Though born in New York, Tara Donovan launched her career in Washington, D.C., with exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery in 1997 and ’99. Her method was clear from the start -- sensuous accumulations of a single type of industrial material or a single commercial item, often assembled according to a simple rule, often in a topological scheme. At the 2000 Whitney Biennial, she exhibited Ripple (1998), a floor piece constructed of scads of short pieces of wire arranged to resemble concentric, circular ripples. In 2003 she stacked more than two million clear plastic straws, woodpile-style, against the wall at Ace Gallery in New York.
Donovan has also hot-glued plastic cups into a massive hive hanging from the ceiling, glued buttons into a steep mountain topology reminiscent of peaks seen in Chinese art, glued white paper plates into Tribble-like forms, arranged tarpaper into rippling black landscapes and arranged silver straight pins and toothpicks into perfect cubes (these last with no glue). After exhibiting for several years with Ace Gallery in Los Angeles and New York, she joined PaceWildenstein in early 2005.
Oriane Stender conducted an email interview with Donovan on Apr. 2, 2006.
Oriane Stender: You find a new way of working with each new material. Do you plan to continue in this way? After stacking, rolling, folding, etc., do you think you'll be able to keep finding new actions?
Tara Donovan: My investigations with materials address a specific trait that is unique to each material. I was particularly drawn to the scalloped edge on the paper plates. The structure and activity of spooling is what brought me to work with adding machine paper. The way the plastic cups absorb and diffuse light and, of course, their stackability, motivated me to use them for the project currently at Pace Wildenstein. In a sense, I develop a dialogue with each material that dictates the forms that develop. With every new material comes a specific repetitive action that builds the work, thus I feel safe in saying I will be able to keep finding new methods of production.
OS: You have said that you are inspired by Robert Irwin, James Turrell and Sol LeWitt. How about Eva Hesse?
TD: Eva Hesse is someone I have always studied and respected. The idiosyncratic nature of her processes has certainly informed aspects of my own practice. LeWitt’s articulation of rules for constructing work is a methodology I have incorporated into my practice. I do, however, feel indebted to artists such as Robert Irwin or James Turrell, who attempt to construct an evolving phenomenological experience in time and space with their work.
OS: Do you also feel an affinity with other younger artists who use accumulation as a major part of their practice, people such as Tom Friedman, Sarah Sze and Tim Hawkinson?
TD: Many artists working today are part of a conversation that clearly extends back to the 1960s, artists with whom I feel a certain affinity. The breadth and diversity of the consumer landscape has expanded to such a degree that the materials which can be adapted to the artistic context are in seemingly limitless supply. The idea that art can be manufactured or that art can radically complicate notions of value attached to mass-produced objects is no longer a point of serious contention in contemporary debates. I think the new fertile territory encompasses a range of practices that capitalize on the iconic identities of commercial and industrial materials by pressing them further into the realm of seduction.
This is something I try to accomplish with my own work, but I also see this tendency in other artists such as the three you mention. The focus on craft that I believe we all share separates us from the strictly conceptual or minimal concerns that preoccupied previous generations of artists. Certainly my work has relationships to any number of contingent practices, but I believe it is the challenge of figuring out how a particular material can perform its own act of sublimation that lends my work its distinct identity.
OS: What about James Siena, who uses a similar kind of repetitious patterning two dimensionally?
TD: Perhaps on the surface there is something James and I share, but he uses a step-by-step problem-solving procedure that I find to be far from repetitious.
OS: I am intrigued by artists setting up rules and systems. Do you feel a connection, conceptually, with other system-based artists, such as Danica Phelps?
TD: I think almost every artist has to set up rules and systems to make their work. With large-scale production that requires a team of people, I have found it necessary to define very clearly the rules and systems I use. This also becomes an important issue for the future realization of projects.
OS: What are the environmental implications in your work?
TD: I get this question a lot and I am never quite sure what it means.
OS: What do you do with the materials when a piece comes down? Can those plastic cups be used? Are they recycled? I would guess that adding machine paper and toothpicks are somewhat recyclable, but what about the plastic cups?
TD: The materials are the sculpture and remain the sculpture. Nothing gets recycled. If you buy a toothpick piece, you literally get the toothpicks. I think many people assume that my work is only temporary, that the materials are used and then discarded in some way but it is really much more straightforward. The materials are simply stored and then reassembled.
OS: You started showing with Ace in Los Angeles fairly soon after graduate school. I gather this isn't a problem now, but in the beginning, did the fragile nature of your work make sales difficult and was this ever an issue in your gallery relationships?
TD: I finished grad school in 1999 and had my first show at Ace in L.A. at the end of 2000. Surprisingly, I have not had many issues with sales due to the nature of my work.
OS: You are in France now on a six-month residency courtesy of the Atelier Calder. Are you working out ideas for future installations or doing site-specific pieces there?
TD: Residing in Calder’s studio has allowed me to work on a piece that would be difficult in my studio in New York. I do not consider my work to be site-specific at all. I prefer the term site-responsive. I think it is more descriptive of the way my work relates to space. Robert Irwin defined the relationship of outdoor sculpture to space by suggesting four classifications: site-dominant, site-adjusted, site-specific and site-determined. Reading about his classifications led me to scrutinize the relationship of my own work to space. I really felt that terms such as installation art and site-specific had lost their meaning and specificity through overuse. Anything presented in a gallery is both installed and site-specific in the most general sense.
I see my work as perhaps having a more dynamic relationship to the spaces where it is presented. Haze is the perfect example of the site-responsiveness inherent to my work. The straws must be buttressed by two walls in order to maintain their form. This means that the work actually uses the architecture of the space as an integral element of its structure. Haze is not site-specific, however, because its dimensions can be adapted to any space that has the appropriate architectural format. I rarely have a specific space in mind (unless it is a white cube) when I begin experimenting with a material.
ORIANE STENDER is a Brooklyn-based artist and writer.