Tara Donovan at Pace



by Austin Carder

Tara Donovan,
Pace Gallery, New York City,
May 10, 2014 to August 15, 2014

The best way to encounter Tara Donovan’s work for the first time may be by accident. I walked into her show at Pace on a whim (I had come for Joel Shapiro next door) and was immediately transported into her world, or rather the two worlds of her massive installations in the gallery. I was overwhelmed by the first – an imposing crystalline structure made of many thousands of acrylic rods and adhesive.

I was first struck by the paradoxically natural appearance of this artificial accumulation as it drew me into its magnetic field. I locate the piece’s power in this magnetic field that attracts and repels the viewer at once, the forces vying with one another for supremacy in a kinetic battle that results in a palpable energy that fills the room. In its presence I had simultaneous urges to throw myself onto its translucent spikes and to run away from it. I was impressed and almost afraid of this object that felt like a creature exerting some power over me. The impulse is akin to that uneasy seduction you feel at a great height — on the edge of a cliff or the roof of a building — that reminds you how easy it would be to throw yourself off.

Of course you don’t destroy yourself on the acrylic rods; you are content to taste the topography from every vantage point but still crave those unavailable to you: above and below. It cannot be denied that the work engages you physically and demands that you take account of it, negotiate its space. Space is the right word, as it commands the air that surrounds it in a way not unlike a Rothko painting. The territory of Donovan’s work transcends that of Rothko. Both are monumental, but Rothko’s paintings somehow remain inescapably personal while Donovan’s structures strike a colder, though no less powerful note in their approximation of nature’s indifference to our species.


This impression is only heightened after you pass through the strange liminal space between the rooms and into a sort of snowy Alpine landscape of towering index-card mountains.

The first installation was organism, but this is geography, and in its space we are giants on the earth. A familiar impulse seizes you; you desire physical contact with the papery peaks, but instead of the inclination toward a beautiful death impaled on the organism’s spikes, here you want to summit the stacks. You are to be conqueror instead of victim. This is a feeling that would be evoked independent of the organism installation (you could just as easily have encountered them in the opposite order), but this basis for comparison sharpens the unique tenor of your response. We may be giants in the company of the index cards, but they dwarf us in their accretion and choreograph the dance we do at their bases. The completely ordinary status of the index card only complicates the power they have over us. Indeed, Donovan’s work is noted for her command of synthetic materials to striking biological effects, but it is really rather more than that; she returns the materials to their origins, allowing them to remind us of ours.

About the Author:

Austin Carder is a student in his final year of undergraduate work at Yale University, where he studies English. Right now he is working on two senior essays: one about utopian literature and one about Hamlet. He does not expect to find many affinities between the two.