POWER OF NUMBERS
Tara Donovan's post-minimalist transformations
By Julianna Thibodeaux
If minimalism is by definition a simplification of form and color, then artist
Tara Donovan has turned it on its head. Deploying one simple object in
multiples rather than deploying it singularly, Donovan achieves an ironically
minimalist end where the resulting sculpture is viewed as a single cadence, a
Translucent paper cups comprise a waveform, or suggest an unblemished snowy landscape; Mylar blooms into dozens of orbs as a single flower head. Donovan's drawings are equally spare and intense: ink-infused bubbles "print" their bursts on paper; adding machine paper loops endlessly, impressing itself as a single image in a wash of cohesive elegance.
Such deceptively simple ideas have been recognized as a sort of brilliance—Donovan was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2008—but there's also the art world attention: From graduate school work being shown at the Whitney Biennial in 2000 to a recent survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (don't call it a "retrospective"—Donovan says that's a dirty word), Donovan's work is being shown far and wide and lauded for its accessible and yet layered beauty.
The Brooklyn-based Donovan grew up in "the burbs" in Nyack, New York. She received her B.F.A. in 1991 from the Corcoran College of Art and Design and an M.F.A. in 1999 from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her roster of other prestigious exhibition venues since completing graduate school includes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the UCLA Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, among others.
The latest major survey of Donovan's work, comparable in scope to the show in Boston, "Tara Donovan: Untitled" (which opened April 4) is on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through August 1, 2010. The show includes installations, drawings, and other work spanning the past 10 years in addition to new work commissioned by the IMA.
I caught up with Donovan at the IMA prior to the opening, in town with her family in tow—she's the mother of 4-month-old twins—as she was overseeing the installation of the exhibition. Even as she insists having twins hasn't changed her perspective... yet (I had to ask), doing things in multiples seems to be a given.
While she's a decided New Yorker, Donovan likes showing in the Midwest for "practical reasons," she says: "People in the Midwest are really nice and they have a good work ethic. The volunteers here are all kicking butt."
With practical matters out of the way, Donovan and I shared the following conversation:
Tell me about the show you're doing here; what you have planned.
There's a piece that the IMA commissioned that's made out of Mylar. A lot of
the pieces in the show I've installed before but it's bringing together several
pieces. The exciting thing is the drawings. As they're uncrating drawings I'm being united with things I haven't seen in 10 years.
A lot of references to your work have stressed your use of so-called "everyday objects." Is that an important distinction for you?
I think people like to hang on to that idea; but it's not really the truth. I started to work with everyday materials because they were cheap, mass produced, easy to get—very practical reasons. My interest in the materials has nothing to do with their purpose; it's really about the physicality of [the material] or the visual aspects of it. I'm more interested in the shape, the color, the transparency.
What would you consider your breakthrough work?
The answer I suppose is the toothpick piece where I basically discovered that this material en masse could create a natural adhesion. So it kind of led me in the direction of using a singular material in a cumulative way, so that it would become something else; that it would transcend itself.
Your work often has been compared to geological and/or biological forms. Does this reflect your intentions?
To a degree... [but] I don't set out with a specific vision in mind. It always starts with the material and I go from there. My process mimics, in the most elementary sense, the most basic systems of growth found in nature. Using those guiding principles, those things tend to look like natural or biological forms.
So it's not really forced.
How did your academic experiences influence and/or shape the kind of work you do—your concerns as an artist?
It's probably not that different from going to law school where you learn a different language and learn to think about something differently.
Academically, that would be the valuable thing that I learned. So much about being an artist is introspective in a lot of ways. It's really about paying attention to things that you're inclined to do whether it be in a craft sense or a visual sense, linking that to things in art history, and kind of coming up with an understanding of it all. It's kind of a slow building process where you get to the point where you make connections, and you have your own language, and you have rules and guiding processes, and you work within them.
How has your work evolved over the years?
I'm still working it out. As an artist you're always evolving. I don't know that I would say it has changed. I don't have one set medium that I work with that I'm trying to conquer so it's more kind of trying to find the physical peculiarities in the materials... I don't use the same material over and over again, so every time I make a piece, it [poses] the same set of challenges. The work evolves within each piece. The work is always evolving.
If you go: "Tara Donovan: Untitled," through August 1, Indianapolis Museum of Art,
4000 Michigan Rd. Admission is free for members and $8 for the general public.
Call 923-1331 or visit www.imamuseum.org for more information.