Tara Donovan

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

“IN THE MID-1990S, Tara Donovan was experimenting in her studio when serendipity struck. She knocked over a big box of toothpicks, picked it up, and then noticed that the spilled contents had latticed into a shape that echoed the perfect corner of their container.” Jen Mergel and Nicholas Baume, the curators of Donovan’s ICA exhibition, begin their catalogue essay with this time-honored trope: the studio anecdote as out-and-out epiphany. As the story goes, after this minor mishap the artist sourced some five hundred thousand toothpicks, which she succeeded in assembling into a large, freestanding cube, building it from the ground up as one might construct a sand castle. Since that time, Untitled (Toothpicks), 1996, has served as an iconic point of origin for her sculptural practice and the development of what Donovan terms her “site-responsive” forms. Befitting and recapitulating its symbolic priority, Toothpicks was given pride of place alongside the related Untitled (Pins), 2004, and Untitled (Glass), 2004, in this, Donovan’s first museum survey. The sculptures ushered viewers into the installation of fifteen works from the past decade, plus a new piece designed specifically for the ICA show.

The exhibition, like the essay, quickly established Donovan’s procedures through the humble logic of the toothpick: She would use vernacular, mass-produced objects as her sculptural mainstays, “remanufacturing” their “intended fate” per her own telling; she would arrange the stuff into geometric, modular forms; she would produce relationships among selfsame constituents; and she would isolate obdurate physical properties in order to harness and then contravene them, optically if not actually, and with consummate showmanship. Above all, she would make sculpture that involves taking great quantities of a particular type of object (the more quotidian the better, with subsequent materials including plastic cups, buttons, and tape) and subjecting them to a certain pragmatic procedure (e.g., rolling, stacking, aggregating, gluing, placing).

This emphasis on quantity—what I would be inclined to call intemperance—is telling. For Donovan, it expediently suggests themes of inordinate plenitude and consumer waste, expanding cities and illimitable viral networks. For her commentators, however—and for most gallerygoers, at least from what I overheard—it signifies, well, lots of cups or buttons or tape that startle for this reason, above all. Litanies of weights and measures are invoked with considerable and near-anesthetizing frequency, as though this mode of enumeration as such instantiates a critical position. In fact it produces nothing so much as a tedious inventory: A million cups in Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006/2008, a gridded phalanx of plastic tumblers stacked to varying heights; thousands of feet of polyester film in Untitled, 2008, a kaleidoscopic window nestled in a gallery wall; and so on. And in a kind of unwitting homage to the one-thing-after-another seriality of Minimalism that Donovan so deliberately summons, such notations seek to control the anxiety she also produces, with arrangements of objects that, in their evident precariousness, seem always on the verge of destruction. Haze, 2003, a giant installation of clear drinking straws, came crashing down when installed at Ace Gallery in New York a few years back—a far cry from the danger of a looming Richard Serra lead prop, to be sure, though a way bigger mess to clean up. Still, the point isn’t just about this particular moment of literal undoing, but rather the way Donovan’s work courts demise, a death drive no less insistent for being rendered so exquisitely.

Indeed, while scale is a linchpin, the seemingly incalculable beauty Donovan coaxes out of these proliferating artifacts is equally crucial. Untitled, for instance, the newest piece in the show and the one with thousands of feet of film nestled in on itself, framed glimpses of the adjacent waterfront, refracted in and by the uncannily prismatic film. It additionally suggests an engagement less with architecture than with light. I heard excited gasps of pleasure in front of this one, and standing before Nebulous, 2002, too. There, looped atoms of Scotch tape clustered in aggregates as they spread laterally across the gallery floor. Seen from above, the spaces between the holes were prominent, only to be filled in by an almost fuzzy, uniformly solid haze when spied from an oblique distance, like some distorted map. However many hours this piece took to produce, process—thematizing its mechanisms or preserving its traces as a paragon of ethical transparency—ultimately seems irrelevant. Or at least it is subjugated to a lesser status; it is merely something necessary to the achievement of its cumulative effect.

And the effect is one often dubbed sublime. As the ICA show made clear, Donovan’s work is accessible but not easy. Part Eva Hesse and part Tom Friedman, the artist domesticates and complicates women’s work; she likewise makes pleasure the result of structure rather than of surface. (In the age-old binary of line versus color, where the former is integral to compositional intelligence and the latter is pejoratively supplementary, or explicitly gendered as cosmetic, organization precedes cumulative effect.) Perhaps this appeal to constitution is a talisman against mere prettiness—a potentially facile, fawning prettiness that is undercut by Donovan’s manic excesses. Much of the interest I find in Donovan’s work comes down to this: Hers is a formal practice that cannot but admit its own invest- ments and obsessions, that portends its own undoing, and that undercuts its own aesthetic aspirations—Haze and many other examples also manage to produce motion sick- ness—even as it leaves little remainder beyond them.

“Tara Donovan” is on view at the ICA, Boston, through Jan. 4; the exhibition travels to the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, Feb. 7–May 11; Des Moines Art Center, June 19–Sept. 13; Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Oct. 10, 2009–Jan. 16, 2010.

Suzanne Hudson is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Illinois.