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On Tara Donovan’s Intermediaries

Finding Uniqueness In Mass Production

Recorded on January 27, 2021

Presented on the occasion of Tara Donovan's exhibition Intermediaries in New York, this online panel explores Donovan’s continued investigations into the overlooked physical properties of modest, mass-produced materials.

The conversation focuses on Donovan’s sculptural transformation of everyday objects into epic and ethereal works of art, and the twist of minimal and modernist history that informs her approach to artmaking.

The panelists include Nora Abrams, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and curator of Tara Donovan: Fieldwork (2018), Christine Mehring, Professor in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago and Adjunct Curator at the University's Smart Museum of Art, and Jenni Sorkin, Associate Professor of the History of Art & Architecture at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The conversation was moderated by Mark Beasley, Curatorial Director at Pace.

Learn more about Tara Donovan

Mark Beasley (MB): Welcome this afternoon to our panel discussion, On Tara Donovan’s Intermediaries: Finding Uniqueness in Mass Production. I'm Mark Beasley, one of the Curatorial Directors at Pace Gallery. It’s a pleasure to welcome you, the audience, and our assembled panel members. As mentioned, we're here to celebrate, discuss, ruminate upon Tara Donovan’s recent show at 540 West 25th Street titled Intermediaries, and for those who haven't yet seen it, I urge you to go take a look. As with much artwork, but specifically Tara’s, it demands attention in the sense of being in the space with the work. That's when the work acts upon you. You can sign up for scheduled times via Pace’s website. Okay, I think that is introductions to everyone, but I wanted to flesh out or introduce our contributors, our panel here, our fabulous three. 

First, we have Nora Burnett Abrams who is the Mark G. Falcone Director at MCA Denver. Since arriving at Denver in 2010, she has organized over thirty exhibitions and authored or contributed to nearly a dozen accompanying publications. Recent projects have highlighted unusual or unknown episodes in artist careers, such as Basquiat Before Basquiat from 2017, as well as the first survey of Senga Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. sculptures in 2014. She has taught art history at New York University and lectured throughout the country on modern and contemporary art. She holds art history degrees from Stanford University, Columbia University, and a Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. Welcome, Nora. Chiefly, I wanted to mention that Nora was the curator of Tara Donovan's 2018 museum retrospective, which we will get to in some detail, Fieldwork, at the MCA Denver. 

Secondly, we have Jenni Sorkin who is the Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the University of California in Santa Barbara. She has published and lectured widely as an art critic and curator and is the author of Live Form: Women, Ceramics and Community from 2016, which examined gender and the post-war ceramics practice of Black Mountain College and other utopian communities. In 2016, she co-curated with Paul Schimmel Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947 2016, the inaugural exhibition of Hauser & Wirth in Los Angeles. And [Jenni Sorkin is] equally a contributor to Fieldwork—a contributor of a key essay in the publication. 

Finally, but not least, we have Christine Mehring, the Mary L. Block Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago and the College Adjunct Curator at the Smart Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Her research and writing and teaching focus on abstraction, post-war European art, and the crossover between art and design. She recently co-curated the university's commission of Jenny Holzer's YOU BE MY ALLY and is currently, as I understand it, on leave and we are very grateful to have you here, as is Tara herself who expressly wished that you be assembled to discuss the work as chief supporters of it and people who can speak to it over time.

Before we get into the discussion, I thought it useful for those in the audience who haven't seen the exhibition firsthand, we have a short video. I will talk over it, hopefully not too clumsily, to introduce you to some of the key works in the exhibit and then we'll get into a broader discussion about Tara, abstraction, Minimalism, and what one can do with plastic cups and cocktail stirrers. Okay so let's go with the video. Here we have two of the key works in the exhibit. There are four or five key works. All of them ruminate upon the grid and its place within Minimalism. Here’s a key work, Sphere, which is a number of plastic tubes pieced together to form this globe through which one can view members of the audience. This is Stacked Grid, a series of flexible plastic interlocking strips that both have weight but also this incredible seeming flimsiness to it—it's absent and also present. Here we have a series of wall pieces called Apertures, which are a number of drink stirrers placed on top of each other and they produce this very, very kind of striated, almost gestural, surface. This is a room of what Tara describes as Screen Drawings, they’re a number of inked metal sheets that are kind of woven threads and then inked up and pressed. Each of them is an individual piece and a one-off. These are other works that are placed throughout 540. This is in the library space. Additional print works that have this kind of fluctuating optics to it.

That was a brief introduction to an exhibition that demands being experienced in real-time and real space. We're in this situation where we're talking about work and almost yearning for that form of space, that engagement with artwork. I jotted down a few notes in relation to Tara Donovan's work when I was thinking through the panel and reading through both Nora’s and Jenni's essays and writing on Tara over time. I'm just going to read this very quickly and then I'm going to get into directing questions to each of you.

When thinking and reading on Tara's work, and in conversation with her, the artist, there are key phrases and theories, almost ideologies, that repeat themselves—her “paying attention to accidental discoveries,” the works operating as a kind of “non-gesture” and “non-composition,” and those things that happen visually when an object or a maneuver is placed “in population.” What does it mean when thousands of drinking straws are placed together and create this epic kind of mood and surface? In Nora's essay there is a suggestion of Donovan’s work as a “push to action,” a labored birth of the object that stems from play, engagement, experimentation. Words keep reappearing. Words such as accretion, accumulation, and erosion are used to describe the work and its form, the form it takes in the world. In direct proportion to the grounded “doing” words of making and production, and of labor itself, we break through to the sublime, the ethereal, and otherworldly. How can these things sit together? What is the process that leads to such arrival? There is something else in conversations with the artist, the commitment to print, there is the searching and questioning of studio practice and the search, and in Donovan's own words, for “that one answer for each material.” A feeling and sometimes lostness that she experiences. A fraudulence while waiting and working with the material in order that it reveal itself, that it will show us something new. A fraudulence of not knowing that is met with a renewed fate. There is the Mylar tape, the plastic cup, the [thumb tack] “in population” that present new visual registers. I had initially titled this panel, “Finding Uniqueness in Mass Production,” but there is also something in that move between the often societally and class ascribed sense to fraudulence that not knowing suggests. Why the humble plastic cup versus the epic bronze mounted horse? And the re-finding of faith as a material reveals more than is readily understood? So here we are, to discuss something of fraudulence and something of faith and to make sense of what often is purposefully un-noble.

OK, that's enough of me. Nora, perhaps first to you? I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the beginnings of the Fieldwork exhibition, your early hopes and ambitions for that retrospective, and also perhaps a little of what it was like or what was learned in surmising twenty or so years of work, and what does it take to put together, essentially, a mid-career survey? That's a lot of questions, but I hope you can answer some of that.

Nora Abrams (NA): Thank you so much, Mark. Thank you for the very warm introduction. And thank you, Christine and Jenni, for what I imagine will be a really lively and thoughtful conversation, and of course, thanks to Tara for being an incredible artist who gives us so much to discuss and to ruminate on. I am in Denver right now. I am not in New York. I have not had the opportunity to see this work in the show, but I was able to see some of it in process in 2019 so it's really amazing to see how it has journeyed forward to become what it is and to see that migration from what it was in the studio to what it is now in the gallery. Working with Tara was one of the greatest creative and intellectual opportunities of my career and part of that is because she is a very open and honest artist. Mark, you spoke a little bit about how she is very honest about her process, which does require absolute faith that something will yield something, or it won't. But she will work through what each material is capable of and she is so committed to that, and she's extremely open about that process. There are so many things that I gleaned from my experience working closely with her for over three years, pretty much, which was that some artists work on a project and then move on to something else, and of course, the previous one informs subsequent projects, but what was so exciting, I would say, and so riveting as a curator, was to see that when we were looking at works from 2002 and 2017, they were so engaged around a similar question and a similar set of circumstances, whether it was the ballpoint pen drawings or an untitled work of gold Mylar kind of rolled into small tubes, they were both exploring the capability and the capacity for each material to travel, to create an experience for the viewer where you are traveling to another world where there is the suggestion of something extremely organic born of these very inorganic materials. What was remarkable was having the chance to ride that journey alongside Tara, who herself, I think, was having the chance to reflect on these through lines running through her practice over decades. That's probably a pretty humbling experience for an artist and so to be able to bear witness to that with her was an extremely special part of our collaboration together. I will say that Jenni contributed to the book and conversations with Jenni around putting Tara's work in the context of a previous generation of artists and really also talking about the environmental aspect of her work, the field aspect of her work, added just a really important additional dimension to it. We were very fortunate that the exhibition traveled to Chicago where Christine had the chance to engage with it and engage with Tara. I'm very grateful that the band is back together to continue the conversation around Tara's work. I also think that we three each bring very different perspectives to that specific project, the Fieldwork exhibition. A lot of the work in Fieldwork anticipates the work that's on view at Pace right now.

MB: I’ll unmute myself, thank you, Nora. That was very helpful. I know in conversation with Tara, this exhibition really came out of that process with you of reflecting on twenty-plus years of work to the point that she said you find herself returning to some of her beginnings around the grid, breaking the grid, those things that she thought she'd answered. I think that's often the purpose maybe of these larger-scale, sometimes mid-career... 

NA: You know, Mark, It's so true. And you never know when you're starting that process where it's going to land and what was so exciting was that there's one work—it's kind of one of the quieter works that Tara has ever made—called QWERTY, which is a book that takes each letter... Oh, well played, good job! Thank you. Each page is one letter written with a typewriter within certain boundaries that she established but really the letter determines the image on the page. When I'm looking at the new work, the screen prints, that's what immediately comes to mind. And QWERTY itself was created in 2018, but it was based on a book that she made in either college or graduate school, forgive me for not remembering, called Clicked, which was that original premise of each letter determining the image and determining its own kind of constraints. I think that that is so central to her practice today, which is looking at what the material is capable of, how it can define its own boundaries, and how she just views herself as unleashing it rather than her... That her agency isn't as vital as really finding a way to let the material speak in its own terms.

MB: Yeah, I love that idea that every material has one truth. Jenni?

Jenni Sorkin (JS): Yes.

MB: I had a thought or a question in relation to your essay titled Infinite Modularity. I loved your appealing description of Tara as a gardener of sorts, as someone who nurtures a material, amplifies it, lets it grow. And in her work, you suggest the idea of infinite reproducibility, this repeatability, and that there is also a clear control—no extraneous meaning, nothing scripted, or no prescribed emotional pull. As you brilliantly stated, “Donovan’s work casts aside feelings,” which sounds tough, but I think is a great thought. To that end, could you describe the ways and means by which the work operates to you as an art historian, critic, but also as an audience member and fan? I wondered very simply how you feel about the work.

JS: Well, I really love the work, and I made sure to fly to Denver to see the show. I really wanted to come to see it installed. It was important to me to see it in the flesh, so to speak, because you cannot get the same sensibility unless you articulate the space around the work. You really have to see it in its own dimensionality and then ambulate or walk around the work and see it from all angles, which is part of being present in the space with it. I think that Lawrence Weschler, who was a West Coast critic of Minimalism, he wrote an early book on Robert Irwin, had this phrase about Minimalism, which was, “What you see is what you get,” and I've always really liked that as a way to not attribute too much. There's so much theory that floats around art history in relation to really packing Minimalism with a kind of dense, psychologically fraught history of “object-ness” and whether or not the object is theatrical, like Michael Fried would say. I think that taking it down a notch is what Tara does really well. I feel like she's poking fun at that really fraught, overly seriousness of Minimalism in the ‘60s and the way in which it was initially described largely on the East Coast but also to some degree on the West Coast. The fact that she's able to say, “actually, these are my materials,” “this is a title,” “the title is semi-metaphorical, but not always.” A lot of it is untitled, which also has a compelling relationship to a kind of history of conceptualism in which there's a materiality that's offered in parentheses often. I think that it's really about the properties of the chosen material itself. There are people who do go into the space as a secular viewing of transcendence, we might say, that you do get this transcendent viewing because it's really beautiful, there's a kind of iridescence or translucency, there's a lot of gradation of light in terms of having a refractability, and there's always a second cast in her plastics in particular, the kind of amazingness of—and it's not accidental, she's aware of this—the purple or the green sort of off colors that you see when you're in the space. You cannot get that from the video or from the reproduction in the book. You have to see that live. And so there is something about “present-ness” that I think is crucial to being in front of and also understand that amount of experimentation and observation from dealing with an everyday, basic, findable material— something that you can get in the grocery store, something that you could get at Target—and that it's not a material that was fabricated in, I don't know, in a factory on Long Island or something, that it's something that you can actually understand. I think that that's the difficulty of explaining the history of plastics, particularly in West Coast Minimalism, that it's really hard to explain, particularly to students, how all of this stuff was made because the process is so intensive. To see Styrofoam cups hot glued together is refreshing, and also to see it in the same... It has the same feeling at the end in certain ways, that it's a low-tech material, it's hand labor, and it achieves this same condition that the kind of high arc of '60s-era Minimalism also was able to achieve.

MB: Yeah, I absolutely agree. My intro to the work as a former art student was the work of Tony Cragg or that particular generation of artists that mixed pop culture with high art, and the plastic-ware they found on a beach in Cornwall. And there was that kind of weird, very humble use of materials to make pronouncements around the environment, which I think Tara does in some very interesting ways, where we have this expanded, viral sense of something building towards the organic. A question for Christine, and maybe we could talk about a little bit, Christine, your experience of the work in relation to light and the use of light, maybe we can get to that. Often with Tara’s work, it looks very monochromatic but once you're in the space, under the lights, this translucent plastic has these kinds of fractured, “fractilated,” to make up a word, kind of color spectrum that's super interesting. And I know a lot of your work is around color and the kind of politics of color. When reviewing Donovan’s work, there are precedents and artists that spring to mind, as has been mentioned, the light and space of Robert Irwin, the procedural, almost scripted nature of Sol LeWitt with the Postminimalist sculpture of Eva Hesse. And even as I mentioned, people like Tony Cragg or even Barry Flanagan in the mix. I often find with Tara’s work the use of everyday material also has this often-overlooked clear wit and a sense of humor that we never get to. You know, when is a cocktail stirrer not a cocktail stirrer kind of approach? Christine, as a scholar of abstraction and nontraditional materials, can you identify some of the precedents and history that leads us into the work specifically when you experienced Tara’s work at the Smart Museum? I wondered what spoke to you about the work and the exhibition?

Christine Mehring (CM): Yeah, I mean, what a great question. It actually is exactly the fact that Tara spoke to me as an art historian that was so thrilling and that there is almost a way in which I think she's one of those “art historians’ artists” or an art historian in disguise, disguised as an artist. Thinking for a second about the title of the Pace exhibition, Intermediaries, I think of her almost like a medium that brings this wealth of '60s art into the present. I mean, she's really lodged in that history of the 1960s and early 1970s. And I think it's a combination of a respectful tribute, but also, as Jenni was already getting at, the kind of playful approach to the kind of transformation of that tradition. It's an homage to abstraction, but also, as Jenni already so beautifully said, like taking it down a notch so that it’s playful, almost humorous. I think most forcefully it's Color Field, a history of the monochrome, I would say, Process Art and Op-Art. Color Field—the pin works in the Smart exhibition, the accumulations of the pin were so much in dialogue, of course, with Frank Stella’s Color Field painting, even back to Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series and some of other Albers paintings. Monochrome—I think the beautiful arc from references to Robert Ryman’s work, who works with permutational forms of engaging different brushes, different types of whites, patterns, etc. And then you have Tara working with all of these different ways in which you can put notecards together in different patterns. The black tar paper, also, so much to me and in a fantastic tradition of the monochrome, I think of Ad Reinhardt all the way to Theaster Gates with Tara's work with black tar paper and kind of working out different hues of black. Black is never the same as black. It's all about how black is actually embodied. Process Art—I know I talked a little bit about this already, bringing out the capacity of a material, that's where that link is. I think Op-Art—the crazy optical effects that the accumulations of Tara’s work produce. I think most forcefully the connection is to Minimalism, and maybe that's also where my great passions are. There are obviously the serial repetitive processes she's engaging in that become material investigations. And I think in that conjunction, very, very related to the work of Carl Andre especially.

There's the kind of phenomenological engagement that we see in all of Minimalism that appeals to touch. One of the things that I think is a little bit more of a specific, nerdy piece related to Minimalism, is the way Tara engages with scale. Thinking about the way she moves from these always very, very small objects that in accumulation become monumental, colossal beyond human scale. I think there is a way in which the Minimalists worked so much with these strange, unfamiliar scales, pushing into the monumental scale but never in a way that it becomes completely unrelatable to humans. I'm thinking about the way Tony Smith, when he talked about his sculpture, Die, the big black cube, that you can't quite see on top but it's still within your bodily range. Object-ness, which Jenni already mentioned and the same thing about “what you see is what you see,” Frank Stella’s famous characterization of his work, and by extension, Minimalist work. This idea of tautology that there really is just the material and I'm just going to give you lots and lots and lots of it and boy, well, actually, it isn't just what you see, because it becomes something else. There is that transformation of Minimalism. It's almost like taking it literally but then also taking it somewhere completely different. And then lastly, I think, brilliant engagement with someone like Sol LeWitt and maybe that's where you get to what Tara does with Minimalist forms. LeWitt’s work, like some of Tara’s works, and I'm thinking especially... I think of it as an homage to LeWitt—the translucent pipes that are placed on Corian bases, the different permutations of those arrangements, of those tubes, that are such simple and clearly understandable accumulations but as she's going through all of these permutations, like LeWitt did too in, for example, his series Incomplete Open Cubes, it becomes unfathomable. It's so simple and then the simplicity exceeds our rational understanding, becomes irrational. And that's why I think there's a sort of... I guess another art historical reference, where a Surrealist touch comes into Tara's work, engaging with abstraction, with materials in a way that introduces the sort of magical “tongue in cheek” transformation that's full of humor. I love that kind of engagement with art history. It's serious, but it's also liberating.

MB: Yeah, there's a lot going on within the works, specifically in relation to material and the trajectory of material. When I think about that almost imperial notion and history of material—from bronze and oil paint to the industrial plastics that she's using. The very humble mediums of the plastic cup and the drawing pin. There is also a very clear sense of labor within the work—of this “doing” as Tara terms it. In discussion with Tara, she kept coming back to that—It's not only the act of observing but also the act of doing. It's this kind of studio practice, this experimental space, and this thing “becoming.” But I wonder also if there's a little of the Puritan work ethic and the moment of breakthrough on the other side of this analog relationship to “the build” is this moment of epiphany. And I wondered for each of you, in your experience of the work, either as a curator, writer, thinker, or audience member, again, what your take is on this very deliberate, analog, not digital engagement. It is very much of the hand, and often of a community that comes together, as I understand it, in making the work. What of labor in Tara’s work?

NA: I would love to jump in on that and I would maybe even push back on the idea of “play,” because I don't think that there's anything playful about “the making” or the process by which she arrives at “the making.” I think it's arduous and stressful and demoralizing and ultimately extremely rewarding but it is something that is... She talked to me, and I'm sure she's shared with both of you as well, about the import of an exercise that she did in graduate school with her professor, Kendall Buster, the artist and sculptor, called Eighty Works where they would routinely do these, you know, start with some random materials, and it relates to Albers’ material studies that he led at Black Mountain, and I think it's probably a somewhat common art activity/exercise, if you will, to just try and make, to just make, make, make, make, make. It wasn't about the concept, it wasn't about the end goal, it was just push the material, push yourself, push yourself to push the material and see where it leads you and that courting of, or really the habituating of oneself, to that exercise. I think it continues in her practice today, thirty-plus years later or about thirty years later. Sorry, Tara, I don't mean to misrepresent. The point is that she doesn't really know where a material is going to land her or where it wants to land. The cocktail stirrers that we see, those framed works that are on view at Pace right now, she started working with that material, I think, like five years ago or even maybe before that. When she first worked with it, it didn't really go anywhere and she returned to it, to that material, after our exhibition opened because the gold Mylar straw work, as well as Haze, as well as the small tube sculptures that Christine mentioned, all of those fueled something or triggered or catalyzed something and then she went back to that material. I had the great privilege of visiting her studio in 2019 where it looked very different from how it looks now. There were a number of different things she was trying out. I think on the one hand, it doesn't necessarily have the gravitas of some of the Minimalist men who have been mentioned and so in that sense, it's different. But I just wouldn't necessarily categorize her process as play.

JS: I'm going to jump in and say something here about the hand labor because I think that is a really important piece of this, which is that there's a team of people working with her. You cannot do or build at this scale all by yourself, and yet it does come from the intimacy of working with one material and, as Nora said, pushing it to the end. I actually think that is the great takeaway here for young artists, emerging artists, MFA students who I work with all the time, that, in fact, younger artists often say, oh, I made this one thing, and then you discard it, not discard it, but leave it be and don't go back to the material or see how far you can work with a single material over and over again. I think that that's the kind of beauty of this work, is that it's a single operation with a single material over and over again. There's a kind of repetitive quality. It's like it's pushing to the point of failure. I think that that's the demoralizing part that Nora's talking about. It has to do with an embrace of failure that's hard in our culture of optimism. I think that that's also the puritanical streak, Mark, that we might go back to, is that there's a kind of eternal optimism in American culture where you have to look at everything through a positive lens, and that's not true. Maybe we're learning that now in the pandemic era but in fact, there isn't always a happy ending. The materials do fail. Some things don't work out. And like Nora was saying, you can come back to it five years later and maybe rediscover something about it, but in the moment, it's incredibly frustrating and feels like a waste of time and yet it takes time to understand that the experiment itself is not a waste of time, but it is an intensive patience that's part of this practice.

CM: Oh, go ahead.

MB: No, no, go ahead.

CM: I was just going to go for it, to say a few more things about this question of playfulness, because I think it's fascinating and I agree, in many ways, with your push back, Nora. I think, what is playful about it or what one might get at with that description is related to the way we've been talking about Tara’s work with materials—this sort of very limited, but then very explosively creative way of engaging with materials. A kind of freedom to explore it and take it beyond what it functionally is. It really intersects a little bit with the notion of experimentation and the kind of attitude that I imagine, not that I am one, a scientist has to have to go beyond what we already know and to push into unknown territory and yet to do that in a somewhat systematic way because you need to keep going to get somewhere and then that might not get you anywhere and you take a step back. That's one thing. And then I wanted to say a few more things about this question of materials because I think it ties into why I think she's so important, art historically speaking, going backward in history, but then also forward. I always feel that the work with non-traditional materials, which, of course, is at the essence of Tara's practice, is so underestimated in 20th-century art. When I talk with colleagues in art history, my Medievalist friends, there's nothing that makes 20th-century art and 21st-century art more different. If one thinks about the thousands of years of art history before it, then the range of materials and the crazy range of materials that artists are working with. And I feel like Tara’s made that one thing her kind of key engagement, and the usual anchor for that is always the readymade, right? So, going back to Duchamp and the readymade, the discourse around that has been so much about the industrial production, the investigation and overcoming of the unique author, questions around authenticity, and all of that. Then somehow everything that is ready-made somehow becomes about that. Well, it's industrially made and that's how it means. But what Tara’s work shows us is that, well, actually, that's not enough. Let's look exactly at particular industrially made materials and they open up much more specific ways of engagement and historical cultural meaning. I mean, this is why I love the title of the exhibition, Fieldwork. She's a little bit like an archaeologist of the present in the way she's taking these contemporary materials. Just think about, let's say, two examples, so like the way she works with plastic and straws. Jenni talked a little bit about this already, that there's a way in which she's really bringing out one of the most amazing things about the invention of plastics in the 20th century, which is the amazing malleability of this material, that it can become all of these different things. There's no other material in many ways like it. But then also that accumulative notion of bringing these plastic objects together very much engages in all of the huge ecological questions we have around plastics right now. So, there's one way in which that really ties into a kind of investigation of plastic in the present. Or then let's say the note cards. I always love thinking like, well, it's work in paper, not work on paper, but work in paper and all the connotations of these note cards bring of bureaucracy, study, office culture, paper-pushing, cataloguing, information gathering, and this way of notetaking on hard paper, information organization becoming extinct in the digital era. I think that's one of the places where I find her both playful and rigorous in the way that she's going to these materials and investigating them to open up and help us understand our time.

MB: Absolutely. Yeah, they're very immediate materials made strange somehow, but they still remain immediate materials. I wanted to reach out to our audience now and ask if anybody has questions. I didn't mention this at the top of our discussion. I was somewhat remiss. I wanted to say that anybody could write their questions on the little Q&A button that we have at the bottom right here of our screen. I would love to field your questions and to share them with our panel here. To jump a little bit from material, perhaps this is another kind of material and one that... I don't know how Tara would feel about this, but in reading interviews with her, some of that seeping into the work of a bio that I think she would perhaps eschew, leaving open space for us, the viewer. Absolutely. Me also as an audience member and reading this, there is this almost blue-collar relationship to materials and a politic within that that although she doesn't make it immediately evident, I just wondered how we as historians, thinkers, viewers, how we take that on board as part of this material. Do we? Don’t we? Does it matter? I remember, Jenni, yesterday you said that's the beauty of art, that we're allowed these moments and allowed our opinions. But I wonder what you thought about that.

JS: I think that... I'm unmuted, yeah. I think that blue-collar labor is also pink-collar labor to some degree. Waiting on people, being a waitress, and the idea of the history of hand labor. I'm a craft historian. There's a lot of women's labor that's been part of, historically, the use and knowledge of materials and material histories, particularly in textiles. Tara’s not using these particular materials and I think that she stayed away from feminist associations, perhaps by choice, in terms of not bringing in textile materials, using materials that do have a historical resonance with, most particularly, male artists. I think that that's a definitive choice. I think it does have to do with not domesticating the work in particular. I think that that's something that happens. If you look, for instance, at Fred Sandback’s work with his yarn pieces, that's craft yarn. Nobody ever domesticates or talks about the politics of knitting around Sandback because he's a man. But if a woman makes that work, it automatically comes into play. I think that she's effectively, very effectively resisted those kinds of feminine associations in her work. I think that that's a choice and I celebrate that choice. I think it's a form of feminism to decide how your work should be seen or received in terms of the way in which you want to position it.

CM: Just to maybe briefly add, as Jenni said yesterday, this is the beauty of art. Art becomes better art and becomes art, but becomes even better art the more it means, the more ways in which you can explore an artwork and unpack it, the better it is and the richer it is. So, yes, there are I think always, no matter how many artists might deny it, there are always ways in which you can think about an artwork in biographical terms and there’s a way in which that happens with Tara's work, probably much more still to be uncovered, because it's, of course, also very much filtered with what she's sharing with us and what she might not be sharing with us. But it's exactly that tension between those personal references and her formation and then these very, very big historical questions about our current era that, I think, having these come together and go back and forth, that makes it good art, which gets back to the sort of notion of the intermediary. I mean, there's so much in her work where she's really working across boundaries. There’s the personal and the historical, but there's also the optical and the tactile. I think Jenni, was it you in your catalog essay talking about optical tactility? I love that. There's the way in which she straddles disfiguration and abstraction, all of these different art historical references, the art, and the non-art material, and then also actually thinking of medium, the ways in which she crosses media. I mean, obviously, her work is very much sculpture, if one had to say it's one thing, but think about the way she's crossing printing and drawing, printmaking and drawing, some of the screen drawings, or especially printmaking and sculpture, where she worked with of glass shards. She just constantly pushes across existing boundaries and mediates between. So, in that sense, the sort of personal and historical tension in her work, I think is symptomatic of a lot of boundary crossing in her work.

NA: To just build on what you both so articulately shared, I kind of want to throw down the gauntlet to Tara and say, what about if you do choose a material, like what would happen if you did work with the material that does have very specific associations and connotations that are more politically toned, politically charged? When she first made Haze, the drinking straw wasn't as symbolic of ecological waste as it is now and of environmental and climate change as it is now. That work was from 2003, I believe. But now when you present that work, it brings a whole new array of questions and challenges and issues, which is great because it lives in the world differently now than it did when it was first created. But I have had conversations with Tara in the past and now I'm making it all public. You know, what happens if you do use a very politically charged object, deliberately, intentionally. Tape and cups and glass and paper, one could argue, are more neutral materials. So, what would it be like to use something that is symbolic of something else? And she's laughing or kicking the screen or something as I'm saying this because I don't think it's ever going to happen. But that is the next challenge. That's the next, I think, creative opportunity to say what happens when this process is applied to something that is so loaded? Does that association disappear? Does it get amplified? Does it get complicated? I'm sure it's all of these things. I would really welcome the chance to have that conversation with all of you and her at some point.

JS: Should we go to the Q&A? 

MB: Yeah, I was going to say that. We have a great question and, Jenni, you might be typing an answer as we’re speaking, there’s so much going on. And here’s the question and I'm going to paraphrase. Sorry, Catherine. This is from Catherine McMahon and maybe Jenni, you're the perfect person to speak to it as it comes up, but she asks, “Can anyone speak to the connection of Tara's work to the history of women's work, i.e., the laborious repetition of knitting or stitching to her laborious stacking, cutting, and tearing, and also to her team as a form, I guess, of a ‘quilting circle’?” And for those who don't know, there's a beautiful story in one of her descriptions of her early shows in New York, I think at Ace Gallery, where this wall of straws just collapses and it's a day before The New York Times reviewer turns up and so she immediately turns to her immediate family, friends, and then they all come together and rebuild this work. Yes, Jenni, is this some relationship to what you beautifully described as pink-collar labor?

JS: I would actually say no in the sense that it's paid labor. I think that so much of women's work and so much of craftwork has been volunteer labor. I think that it's important to acknowledge that she pays her studio assistants and pays them well and that they stay for many, many years on end and they don't pass through her studio because they feel acknowledged in their contribution. And I think that that's an important difference, sometimes in terms of volunteer or free labor, that's been ascribed to histories of craft, but also the kind of community labor that's resonant in the quilt, which is that we do have a single author here. This is not everybody's name up on a wall or everybody being acknowledged as part of the process. Certainly she thanks everybody, but she is the sole artist of her creation, even if there are others, other hands in it. We're in a space where there's a lot of misunderstandings around what fabrication is and what group work is and what the term community means, and I think we shouldn't apply those ideas lightly. I think they all have to be teased out per situation.

MB: Christine, Nora, any takes on this? There are some great questions coming in, some of them are mini-essays, so I'm reading them as we're engaged here.

CM: Let's hear them!

MB: Let's hear them? Okay. From Elizabeth Nichols, and this is beautifully stated, “Tara is incredibly humble and humble before her materials. I've known her since we worked in an art supply store over years in high school. She is a worker and an explorer. I've seen her work since she was a teenager. I think she's guided by her hands and eyes. She thinks with them. I also thought that we could discuss these materials. Students have asked me, ‘We have gigantic continent-sized islands of plastic, why not use them to make art if they're here?’” Maybe this is a kind of reversal of the problem with the plastic drinking straw and that becoming a kind of millennial generational divide, I guess. But is this one way of approaching the work? Is it useful to think of it in that way? I know artists like Tony Cragg reference the environment and this kind of history of plastics.

CM: Yeah, I mean, I guess I spoke to the fact... I think, again, it becomes great art because there are so many different ways in which she addresses plastic. But I think that it's the way in which she's really thinking about plastic as a very basic sculptural material that entered the history of sculpture in the 20th century and entered our everyday life in the 20th century. For me, again, the most important piece of reference of investigating that material is its malleability. I feel like when one does open it up to these ecological questions around our planet and plastic accumulating in the oceans and all of that, it's never just that. One has to think about it in terms of those other references as well, number one. And number two, it's not so easy to say, like, oh, she's taking them out of circulation, and they are performing a kind of ecological miracle because these straws are not going to end up in the ocean because, of course, the straws are also produced. It's not like we can reverse the production about the fact that they’re in the world. But, yes, at least they will not... Once they're collected and we're making a commitment to preserving art, we don't have to deal with that. But I'm not sure that's the main thrust of the work, I guess, is what I would say. It's there, but I worry it makes it just a little bit too univocal.

MB: Yes, I think as artworks move, travel through time and time pushes on it, it's another kind of question that maybe the work wasn't there to address necessarily. I'm very aware we only have five minutes left. We have five minutes left, and a number of other questions that maybe individually we can get to at some other point. But maybe in our last few minutes and as a last question, Jenni, I love this term that you return to in relation to Tara's work, well this twist of it, "What you get is what you see.” As a last question or response, I wondered if there are things we haven't gotten to that might help us see Tara's work a little differently or give us a clue in the last few minutes.

CM: As someone who works a lot on this sort of intersection of art and design, and a huge fan of our amazing Edward Larrabee Barnes building of the Smart Museum where Tara's show was, I feel like that relationship to the architecture of her work, both in the sense of the construction from some small items making something big and that question of scale, but then also the way that, in part, because coming back to your earlier question, Mark, about color and her engagement with monochromatic material, often white, often black, there’s not always an engagement with a white ball and a white cube, I feel that's very, very important and that it brings a sort of hygienic white cube down to our body and relates it back to tactility, texture, light, it just makes it more human somehow. I feel like that engagement with architecture is really important. I love, for example, her Lever House project. Again, it's never just, oh, it's the architecture that is around the work, but she's so curious as an artist about the history of architecture and engaging with central tropes like the glass pane.

JS: I think also the fugitive color aspect of the work that I mentioned earlier, but that really requires standing in front of the work and the articulation of the body in front of the work where as you move, the color changes or your sensibility or perception of the color changes. I think that that's related to, I don't know, effects of weather even, that there are these kinds of things that we chase as humans in the world where you go outside to look up at the sky in a certain way because somebody texts you and says, oh, my God, you should look outside right now. You know, it's that sort of effect of the work, and the perception changes as you stand in front of the work. I do think that she's really good at capturing that sensibility of the fugitive nature of color and the sensibility of it being completely ephemeral, that you cannot capture it in a photograph, you cannot record it, it's not going to last. The idea of it not lasting, I think is really crucial as well. The embrace of the ephemeral and the fact that it's not the main thrust of the work but it's certainly an important presence in the work.

MB: Thank you, Jenni. Nora, any last thoughts?

NA: I think the only other point I would add is to not forget or downplay the sense of awe and the way that... Forget all of our Ph.D.'s, forget all of our academic backgrounds and rigor, there is something extremely pleasurable and extremely inspiring and inspired by being in the presence of her work. I think her curiosity about what a material can do is what impacts people when they experience her work because every person I took through our exhibition would say, “I just never imagined a straw could do that, I never thought of a straw like that, I never thought of a pin like that, I never thought of an index card like that.” And of course, we mostly don't. We're surrounded by very mundane, utilitarian items all throughout our days and we don't spend time investigating what makes them. There's something extremely humble about an artist who can spend so much time and so much attention and so much energy probing that very simple thing to uncover and to share its magic. That is what the experience of being confronted by her works, whether it's a small work on paper or work in paper, as Christine so well said, that is not to be diminished. I think that's part of what compels people to continue to engage with her works over time.

MB: Thank you Nora, Jenni, Christine, and for the reminder that we need to see this work in person. The exhibition is open until March 9th and I urge everyone to visit the gallery, to see the works, to see the everyday become otherworldly, almost. I thank you all for your incredible insight into the work. I've learned a lot. I hope our audience has, too. Thank you.

NA: Thank you.

CM: Thank you all. That was really fun. 

JS: Thank you all for being here, our audience that we can't see.

MB: Thank you.

Videos — On Tara Donovan’s Intermediaries: Finding Uniqueness In Mass Production, Jan 28, 2021