TARA DONOVAN Making the mundane marvelous

Known for her large-scale, site-specific installations, New York-based artist Tara Donovan has earned acclaim for transforming how people view everyday objects and for making the ordinary extraordinary.

Toothpicks, drinking straws, plastic cups, plastic sheets and pencils. To many, these items are simply the mundane objects of everyday life. For Tara Donovan, however, they offer untapped potential to create monumental sculptural compositions inspired by the complex geometries found in nature.

“Everyday materials are often connected to personal experience, so people viewing my work often experience a kind of evolving gestalt, where the sculpture breaks down into discrete, recognizable units,” Donovan said. “I began working with everyday materials because they were cheap and mass-produced, but I’ve always been interested in how materials behave visually in a population. Many of my early works explore this concept.”


Donovan, who said she is motivated “materially and aesthetically” by the generative aspects of process art and by post-minimalist sculptors including Jacqueline “Jackie” Winsor, Richard Serra and Eva Hesse, knew she wanted to be an artist from an early age. However, she does not believe that artists are “suddenly struck with a divine vision” when creating art. Instead, she likens her process to that of a scientist or an architect.

“It’s very satisfying to indulge myself with problems only I can solve, so I let the inherent qualities of the materials dictate the entire creation process,” she said. “Initially, I explore the physical properties of a single material, then I assemble a basic unit that can be reproduced and aggregated with other materials. This helps me develop an almost mechanical process for producing an installation at immense scale. I rely heavily on the architectural and contextual parameters of the exhibition site to complete each installation.”

Noting that each part of the process affords its own rewards, Donovan added: “Studio time is vital so I can explore the potential of different materials, regardless of whether or not they ultimately evolve into large-scale projects. My work is often completed at an exhibition site, so it’s rewarding to see how it performs in different environments.”


Although her earlier works bear titles, Donovan now resists naming her pieces, which evolve each time they are assembled.

 “I like the idea that, initially, viewers need to grapple to understand what they’re looking at, and then they experience an intense curiosity to explore further,” she said. “The perceptual shifts I try to activate in my pieces only occur during a multiperspective experience, which requires viewers to move around the artwork and related space to appreciate how they operate as a visual field.”


Donovan’s innovative art has won numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship (often dubbed the “Genius Grant“) in 2008 and the inaugural Calder Prize in 2005. The latter gained her a six-month residency at Atelier Calder, the former studio of American sculptor and painter Alexander Calder in Saché, France.

For a month in early 2016, Donovan displayed two pieces of artwork alongside fellow Calder Prize winners in The Calder Prize 2005-2015 exhibition at Pace Gallery in London. One was based on her recent exploration of Slinkies – walking spring toys – as a sculptural and mark-making material, while the other, Cloud, was from 2003 and was composed of thousands of twist ties.

“In the free-standing sculpture, I exploited the Slinky’s spreading coils to suggest an evolving dispersion of material in space,” Donovan said. “In many ways, this represents an expansion to a larger scale of what I was trying to achieve with the twist ties in Cloud.”

From abstract prints on rice paper inked from rubber bands, to immense site-specific installations of tar paper, glue, tape and plastic. Donovan’s innovative and personal approach is transforming today’s conventional art scene, providing the public with original and unforgettable works of contemporary art. ◆

by Rebecca Gibson Back to top
by Rebecca Gibson

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Tara Donovan on sculpting everyday materials