On October 10, 2008 the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, opened an exhibition spanning a decade of work by Tara Donovan — sculptor and 2008 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” grant. This is an abridged version of an interview between Lawrence Weschler and Tara Donavan that appears in the monograph, Tara Donovan.
So you graduated from the Corcoran. Then what happened?
I waited tables for six years.
Then I started making this sculpture where I was filling balloons with sand. And, God, it’s really funny actually. They were these natural-color balloons. I realized that if you exposed them to sunlight, they would kind of turn these pinkish hues and you could get all this subtle variation in color. And I would sit at night watching TV with a funnel and a bucket of sand and I would fill these balloons with sand, knot them, and pin them to my wall. So I covered this entire wall in these sand-filled balloons. It was kind of the first big thing I’d ever made.
Detail of Toothpicks, 2001, Ace Gallery Beverly Hills
W: Did you want there to be a place in America where a wall of sand-filled balloons would be up forever and people would always have the opportunity to see it, or you thought it was something that would be shown at a regional art fair, or what?
D: I don’t know. I’m very realistic. Like the whole notion of being famous or being a — of course, anybody who does anything creative always hopes that they can make a living doing it. But that’s a pipe dream. That doesn’t happen. Right? It really doesn’t and so . . .
W: So what came after the sand-filled-balloon-padded wall?
D: Well, around that time is when the toothpicks happened. Because I was making these pieces where I was sticking toothpicks in potatoes.
W: Whoa — when you weren’t filling balloons with sand, you were sticking toothpicks in potatoes?
D: In potatoes, basically, making these porcupine-y kinds of things that sort of looked like little Tribbles.
W: Ah, the Irish in America! From potato famine to potato porcupines!
D: Totally. The thing is you could stick them to each other. You could pile them up. And it was during the time that I was buying toothpicks for that and emptying all the boxes . . . I would buy, say, thirty boxes of toothpicks and instead of having to open each box individually, I would get into a rhythm. And at one point, I accidentally knocked over a box. And for whatever reason, instead of just scooping it up or whatever, I pulled the box off and the toothpicks inside held the corner.
W: And you were, like, wow?
D: Yeah. They held a perfect corner.
W: What time of day was this?
D: Oh, I don’t know. It was maybe ten o’clock at night. It was definitely nighttime but it wasn’t really late, because grocery stores were still open. I went out and bought all the toothpick boxes I could find, and it still wasn’t really enough. And then back at my waitressing job, I asked, “Hey, will you guys order me a case of toothpicks?”
W: And what did they say to that?
D: Well, I mean, they knew I was crazy already so that wasn’t really so much the issue, but it turned out to be really difficult to actually get the supplier to send a whole case. They’d send a box.
W: How large is a case of toothpicks? What kind of size box is it?
D: Usually there’s something like twelve large boxes and then inside of each large box there’s something like twenty-four small boxes of toothpicks. I don’t know.
W: You wanted toothpicks. You wanted a whole bunch of toothpicks.
D: 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.
W: 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.
W: When I’ve seen it like that, alone in its own room, it’s actually reminded me of Mecca, that huge powerful cube in the middle of that vast plaza, with all the pilgrims milling about, circling, awestruck. The art pilgrims.
But now let’s get you from eggs and haystack to that first solo show. Did you continue entering regional shows?
Transplanted, 2001, tarpaper, Ace Gallery New York
Detail of Transplanted, 2001, tarpaper, Ace Gallery New York
D: I did, but they were really terrible. They’re so demoralizing. But then I got an opportunity — this would have been in 1996 or so. There was this terrible space, a former D.C. nightclub called the Insect Club, which the Washington Project for the Arts had taken over and was in the process of converting into an alternative space for artists to show work — discrete areas where you could show your work. So I got really involved because I didn’t want to be in those crappy group shows forever, I wanted a good space. So they gave me this carpeted room, and I spent probably a week tearing up the carpeting and eventually installing this piece I made out of ripped tar paper, though this was not the piece that you’re familiar with, it wasn’t as lateral as that tar paper piece. It was much more of a stacked kind of like a stump of a tree or a weird mushroom or something. Because I wasn’t really thinking expansively yet, I was thinking more object-oriented. I made that piece and two other pieces that were made out of cut wire, solid, kind of like big snowballs, like you would make a snowman out of, rolling them and packing them in. So that was what I did, and actually it got a lot of attention. And thus was born a career.
Around this same time Tara accompanied Kendall Buster on a visit to the Virginia Commonwealth University’s art department and ended up applying for graduate studies and being admitted on scholarship.
W: How were things different for you now from when you’d been at the Corcoran?
D: I was definitely more mature. I was a lot older. Sometimes I think people are too young to go to college when they go to college. Or at least I was. I was just barely twenty-one when I finished college. That’s young.
W: Now you were twenty-eight or so?
D: Yeah, which felt like the perfect time for me: I’d been out in the world, I’d seen how hard it was to survive and could really appreciate this as kind of a vacation from life in the sense that I was going to take advantage of this and figure a lot of stuff out. Furthermore, I’d never had a proper studio before; I’d always worked in my apartment or whatever. So now I had a studio and nothing else to do. I mean, nothing. No job. It was amazing.
W: It was a two-year program?
D: Yeah. I worked some my second year because it made me crazy — I hate being poor — it’s easier to work and not worry about money all the time. But mainly I focused on what I was doing and the — oh, I remember now. That first year, I already had a solo show scheduled for the end of the first semester.
W: At the school?
D: No. At a real gallery in Washington, D.C.: Hemphill Fine Arts. And now I did the tar paper piece for the first time as an expansive field.
W: That amount of tar paper must have cost a lot of money. How did you pay for it?
D: Oh my God, I couldn’t. I couldn’t even get a credit card. I got declined at Home Depot for a credit card. I had no money — my student loan money hadn’t yet come through. It was terrible. So somebody I went to school with, Renee Rendine, who’s still a good friend, applied for the Home Depot card and she got it for me. And then when I got my loan money, I paid her back.
W: And how did you do that piece? Was that a piece where you had a lot of assistants working for you already, or were you doing it all by yourself at that point?
D: I was very lucky. I made some good friends quickly in graduate school, and they were the only people I knew who didn’t have jobs. The show was in December, so I think part of it was over our break. So a bunch of them came up and helped me make that piece: Chris Taggart, Andy Wilhelm, Renee Rendine, Kellie Murphy, and Kendall. I guess this would be a good moment to thank them again!
W: So what the hell were you doing there? Here you are, you’re this student and you’re piling up all this tar paper. What was that supposed to be about?
D: I had mocked up this piece in my studio where I had started thinking, how do I go from an object to something that is more like a field, something where as you walk past it, your eye moves over it, and it actually visually shifts? So that you’re looking at the same thing but it’s changing constantly? And that second tar paper piece was my first attempt at making an expansive landscape.
I’ve now made it probably, I don’t know, five times, and it’s been at a different scale each time. And depending on the scale, it really reads as a different thing each time. The smaller it is, the choppier it seems and the more earthy it looks. Whereas the larger it gets, the more like a sea it becomes.
I think my favorite manifestation of that piece was when it was at Ace in New York, where it looked like an ocean…. I had another solo show at the end of my first year of graduate school, this one in a gallery in Richmond, Virginia.
W: What’d you do there?
D: Smaller objects. Things where I was able to use some of the resources of the VCU sculpture department…. And I showed the toothpick cube in a back room.
W: At what size?
D: Thirty-six inches. Which someone bought from that show for $1600. Isn’t that crazy?
W: The toothpicks themselves must have cost a good part of the $1600 right there.
D: Oh yeah, it was probably several hundred dollars for the toothpicks. So I myself really probably only netted about three hundred bucks off of it. But anyway, that was graduate school. By the time I started graduate school I was so ready to really focus, I think I already knew what I wanted to do and I just needed the resources and time to do it.
Graduating from VCU in May 1999, Donovan stayed on in Richmond a few more months to prepare a piece she’d been invited to install in the Hemicycle, the circular room in the Corcoran Gallery back in D.C. That work was to prove a precursor to the translucent fishing line floor pieces she would eventually make, though in this instance fashioned out of recycled bullet-proof vest material, of all things. Spread about in pom-poms along the floor, it exuded “a kind of icy snowy bluish cast. There was kind of an axis line that shifted the color, which ought to have been interesting. But it just didn’t work that well in person.”
W: It must have impressed somebody. Wasn’t that the piece that led to your being included in the Whitney Biennial in 2000?
D: Actually, no. If you remember, that was the year they’d decided to do kind of a regional Biennial: they had chosen six curators who were scattered around the U.S. And it was all just a matter of luck for me in a sense. One of the curators, Valerie Cassel, was going through the area, and she spoke with Sammy Hoi, the dean at the Corcoran, who had the images I’d sent in as part of my proposal to do that Hemicycle show, which was not yet up. She saw those and apparently liked them, which is how I wound up in the Whitney.
W: At which point you moved to New York?
D:Yes, and began preparing for the Whitney. I never really had much communication with the Whitney, incidentally. I never had a studio visit. I never met anyone. It was absurd. I got a phone call and I just set about my work.
W:So the Whitney piece went up. Can you describe it? For starters, what was the material?
D: It was a nickel-plated copper electrical cable of some sort, with very fine wires, that I’d gotten at some government surplus store. It came in six-foot lengths with these weird things on the ends that I just cut off and threw away. So basically I was cutting the material into quarter-inch pieces and separating it all with my hands and putting it all into a bucket. And the stuff had the most amazing sense of adhesion, where if you clumped a fistful really hard in your hand, you’d really have to pick it apart to get it loose again — it was almost magnetic.
W:It kept its shape. It kept its form.
D:I kept trying to make something with it. I packed it into molds, threw clumps of it at other clumps, sprinkled it into anthills. Nothing was working and I was about to give up, pack it back into a box and shelve it for later. I was cleaning it up, because it was all over the floor in the studio, and at one point I kind of swept my hand along the floor and all the fibers interlocked and formed a ripple. Sort of like the hollows in a spread blanket. And I remember at that moment it was like, That’s it! That’s what it is. That’s what it will do.
W: I do think that as a viewer of your work, as somebody who comes to your shows, two things are involved. There’s of course the sense of you having done it, how you did it, and so forth, all of which is fascinating. But before that there’s simply the effect the piece first has on the viewer as he or she arrives. And I suspect that even as the person who did it, you must sometimes have that experience yourself. Diderot somewhere says that the artist is simply the first viewer of the completed work.
D: Yeah. I believe that completely.
W: The specific experience you have, though, is one of the uncanny as the material comes to life.
W: Were you still waitressing in those days?
D: Oh yeah.
W: By the way, when you were waitressing, were you already looking at plastic cups and straws in any particular way?
D: No. But I was looking at people in pretty weird ways. Actually, I liked waitressing. I mean the actual act of doing it. It’s physical, social — I didn’t hate it at all. You could make decent money and you could work at night. I have never had any other type of income-generating job. And by then I’d worked my way up to some of the nicer places. I waited tables at Savoy here in New York. It was interesting working there because Leon Golub, Chuck Close, Nancy Spero, all of them used to come, and I used to wait on them. I used to cut Nancy Spero’s meat for her because she was so arthritic.
Haze, 2003, drinking straws & glue, Ace Gallery New York
Detail of Haze, 2003, drinking straws & glue, Ace Gallery New York
Untitled, 2003, styrofoam cups & glue, Ace Gallery New York
Detail of Untitled, 2003, styrofoam cups & glue, Ace Gallery New York
W: Did they know you were an artist at the time?
D: No. Nobody knew I was an artist. I did finally work up the nerve to introduce myself to Chuck. He was on the board of the foundation that had awarded me a workspace, and he subsequently came to the open studio, liked my work, and ended up nominating me for a Tiffany grant.
W: How did that Ace Gallery contact come about?
D: Shortly after the Whitney opened, I got a call from Doug Chrismas.
W: Describe for our listeners who Doug Chrismas is.
D: He had the Ace Gallery here in town on Hudson Street and he also had an Ace in L.A. on Wilshire Boulevard. First, he invited me to do something in L.A. I went out to L.A. where he was having a big group show, and he gave me this huge room, where I showed the toothpick cube. A forty-inch toothpick cube in a fifty-foot by sixty-foot room. That piece has never looked so good. It’s really important to have the right space to show that piece in, and being a bit of a real estate whore myself, that was a great opportunity.
W: Okay, so how do we get from the L.A. Ace shows to that breakthrough Ace show of yours in New York?
D: I kept harassing Doug for a show in New York. And I wasn’t settling for just a room, I wanted the whole space.
W: Was that a happy negotiation or a crazy negotiation?
D: Everything with Doug Chrismas is crazy. This is a perfect example. For months I’m trying and nothing, and then suddenly he up and calls me and says, “Are you sitting down?” This is so typical of how Doug operates. And I’m like, “No.” He says, “Maybe you should sit down. Are your feet up?” And I’m like, “Yes. Whatever.” And he says, “How long do you need to install Ace New York?” And I said, “Oh my God! I need at least a month.” He said, “You can have three weeks, starting now.” This was sometime toward the end of January 2003. The show was going to be opening early that March. So he basically wound up giving me a month, exactly, to, one, absorb that I was doing a show, two, figure it out, three, hire a crew, order all the materials, and actually make all the stuff. It was insane. I walked around in a state of fear and shock for two days. How the hell was I going to do this?
W: You already had the pieces you were going to do in your head?
D: I had the show laid out in my head. I had just figured out the straw piece and really wanted to make it. So basically I got on the phone and started frantically calling people to see if they knew anybody who needed temporary work. Doug was only willing to pay them ten dollars an hour. It was terrible. But I wound up with this amazing crew of people.
W: How many acres was that show? How many rooms?
D: It was huge. That gallery is something like twenty thousand square feet, and seven rooms. I remember as I was installing that show — having never shown in New York with the exception of that piece in the Whitney Biennial that hadn’t really gotten any attention three years earlier — thinking people are either gonna love this or hate it.
W: One of the new works was that pencil piece. How did that happen?
D: I happened to be reading a lot about urban sprawl.
W: I wanted to try to talk to you about how in so many of these pieces of yours, accumulation becomes transformation. In other words, a dozen pencils is a dozen pencils, but a dozen dozen pencils become bacteria mold. They sprawl and become organic in some sense. São Paulo seen from the air. Isn’t that right?
W: In other words, with your process, maybe you start by looking at the material and trying to figure out what you could do with it, what it as it were calls out to have done with it, and you start doing that. So first there’s that. But the second part is that as you do it over and over and over again, it becomes something else. Right? It begins to come alive.
D: That reminds me of something. Take a look at this wedding gift I got from a friend. It came in a box and inside the box was a bunch of Arabic newspaper for padding, and nested deep among all that wrapping paper was this . . . it’s a selenite gypsum crystal. And not to put too fine a point on it, it looks exactly like my paper plate sculptures.
W: Nature the plagiarist. As usual. Why can’t Nature come up with her own ideas?
D: I know. But I had never seen this when I made those plates.
W: So what do you make of that?
D: It’s fascinating. And it keeps happening. Like I had never been to the Southwest when I made the tar paper sculpture. Then I went to Arizona and New Mexico. And everything looks like the tar paper sculpture.
W: Is it that there are only so many ways that things can be made? Because one of the things that’s so fascinating to me about your work is precisely how over and over again it comes to evince this biomorphic or geologic quality.
D: Well, I think that’s because I’m completely relying on the physical properties of the material before me, kind of going where it naturally inherently wants me to go, so that things always wind up mimicking nature in a way.
W: Because, for example, with the mesas of the Southwest, the material — rock, wind, water — does what it wants to do by definition. It can’t do anything other. But for me there’s also the question in mythological terms of God the Maker and you the creator. This sense with both of you of taking the clay, the mud of matter, and — well, in human terms, the way the unspooling DNA of creativity plays out in a way that re-creates all these natural forms. I may not have said that as elegantly as I meant to.
D: But yeah, I know exactly what you’re saying and I’m baffled by it. I’m baffled that it keeps happening.
W: With your work I often think of that old children’s game Animal Mineral Vegetable. Often, as with this selenite gypsum here and the paper plate piece it references, you get all three, because this is a mineral that looks like an animal. If anything, it goes right past vegetable. The association I have with your paper plates is to spores. You know, microscopic images of spores piling up. Which reminds me — did I show you those pictures of coccoliths? They are another sort of cross: the microscopic exuded mineral shells of tiny tiny sea creatures. Look here.
D: Oh my God, they’re amazing. But again, they put me in mind of my paper plate pieces.
Colony, 2002, pencils & glue, Ace Gallery Los Angeles
Detail of Colony, 2002, pencils & glue, Ace Gallery Los Angeles
Untitled, 2003,paper plates & glue, Ace Gallery Los Angeles
Detail of Untitled, 2003,paper plates & glue, Ace Gallery Los Angeles
Bluffs, 2005, buttons & glue, Ace Gallery Los Angeles
Detail of Bluffs, 2005, buttons & glue, Ace Gallery Los Angeles
W: That’s my point. You were mentioning that similar things had happened to you, besides the mesa and the tar paper. What are some other examples?
D: Well, the fishing line pieces and the sorts of things you find on coral reefs. The straw piece and fog banks. Or how I went to Tent Rocks outside of Albuquerque and it looked like my piled buttons.
W: There the paradox is that you were looking at a process of erosion that mimics, in your button pieces, a process of accretion, of accumulation.
D: Exactly. It’s the exact opposite. Where I’m building the buttons up, those Tent Rocks are being worn down. But essentially they look the same.
W: Do you ever feel like God when you’re doing them?
D: No. Not at all.
W: What do you feel like?
W: Why that?
D: I don’t know. I think when I make stuff I go through this whole range of emotions, starting with I’m a fraud, I’m never going to be able to make anything ever again, ’til I get to that moment where the material does something that is just beyond me. It lands in a place somewhere between the limits of my knowledge and what one is capable of knowing. Isn’t that what the experience of the sublime really is?
W: It comes to life. And one of the ways you know you’ve gotten there is that, figuratively speaking, you tap it and it rings true, whereas before you tapped it and it just clanged. Now you tap it, and it’s there.
D: Yeah. But getting to that point can be so hard.
W: Well, coming back to the pencils as an example, but we could equally be talking about the tar paper or the straws or the paper plates or several of the others . . . I’m thinking about the way that, time and again, you take something that factories mass-produce and spew out with the intention of individual use, and you turn around, and by considering the individual essence (what is the essence of a single paper plate, a pencil, a straw?), you then reconceive it, deploying it once more for a kind of mass use.
D: Yeah. Kind of a remanufacturing of the manufactured material. Remanufacturing the intended fate.
W: I imagine that if you went to a straw warehouse, there might well be a wall of straws in boxes. Indeed, if you were somehow able to vaporize the boxes, the remaining straws might look very much like your wall. But instead, they come out into the world to be used individually. Whereas you put them back together again, slightly tweaked, but delivered back to their originary mass.
W: So that New York Ace Gallery show was a tremendous, breakthrough success; it was thronged with people every day. How did you go from there to Pace?
D: Chuck Close claims that he took five thousand people to see that show including everyone from his gallery. Marc Glimcher from Pace soon contacted me about doing another tar paper piece at the IBM Building on Madison Avenue.
D: I remember sitting there, after the piece was complete, approving shots with the photographer, sitting there with a friend of mine, and I saw this older man in a baseball hat looking at the sculpture, and he was really looking at it. And I said, “That old guy likes my sculpture.” I was all proud. I had no idea who it was. So I continued to just watch him look.
W: Perceiving him perceive it, as it were.
D: Yeah. I was a fly on the wall. It was really nice. Eventually he walks over and he says, “Are you Tara Donovan?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And he said, “I’m Bob Irwin.” Well, I only knew him as Robert Irwin, so it took me a minute to kind of realize who this was. At which point I kind of freaked out. I think I almost started crying. I stood up — really, I was totally starstruck — and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Oh my God, can I hug you?” To which he obliged. And then, I mean, the rest is honestly a blur. I think we chatted about some things but I couldn’t even begin to tell you what we talked about at that moment. I just kept thinking, Oh my God, it’s Bob Irwin and he likes my sculpture!
* * *
W: Along with the move to Pace, there was another move in your life.
D: Yes, I bought a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I wanted a three-story building where I could live and have a studio and a sort of try-out exhibition space. So I bought this auto-body garage that I’m building two floors onto. I have always been passionate about architecture and design so I was very excited about doing this. I hired some local architects in Williamsburg, Standard Architects, and we started designing this place. I actually met the man who would become my husband there. Robbie is an architect and was assigned to make the model of my new studio. You can imagine my intrigue! That was in 2005. And we got married exactly two years after we met. In the meantime, though, I went to France for six months.
W: Where exactly and why and what was that like?
D: I was invited to live and work in Alexander Calder’s house and studio. The Atelier Calder is in Saché, which is in the Loire Valley, so you’re kind of halfway between Paris and Bordeaux, in the middle of nowhere. With the exception of this new situation with me and Robbie, it was probably a good time for me to go away. I was there from January to June 2006.
W: And what did you do?
D: I slept.
W: I can’t imagine why.
D: And I did a bunch of rubber band drawings there.
W: So you came back and mounted the big stacked plastic cup landscape piece at Pace?
D: Actually, I did that Pace cup piece while I was in France. I’d figured out the whole piece before I left. The show was in March and I gave myself a November deadline where I had to figure out what I was going to do for the show. While I was gone I had my assistants build the framing for the structure that we needed for the installation. I came back from France for about two weeks and installed that show. We had the cups delivered directly to the gallery from Dart. It was the largest single sale the company had ever made.
W: The guy who got the commission on that sale must have gone home very happy that night.
D: Oh yeah. I mean it was a whole semi truck, full of cases of cups. The piece is laid out in a perfect grid. The first cup gets glued down, after which it was a matter of unpackaging the cups and stacking them at various heights, sculpting out an undulating landscape that went from, at the highest point, I would guess hundreds of cups down to, in the lowest areas, maybe just a single cup. The building up of the transparent cups allowed different amounts of light to penetrate them, so that the piece wound up looking like a melting snowscape.
W: Which brings us very close to the present.
D: We’re getting really close to the present. I came back in June. The last three weeks I was in France, I’d rented a car and driven all over Europe, stopping in Basel, Switzerland, for the art fair. I had an idea for a piece that I had been wanting to make and the fair seemed like a perfect place to try it out. The piece is made of unspooled plastic sheeting that folds and flops onto itself and is built within a wall so that it can be viewed from both sides. Given the way light transmits through the piece, what happens is an almost kaleidoscopic effect. And that’s the piece I will be attempting on a much larger scale for my upcoming survey at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.
W: Well. It looks like we’ve taken you from birth through retrospective.