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Tara Donovan

Written by Tara DonovanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tara Donovan
Text by Lawrence WeschlerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lawrence Weschler, Nicholas BaumeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nicholas Baume and Jen MergelAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jen Mergel

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Artist Tara Donovan uses commonplace consumer materials--toothpicks, tape, pencils, buttons, paper plates, and the like--to create her dazzling sculptural installations. Often biomorphic or topographical in character, her large-scale abstract works utilize systematic arrangements of thousands or even millions of units. Visually evocative and perceptually seductive, her pieces are at once organic and highly structured. Donovan has been recognized for her commitment to process and her ability to discover how the inherent physical characteristics of an object might allow it to be transformed into art.

Published in conjunction with a major solo exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art/Boston, this book is the first to document Donovan's complete oeuvre, from her beginnings working in ink to her most recent pieces. Among the many works shown are Untitled (Plastic Cups), a 50-by-60-foot landscape of plastic cups; Haze, a 42-foot-long wall of over two million clear plastic drinking straws stacked like wood; and her three 40-inch cubes, one of steel pins, one of toothpicks, and one of shattered glass. An in-depth conversation between Donovan and Lawrence Weschler traces the artist's schooling, early career, and current work.


From: "Animal, Mineral, Vegetable: The Material Coming to Life"
A Conversation between Lawrence Weschler and Tara Donovan

Tara Donovan: So the first toothpick cube I made was about a foot by a foot. It was kind of slumpy and bad, but I realized that if I made it big, it would be heavier and it would work better. Because it wasn't yet dense enough.

Lawrence Weschler: What were you doing in terms of your fantasy of yourself at this point? Were you a waitress who had a hobby of filling balloons with sand and boxes with toothpicks with the idea that some day you'd be discovered for the great artist you were, or were you just some kind of nut?

D: Well, when you put it that way . . .

W: What did your friends think you were?

D: I think my friends did think I was a nut but appreciated my commitment to it. I think, honestly, the only thing I really aspired to at that time was to have just a regional art career. I wasn't trying to be an art star or anything. It was more like, Wouldn't it be neat if I could, you know, get into some shows? That was really my only goal.

W: Anyway, with regard to those toothpicks, you're beginning to figure out that the more of them you get, the more likely the piece will be to work.

D: And I finally got enough, eventually. Because a case of toothpicks isn't that cheap when you're on a waitress's salary.

W: Meanwhile, though, this is fascinating as an early instance of this thing with you where it turns out that x may not be enough, you figure out that you are going to need at least 5x—in other words, that scale makes all the difference. I mean literally, physically: there's something about friction that kicks in. Actually, do you understand what is going on scientifically, why the toothpicks finally do stick together?

D: Truly scientifically? No. But I think friction and gravity and just the sheer density of small interlocking parts is really all it is. I mean, with that piece, when it reaches the thirty-six-inch-square range, it's strong enough even for me to be able to stand on top of it.

W: How long after you started doing the toothpicks did you get it to that thirty-six-inch size?

D: I don't know. I think it took me like a month. Something like that. And then both those pieces—the toothpicks and the sand-filled-balloon wall—were in a regional group show, which was one of my first shows, at Maryland Art Place in Baltimore. I sent in slides and I got included. You're going to love this story because, I'm sure I have it somewhere, but there was a review where my contribution got referred to as “a wall of eggs and a bale of hay.”

No one got it. At all. No one. It was like: aye. So I really felt that I had failed, you know? It was the first time I had ever had occasion to read about myself in the paper, and I really believed that I had failed. I was also kind of pissed off and felt like if someone was reading it incorrectly, then I hadn't done my job. It was my first lesson about context.

So it wasn't until much later that I remade the toothpick piece and showed it on its own, in all its glory. Because that piece on its own in a huge room is—it's really something.
Praise | Awards


“This singular artist is creating a dazzling body of work that will enrich the fields of contemporary sculpture and installation art for years to come.”
—The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

“Ms. Donovan [has the] ability to uncover unexpected qualities in the most commonplace materials and objects.”
—Carol Kino, “The Genius of Little Things,” The New York Times

“The work has the pragmatic rigor of that earlier American period [of Minimalism] . . . but it brings it into our own period by suggesting digital, cellular, emergent networks. It seems to speak to the systems that are shaping our lives.”
—Nicholas Baume, chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, as quoted in The New York Times


WINNER MacArthur Foundation Fellowships

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