Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Tara Donovan at Lever House.
Photo by Librado Romero, The New York Times

I'd like to be in New York this summer to check out the new public installation at Lever House by Brooklyn-based artist (and 2008 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award recipient) Tara Donovan. As Ken Johnson describes it, the piece "[c]onsists of 2,500 pounds of plastic sheeting loosely folded into a wide box that is glassed in on the front and back and built into a freestanding white wall."

Detail view of Tara Donovan's installation at Lever House.
Photo by Librado Romero, The New York Times

It's hard to gather great effect from the photos above, but if the piece is in keeping with Donovan's past work, I imagine that the play of light through the translucent material helps create a display reminiscent of some otherworldy landscape or eerie primal life form.

Untitled (Mylar), 2007, from Donovan's self-titled show
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
which ran from November 2007 – September 2008.

© Tara Donovan, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

I enjoy a lot of art, of all different periods and stripes, but the list of artists to whose work I instantly and unequivocally respond is much smaller. Tara Donovan is somewhere near the top of that list. I was introduced to Donovan when we happened upon her piece Untitled (Plastic Cups) at PaceWildenstein a few years back, a massive barren landscape constructed of opaque drinking cups stacked at varying heights. (The photographs below unfortunately don't do the piece justice; as it is, I have yet to see a photo of anything she's done that comes close to conveying her work's impact when seen in person.)

Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006, at PaceWildenstein gallery.
Photos by Kerry Ryan McFate, courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

Speaking from afar, I can explain that I love the way Donovan uses industrial materials that have nothing going for them besides an unglamorous function (plastic and styrofoam cups, drinking straws, adding machine tape, paper plates) and collectively transforms them into ethereal organic forms, frequently using light as a central and animating element. I can also say that I like the works' contradictions: they are
about both the natural world and the man-made items that often wind up polluting it; simultaneously simple and highly complex – the most sophisticated after-school project ever. And not only are her pieces clever, funny and visually breathtaking, but for me they also serve as a helpful reminder that imagination, or just an observant eye, can reveal beauty in very unlikely places.

Haze, 2003, composed of stacked clear plastic drinking straws.
Photos courtesy Ace Gallery, Los Angeles.

Still, all of that doesn't fully explain why I'm drawn to these pieces.

Moire, 1999. Adding machine paper.
Photo courtesy Ace Gallery, Los Angeles.

A couple of years ago an instructor in a contemporary art class related – in the context of a discussion about what makes a particular effort "Art" – a conversation she had with a New York gallery owner. This owner explained that his own search is for work that absorbs him so completely in its contemplation that he forgets any sense of his own surroundings or self-consciousness. I think this is as good a position as any from which to defend your personal feelings about what you like, and it better encapsulates why I'm so enamored of Tara Donovan's transporting work than any description of its formal or conceptual qualities could. You really do have to see it to believe it.

Untitled (Styrofoam Cups), 2008.
Photos courtesy Ace Gallery, Los Angeles.

Tara Donovan's untitled exhibition at Lever House will be up through September 5. More information about Donovan is at PaceWildenstein's website, here, and more photos of her work can be found at Ace Gallery and (where else?) The NYT.


Lee said...

oh my gosh Emily - thank you for this bright spot in my day...I LOVE her work too and your observations and writing are genius. I'll say it again - you really should be a professional art critic.

Joey Veltkamp said...

Great post, Emily. She also has done two shows (more?) at Kucera Gallery locally. What's not to LOVE about her stuff??

DLY said...

A very playful use of everyday objects and materials. The work is absolutely spectacular. Thanks for posting the photos and reflection.