PRINT January 1981


CHISELLED MOUNTAINS STIPPLED WITH pines and boulders, whitewashed villages with winding stone paths and steps, endlessly varied rocky coasts—all surrounded by the lapis-colored sea: this is Athena Tacha’s native Greece.1 Tacha combines a pre-Socratic interest in nature and the cosmos with a concern for the human mind and heart of the Socratic school. Her sculpture investigates outer reality—matter in its various manifestations and the forces governing it—while her photographic and book work centers on inner reality and consciousness. An avid reader of contemporary science (from cosmology and astrophysics to biology and sub-atomic particle physics), Tacha pushes her exploration of space, time and matter toward the frontiers of present scientific knowledge.

In her essay “Rhythm as Form,”2 Tacha quotes Heraclitus’ pronouncement that “all things flow” as the core of her esthetic credo. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of her work is that she has been able to imbue solid matter with the transitory, shifting flux of nature. Her awareness of this flux has been a constant factor in all her sculpture, from the Galaxy boxes and Phaenomena pieces of the 1960s, through the paper or burlap “caterpillars” and the staircase and ramp models of the early 1970s, to the recent site sculptures executed in steel, concrete, cement block or stone. She conveys her perception of fluidity through the rhythms that she creates by manipulating the number and distribution of the individual constituents. For instance, in the Oberlin step sculpture entitled Streams, 1975–76, the height (4 inches) of the cement block which constitutes the module, the depth (8 inches) and width (16 inches) are variously combined in multiples of one, two, three and four. The resultant rhythm of the four-step “streams” in this work, located on the banks of Plum Creek, is interrupted by the counterpoint of the boulders which are clustered at various points, much as the flow of water over an uneven river bed is broken by rocks and pebbles.

In her proposal for a 750-foot-long step sculpture on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., Tacha presents two states of water, liquid and solid, by using two distinct rhythmic forms—curvilinear for liquid, on one side of the railway bridge, and angular for solid, i.e., ice, on the other. Ice, like congealed lava, is frozen fluidity; and its use in this piece reflects Tacha’s experience of the site, as she conceived and executed the model in January 1974, while a Fellow at MIT.

Water is again a major source in her step sculptures at Smithtown, Long Island, 1976–78, and Norfolk, Virginia (completed fall 1979), as is affirmed by their titles, Tide Park and Ripples. The Norfolk step sculpture, commissioned by the General Services Administration for the plaza of a federal office building, evokes, through rippling, angular patterns, the movement of the actual water which Tacha would have incorporated had the budget allowed. In this work she achieves the quality of fluidity by making surprising shifts in a basic systemic design, setting up abrupt, rapid contractions and slow expansions of space. The white concrete structure, as dazzling in the sun as a little whitewashed church on a Greek island, takes on, in the afternoon light, a pink tint like a thin veil of hovering color. This unexpected blessing from the red federal building reminds one of the pastel colors in some old Aegean towns such as Syros.

Tacha’s sculpture park in Smithtown is composed of 14 levels of curved and variously inclined terraces, seven above and seven below ground level.3 At the bottom is a pool, into which a small waterfall splashes; the size and complexity of the falls were compromised by budgetary restrictions, but still Tide Park is the only sculpture thus far in which she has actually been able to include water. Tacha painted the ground plan for this sculpture on the side of the building flanking it, thus creating a mirror image of the sculpture as seen from above. The gently curving terraces of Tide Park afford relief from the oppressive rectangularity of the site (between two buildings on Smithtown’s heavily trafficked Main Street) while at the same time calling to mind the endless cycle of the nearby ocean, fringed with dunes. The plantings that Tacha incorporated in her design wed living nature to the organically flowing forms of her work. Moreover, these evergreen shrubs, so different in substance, color and texture from the cement, provide pauses in the movement of the piece, while fortifying its rhythms by marking off phrases. The foliage also has another function: it prevents anyone from getting too close to the edge of the higher terraces. While this may be peripheral to the specific focus here, it underlines the social intent which conditions so much of Tacha’s sculpture. It is not enough for her that the work be accessible in location and scale: she wants people to feel at ease with it. to use it, to experience it with their bodies, to have it become a natural part of their everyday comings and goings. The rounded edges of Tide Park, resulting from the use of gunite, a fast-setting cement sprayed over metal mesh and then trimmed by hand. are reminiscent of Aegean island architecture, which has played a considerable role in the development of Tacha’s style. She loves the human scale of Greek building and landscape, and the beautiful way the former conforms to the latter: shepherds’ huts scarcely distinguishable from the rocky hills on which they nestle, local stone fences snaking along the contours of the land, roughly laid slate roofs and terraced fields in repeated semicircles like the waves of the sea.

This inspiration is immediately discernible in the Smithtown sculpture, the Charles River model, and her proposal for the W. B. Griffin Memorial, a series of descending terraces and steps fanning out below two concrete platforms on the summit of Mt. Ainslie, overlooking the city of Canberra, Australia. The few angular accents in the Griffin Memorial echo the basic form of the pre-existing concrete structure and pull it into the design naturally. Whereas in the Charles River model the two systems of angular and curvilinear motifs were kept apart, in the Griffin piece and in subsequent step sculptures they are united in a more organic way, by overlapping, interpenetrating, or transforming themselves into one another. Further complexity lies in the combination of time systems implied in each of the works. In the Griffin Memorial, for instance, the speed of flow of the terraces and steps varies from quick and shallow to slow and deep, like rapid and subsiding heart beats. While these tempo variations are immediately perceptible, the natural systems which they parallel are less readily recognized.

Tacha’s annual visits to Greece and her other nature trips (Africa, Peru, Mexico, Central America, the Galapagos, etc.) are essential to her. Nature influences her work on two levels—the concrete and the abstract. (Although perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she arrives at the abstract intuitively, through her experience of the concrete.) On the concrete level are actual things: waves and any number of similar layered, curvilinear forms—lava, leaf coral, fungi, rocks, tree bark—or related configurations in motion, such as a school of minnows gliding, or a field of wheat swaying in the summer breeze. On the abstract level, she constantly investigates elusive entities and concepts, such as the spatio-temporal continuum, gravity and its effect on space and matter, the principles of periodicity, discontinuity and malleability, as well as fluidity. These preoccupations underlie all her work and unify its variety.

To Kitto’s statement that “the Greeks never doubted for a moment that the universe is not capricious; it obeys Law and is therefore capable of explanation . . .”4 Tacha could add “and of expression in visual form.” The most direct manifestation on a concrete level of nature’s workings appears in her photographic work. A major theme of the photo-diptychs is the similarity of the forms nature takes within totally unconnected categories of reality. Side by side, alike in design but distinct in substance, scale, function and nearly every other respect, are close-up details of a mushroom colony and the outside of a shell, lava and wave tracks on the sand, a human arm pit and the fork of a tree, fan coral and glass fractured by a bullet. She notes the visual resemblance between action and matter acted upon—how the movement of one substance is formally engraved upon another, as when rocks are eroded into the pattern of the waves washing over them. Some of the pairs contrast the pattern, color and texture of different states in the life of a particular form, as young and old, healthy and diseased, alive and dead.

In the photo-triptychs, the pocket-size booklets and the wall-long friezes, Tacha explores and presents multiple images of the same object, phenomenon or process, taken from slightly different angles or moments in time. The booklets—which include Tide-Wash, Rock-Slant, Cloudscape, and Cactus Pleats—comprise from eight to 30 photographs, fastened between two sheets of 1/2-inch-thick colored plexiglass and accordion-folded so that they can stand up and be opened out into a variety of arrangements.

Obviously, an artist so deeply interested in the ever-changing phenomena of nature would find the medium of film especially suitable for her purposes.5 Tacha does not set out to illustrate abstract concepts in her films any more than she does in her sculptures. While the action and subject matter of her films are seemingly simple (floating soap bubbles, paper burning, insects swishing in a pond or people walking in a square), their meaning is complex: for example, by floating silicone fluid in castor oil—two liquid substances of the same specific gravity—she conveys the slow, homeless sensation of moving in outer space, free from the pull of Earth.

Tacha attaches importance to the kinesthetic experience in sculpture. In her work, the spectator truly becomes a participant and is induced actually to take those steps, because Tacha’s design impels the spectator’s motion, and directs and controls the experience the sculpture offers of the interdependence of space, time and matter. On Tacha’s steps, one is forced to use different paces for the steps of different sizes to avoid falling on one’s nose. Not only do the steps in each “stream” vary in the number of cement blocks which make up their depth, width, and height, thus rejecting regularity of beat, but the placement of the blocks is shifted sideways from time to time by half a block, so that the people progressing through the sculpture keep changing the length and height of their steps, while veering from side to side.

In Tacha’s interior and exterior ramp mazes, there is another parameter, that of inclination. The 1971 ramp plans’ undermine traditional perception of horizontal and vertical and of the constancy of gravity by varying not only the slant of the floors but also the angles of floor to wall to ceiling so that the visual and physical signals we receive are contradictory. To walk through such structures would be a nightmarish experience. Tacha’s 1977 drawings and models of ramp mazes continue the varying inclination of the earlier ones, but exchange their slow and angular rhythms for continuous and intertwining loops which could carry one up and down, over and under, in and out, to experience in fast, unbroken sweeps the inextricable connection of space with time, like “going for a walk with a line” through a Pollock painting. Moreover, the space trapped between the veering ramps gets stretched and contracted, becoming as malleable as it is implied to be in Pollock’s mazes.

Time functions in different ways in Tacha’s “cut-in” sculptures, such as Tension Arches, 1975–76, a flat sheet of steel cut into and then stretched from a 12-foot square into a 24-foot-long rectangular structure, which marches along with the pedestrians on a busy corner in Cleveland. Because the piece is painted red on one side and green on the other, the viewer’s experience of the spatio-temporal continuum is enhanced by the color changing as the viewer walks or rides by. But there is another level of time at work in Tension Arches, that is, time as latent energy. At each end where the tautly pulled metal is bolted to an armature beneath the concrete, a powerful force is built up, tensely waiting to be released and let the arches snap flat. Tacha regards such a force as an aspect of nature’s omnipresent life: “How can we not be in communion with all matter since we are made up of the same atoms and particles which are constantly pulsating inside every bit of stone or metal? The properties of such materials are manifestations of their inner life. Steel’s tensibility makes possible vibrant forms that are inherent to a sheet of metal.”8

Crossings of Horizon and Ecliptic, 1975, is a carefully studied, scientifically accurate presentation in visual terms—with blue chalk on white-walled interiors—of the hourly crossings of the ecliptic and our horizon at a particular latitude on the earth (e.g. 41 degrees, as in Oberlin and New York) on four crucial days of the year, the two equinoxes and the two solstices. The form of the work, executed in an appropriately immaterial and temporary medium, changes according to three factors: the day of the year (i.e., our relationship to the sun), the location chosen on the earth (latitude), and the shape and orientation of the interior space used.

As in her sculpture, nature is again the core of her photographic and book works. In these, though, it is human aspects of reality—biological, psychological and social—which Tacha deals with; and she does so with poignancy and humor. Heredity Study I and II, both from 1970–71, combine photographs and text. Study I presents comparative views of her husband and his mother, father and brother (full-figure front and back, facial profile, ear, hand, foot, and soles of all four, side by side) followed by a verbal analysis of what features each son inherited from which parent. In Heredity Study II, Tacha documents herself and her physical, emotional and mental inheritance from her parents. These are scientific-type investigations presented in pseudo-scientific form, but they could not be confused with technical (scientific) publications. While they record straight facts and observations, they do so in a nonprofessional, simple, almost naive language. Moreover, they are deliberately amusing, highly personal and sometimes embarassingly intimate. She writes that she derives her predilection for “participating physically and psychologically in other people’s activities and emotions . . . definitely from my mother (who even opens and closes her mouth unconsciously when she watches other people eat).”

Other Tacha works which treat the self as subject include the “Expressions” series, 1972, Who is Athena?, 1973, and the ongoing group of “pocketbooks” begun in 1972. Indebted in varying degrees to the physical and social sciences and to systemic and autobiographical art, they are as distinctly “Tachas” as her step sculptures. One of the chief distinguishing characteristics of her photographic and book works is to be found in the decidedly affirmative answer that all of the Who is Athena? respondents gave to the questions “Is she honest?” and “Is she frank?”. She does not shrink from appearing disgusting, stupid, or downright silly in the frontal photographs of her face which comprise the “Expressions” series. The 52 8 x 10-inch images in Expressions I: A Study of Facial Motions (recording various movements of each separate feature made while keeping the rest of her face motionless), the 35 photographs in Expressions II: Nuances of Feeling and the 30 in III: Laughter, exhibited in 1972 at the Akron Art Institute in mural format, owe more to physiognomists than they do to Warhol, whose multiple image compositions they superficially resemble. Tacha’s expressions are photographic documentations of a scientific motivation: to study and record the relationship between bone or muscle motion and expression. That the end result is somewhat humorous and visually pleasing is a concomitant of Tacha’s individuality.

Each of her series of little “pocketbooks,” produced since 1972, is printed on a different pastel-colored paper (except Little Pleasures, which is unaccountably bright orange) and accordion-folded into a 5 3/4 by 3 inch-plastic slipcase. Different volumes treat such themes as The Way My Mind Works, My Mother, The Process of Aging, and My Adolescent Loves with absolute candor and bone-dry, sometimes childlike language. They often end with a disarming little twist; from Different Notions of Cleanliness: “As for sweeping, unless you do it very carefully, or with a vacuum (which I am lazy to get out every day for a little bit), I don’t believe much in it. All it does is push the dust around.” I have often found that people who are more accustomed to reading literature and its criticism tend to be bored or perplexed by the naïveté of Tacha’s texts. But that quality is only a whimsical vehicle for conveying serious biological and psychological observations.

Where some of her booklets are little masterpieces on an intimate and limited scale, it is the large public sculptures which give scope to Tacha’s full range. 33 Rhythms, Homage to the Cyclades is an extraordinarily complex orchestration of her sculptural inventions, paralleling or intimating the forms and principles of nature which constantly engross her. She conceived the work and began making two- and three-dimensional studies in 1977, and completed the final model (about 7 1/2 by 9 1/2 feet, in painted foamcore) in 1979 for her first New York one-artist show.9 Her continuing aim being to create a new kind of ambiguous and fluctuating space, she eludes perspectival interpretation in 33 Rhythms by avoiding right-angle relationships (the steps move in two directions at 70 degrees and 110 degrees to each other). As can be most easily perceived in the schematic drawing and in the ground plan, she has established 33 different rhythmic patterns of step and interval progressions. Like a musical composer, she is shaping time. Each set of steps differs from the others in its rhythm; but the phrasing in each flight is repeated often enough so that as one walks up the steps the beat is felt by the body. Within the two basic directions, flights of steps frequently intercept and collide, evoking geological strata dislocated during primordial cataclysms. However, in spite of these breaks, which set up irregularity and agitation, the rhythm of each individual flight is regular, as is the color organization, with the risers of flights moving in one direction being warm (yellow to lilac) and those moving in the other, cool greens and blues. The total effect is of a shifting balance of forces combined with an almost classic serenity, the result of Tacha’s belief that ultimately there is order underlying chaos and that form is the expression of coherence—or even, perhaps, that what we call chaos is a supreme state of order.

Ellen H. Johnson is the honorary Curator of Modern Art at Allen Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin Ohio. She writes frequently for various art publications.



1. Born in Larissa, Thessaly, in 1936, Tacha studied sculpture at the National Academy of Fine Arts, Athens, receiving the M k in 1959 From 1963 to 1973. after having completed the M.A. in art history at Oberlin College in 1961 and the Ph D in esthetics at the University of Paris in 1963. she worked at the Allen Art Museum in Oberlin where, as Curator of Modern Art. she organized several important exhibitions and published several articles and two books: Brancusi’s Birds (New York: New York University Press. 1969), and Rodin Sculpture (Cleveland. Ohio: Cleveland Museum of Art. 1967). In 1973 she gave up the art historical and museum profession (where she went by her married name. Spear while retaining her family name as an artist) and became a teacher of sculpture.

2. Published in Landscape Architecture, May 1978, pp. 196–205.

3. The Smithtown sculpture park was commissioned by the New York State Council on the Arts in 1976 as a pilot project in community participation in the selection of a work. Three artists (Scott Burton, Athena Tacha and George Trakas) were invited to submit proposals. which were placed on view for two months to allow the townspeople time to study them and cast their ballots: Tacha s proposal received 69 percent of the vote.

4. H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks (New York: Penguin Books, 1962), p. 176.

5. For a list and description of Tacha’s films see Art + Cinema (New York. Visual Resources Inc.) vol. I. no. 3. 1973–74. pp. 14-15: vol. II. no. 1. 1974–75. p. 20.

6. The tape installations—temporary sculptures in paper tape, designed for specific spaces—include the following: Zabriskie Gallery, New York. June, 1977. Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, October 1978 (the catalogue illustrates several views of each conformation. changed by the artist daily for a week), and the Akron Art Institute, September 1979.

7. The 1971 ramp mazes were published in her Spatial Disorientation Staircases and Ramps (Rome, 1972).

8. Tacha, “Rhythm as Form,” Landscape Architecture, May 1978, p 198.

9. At the Zabriskie Gallery. February 6–March 3, 1979.