Critics’ Picks

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2008, polyester film, 4' x 24' x 2' 6".

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2008, polyester film, 4' x 24' x 2' 6".


Tara Donovan

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
25 Harbor Shore Drive
October 10, 2008–January 4, 2009

The first museum survey of Tara Donovan’s sublime sculptures and installations, which are unexpected and ingenious assemblages of banal, everyday products––plastic and Styrofoam cups, wooden toothpicks, plastic drinking straws, paper plates, and Scotch tape—features sixteen works from 1996 to the present. Nicholas Baume and Jen Mergel, who together curated this traveling exhibition, succeed in revealing the New York–based artist’s process of creating lyric, often figurative minimalist works, which are made through countless repetitions of a single action applied to one material. The exhibition also presents the “site-responsive” (Donovan’s term) quality of her earlier installations, which adapt to their architectural settings by expanding or contracting. Additionally, Donovan’s new installation, Untitled, 2008, which fills a rectangular hole cut in a gallery wall with obsessively folded and layered clear polyester film, allows natural light from Boston Harbor to filter in and emit an amber glow.

The show opens with an assertion of Donovan’s Minimalist inheritance: three similarly scaled cubic sculptures are installed, equidistant from one another, in a straight line on the floor. This trio of works, all first made in 2004, consists of piles of thousands of wooden toothpicks, straight pins, and tempered glass. All were shaped in four-sided frames that, when removed, left behind perfectly square boxes that balance on their own densely cohesive, yet fundamentally impermanent, fragile interlocking matrices. Untitled (Glass) comprises nearly two hundred square transparent glass sheets that the artist has hammered. The sheets possess crystalline fissures that reflect a cool blue light, suggest precariousness, and evoke works by artists such as Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and Robert Smithson.

Donovan’s commitment to process and the multiplication of units goes beyond that of her ’70s-era post-Minimalist forebears—especially in her site-responsive reworkings of clear plastic utilitarian objects such as Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006/2008. Her stacks of about one million seven-ounce plastic cups on the gallery floor are presented in a grid, but the cups lean in undulating patterns that are penetrated by varying amounts of natural and gallery lighting. Perceived as a whole, the translucent stacks undergo an artful metamorphosis into a hilly snowscape. Untitled (Mylar), 2008, is a further example of the artist’s fascination with manipulating opaque, shiny surfaces to naturally funnel refracted light. Hundreds of delicate silver tumuli, composed of folded Mylar sheets, are arranged on the gallery floor like an otherworldly meditative garden. Although based on Donovan’s creative restructuring of straws, tape, buttons, and other household objects, this inaugural retrospective indicates that she is as concerned with the heritage of the Light and Space movement as with a Minimalist tradition in works that inhabit the realm of the sublime.