in this conversation:

Sum Of Its Parts: That show at Ace transcended the cleverness of mundane materials and quantity-shock and took on a life of its own. IMHO, this happened because Donovan was listening to what the materials wanted to do. I stopped seeing stuff and sthick and started seeing a conversation between Donovan and her work. That is powerful and transcendent, and puts her (IMO) a floor above more clever material innovators like Tom Friedman and Matthew Barney (the sculptor, not the auteur). I didn't like the show at Pace as much because it never turned into more than an enormous quantity of cups for me. There are reasons for this. She did what you do with cups--she stacked. And this did create some seriously satisfying gesture, but it's not the same as forcing new rules of engagement, like she did with the paper plates. The show at Pace seemed dictated by Donovan--she got what she wanted because she didn't ask the cups to do very much. I think she's better when she cajoles and asks for the impossible and gets it.

Cubes Are Better: That sense of impossibility and negotiation that drives her work is central to my appreciation of it. So I would agree that the cubes are more interesting--they set her up for a better conversation with the material. I wish she wouldn't limit herself to cubes when she does this, but maybe I am wrong wrong wrong. Who doesn't need limits to struggle against?

4/03/2006 05:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

"I think she's better when she cajoles and asks for the impossible and gets it."

Great point.

4/03/2006 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"I think she's better when she cajoles and asks for the impossible and gets it."

Well, she made me smile after looking at a lot of other rather uninteresting art that day.

4/03/2006 08:38:00 PM  
Anonymous eleventh hour said...

"anyone who is somewhat creative can do this"

i.e. Jackson Pollock

4/03/2006 09:54:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Maybe, but Tara Donovan did it. Whatever one thinks of the final result, it is the result of a continuing investigation into the process of making sculpture. Now that you have seen it, you can visualize how to do it. Before that, it was just a vague possibility, one of millions of possibilities. Doing it is half the battle.

4/03/2006 10:34:00 PM  
Anonymous half full or half empty said...

Tara Donovan has a thirst for form. But does it hold water?

4/03/2006 11:07:00 PM  
Anonymous eleventh hour said...

nicely said, george

Duchamp did something very simple. Pollock did something very simple. Tony Smith did something very simple. but their work represents more than one possibility out of a million. it is in developing an aesthetic over the course of time, placing it into the proper context, and allowing for extended contemplation. having an idea is one thing, doing it is another yes, but doing it consistently is another thing entirely. The distance between Tara Donovan and Jackson Pollock is not that wide.

4/03/2006 11:07:00 PM  
Anonymous Gretchen Fetchin the Slime Queen said...

OOOOOOOO!!! It shimmers!!!

4/03/2006 11:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Clement G. said...

Jackson lived in a d o u b l e w i d e.

4/03/2006 11:12:00 PM  
Anonymous onesock said...

Yes it takes more than mere creativity. It takes a hyper sensitivity to the material and that dance with gravity, etc. I can also tell you that as a teacher I think creativity is hard to come by anyway.

What I also love about this work is that its freshness involves a discussion of new criteria or new ways to apply criteria in determining quality. That is a creative act as well and it seems some of that is happening in this discussion.

4/03/2006 11:14:00 PM  
Blogger Edna said...

I think the statement "anyone can do it" is one of the most ignorant things a person can say about another artist's work. Seriously. It is the lowest of the low blows, and is totally inappropriate in just about any case, especially Donovan's. Why should that insane thought "creep in" just because a sculpture is made from recognizable material, or assembled in a way that is vaguely familiar? Donovan's talent for bringing attention to the ordinary in a way that surpasses mere aesthetics is unmatched. There are comparisons - Friedman, Turrell, Washburn even - but she's doing her own thing, and it's totally beyond ordinary.

4/03/2006 11:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's an interview with her on artnet.

4/03/2006 11:33:00 PM  
Anonymous eleventh hour said...

. . . and it goes beyond the ordinary by establishing a formula and pushing it to a supposed transformation. part of what is awesome about this work is that, given the scale and site specificity, we imagine that Tara Donovan did not know exactly what that conclusion would be- just as our senses are confounded with the product, however lasting.

sol lewitt proved that anyone can do it. the trick is to transform the gesture.

4/03/2006 11:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Prickly said...

I loved it, and knowing that it was made out of plastic drinking cups didn't detract from it at all. It is enormous and it surrounds you, so even if you focus your gaze on just one cup, there are still thousands in your field of vision. The cup is interesting from a formal perspective because the top is a perfect circle. And the plastic is translucent and so the light plays a role, with the rising stacks becoming progressively more opaque. And it changes as you walk around it, the way you’d imagine a moonscape.

4/03/2006 11:49:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Ed commented "The mind-numbing obsession these require is staggering, for example:" in reference to the cubic pieces. I do not think "mind-numbing obsession" is sufficient to guarantee quality (a successful piece, however you define it) It can be a factor and often is in many artworks but it's evidence is just a quality of the work.

Conversely, with the Plastic Cup piece, it's obsessivness and the "how did she do it factor" quickly become known and therefore transparent to the experience of the piece. With the cubes (which I have not seen for real, so I may change my opinion later) part of the experience is the question "what holds it together?" It is an interesting question but I feel it may detract from the actual experience of the work. It is not the same "how did he do it" question we ask about Michelangelo.

The Plastic Cup piece is actually visually beautiful and in my experience continued to reveal itself on repeated viewing. I consider this a quality of a good artwork.

4/03/2006 11:55:00 PM  
Anonymous carol es said...

I saw this show twice when it was at Ace. It was the greatest art show I have ever seen, hands down.

Saying "anyone can do it" is just plain dumb. Anyone didn't do it, Tara did. Like with all art, and when people say "I coulda done that," well you didn't! The artist did, dummy.

4/04/2006 03:12:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

George, are you saying that maybe the shtick or cleverness factor increases with the cubes and that the thing you really like about the cups is how easy it is to see how she did it?


4/04/2006 07:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Kirkland said it best that it is what it be, or what comes.


4/04/2006 07:27:00 AM  
Anonymous J.T. Kirkland said...


Can we get a post dedicated to the "anyone could do that" sentiment towards art? That is about the most asinine statement around in terms of art. I would love to see the work that these (presumably) artists make and is impossible for anyone else to recreate. To a degree anyone can make any piece of art if they dedicate the time to learning the craft. We might not all be able to get Artist ABC's work exactly right, but it would be close enough.

So my question is this... who is making work today that no one could recreate? And does that necessarily mean it's any good?

4/04/2006 07:58:00 AM  
Blogger James Wolanin said...

j.t. kirkland does have some very good points. Yes, I would agree, most artists are creating work that could be reproduced quite easily by other people. But I would say there are very few people in this world, no matter how hard they tried, they could never reproduce an Ingres painting. ( maybe this has the makings of a good reality show, let's take average folks, without any formal art training, and see if they could reproduce certain works of art) The average person is just not capable. But, the average person is capable of stacking plastic drinking cups. I'm not trying to bash Donovan's work, I do enjoy it, and I can appreciate it. It's just not my cup of tea. Maybe she achieved just what she intended to do, make people debate and discuss ordinary household objects. The artist made us look, made us think, for this, I applaud her.

4/04/2006 08:43:00 AM  
Anonymous bew said...

When I've taught a Later 20C Art class, I usually allow the (mostly studio major) students to do a final project, rather than have to write a paper. Most frequently, they take on a particular artist they're interested in -- Pollock, Rauschenberg, Warhol, etc. -- and attempt to make work in the same vein. INVARIABLY, the final result has been to hear the student say: "I didn't expect it to be so hard to make stuff like ________ [fill in artist's name here], because it looked so easy!"

The "anybody could have done that" argument is pure BS--I want to hear somebody say that AFTER they've tried to do it themselves!

4/04/2006 09:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Prickly said...

James, your comment "maybe this has the makings of a good reality show, let's take average folks, without any formal art training, and see if they could reproduce certain works of art…"

That WAS a reality show on BBC America! Does anyone remember the name of it? Each episode was devoted to a different career (hairdresser, race car driver), and one was artist. They didn’t copy works, but at the end the “imposter” had to try and fool three judges.

4/04/2006 09:40:00 PM  

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