New York

Tara Donovan

Ace Gallery

Tara Donovan’s work is high in—call it a howthe . . . whathe . . . jeez factor. It has the kind of labor-intensiveness feasible in art on a miniature scale, embroidery perhaps, but it leans to the huge; and the hugeness is often constituted of extraordinarily plentiful wee parts. Haze, 2003, the pièce de résistance of Donovan’s current show, contains nearly two million drinking straws, stacked pointing outward against a wall in such a way as to create a surface of subtle swells and hollows. It is over twelve feet high and more than forty feet long. The gallery checklist names straws as the solitary medium—no glue, no pins, no stabilizing attachment of any kind. You wonder how she did it—or, at the least, how long it took.

All the sculptures here are floor pieces, with the exception of Haze, and most attained little height—even, effectively, no height at all. (Transplanted, 2001, is thirty-two inches high; the other works reach a maximum of four and a half inches.) It was in Minimalism and post-Minimalism—the stack and scatter works of Richard Serra and Eva Hesse, for example—that sculpture renounced its old elevation from the ground, on base or pedestal, and stretched out low on the floor. Between then and now, a healthy variety of artists have taken oedipal aim at the art of that time: Back in the ’80s, for example, Tony Tasset based upholstered-furniture-like works on Donald Judd’s serial arrangements of boxes, and more recently, in a different vein, Karen Kilimnik has worked on the scatter principle, converting it from a formal and theoretical rethinking of artmaking methodology into an eccentric meditation on fashion and postadolescent yearning. Donovan, however, heads back in the opposite direction: There is nothing subversive here, nothing quirky, no jokes. She is interested in a magical transformation of mundane materials—pencils, straws, Scotch tape, Elmer’s glue—into visual lusciousness.

Judd and Serra certainly achieved grand visual effects, but their sensibility was more cerebral and austere than Donovan’s, and surely many viewers had to be pretty much taught to enjoy rows of concrete or plywood boxes or piles of torn rubber. (Surely many remain bewildered by them even now.) Donovan’s work is more seductive, and strikingly pictorial: Her reference, apparently, is landscape. Colony, 2002, demonstrates that seventeen thousand pencils set in vertical clusters on the floor, in a stubby height-range never rising above two and a half inches, will look to the standing viewer like a sprawling city of low- and high-rises seen from the air. Nebulous, 2002, the Scotch-tape work, suggests, maybe, a reef of underwater sponges, filmy, delicate, translucent, subtly colored. Moiré, 2000, made of overlapping spools of adding-machine tape, recalls the form-creating power of soft, malleable weight seen in Robert Morris’s felt works but is laid out like a region of terraced hills. And Haze, with its softly modulated surface, peaked skyline, and, again, subtle color shifts, might be a cloud bank, or a mountain range under snow.

Apparently quite carefully composed, Donovan’s sculptures are scatter pieces without randomness; and given their shallow-to-flat plane and their landscape trace, they are also something like painterly. In this sense they may seem to some quite retrograde, a dilution of principles that once were avant-garde. I share this reservation to some extent; in the visual pleasure of these works there may be a kind of gentrification of some once quite uncompromising aesthetic real estate. The best of Donovan’s pieces, though, do everything she wants them to. The devices they depend on—incommensurate accumulation, an out-of-kilter relationship of part to whole, the goading of a single medium into utterly unpredictable effects—are none of them new, but damn, they work.

David Frankel