A gourmet cook, Donovan has been “crafty,” she says, since her earliest days, beginning with her older sister’s school projects, including “a Pueblo Indian village made out of all the crap in the house.” The family lived outside Nyack, New York, and Donovan’s father owned a pub near the World Trade Center, though he was largely absent from her life after her parents divorced when she was 12. Even as a sophomore at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, “Tara was not afraid to do something outrageous scalewise,” says her former professor and mentor Kendall Buster. She tended bar and waited tables for six years before starting grad school at Virginia Commonwealth University, though she didn’t quit her day job until 2003, when her first New York solo show, at Ace Gallery, proved a breakout success.
Last fall Donovan became one of the few contemporary artists to create a work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She curled Mylar tape into tiny loops, installed them in clusters on a wall and lit them with spotlights. You felt you were floating in a bottle of club soda. The sculpture will be remade for the ICA survey, which will feature 17 pieces and then travel to Cincinnati; Des Moines, Iowa; and San Diego.
While Donovan is hardly the first to use everyday materials, her work runs counter to much of the sculpture and installation art now in fashion, says ICA’s Baume, referring to works made of “very collaged materials” that have in common what he calls “a tenuous existence and tendency to implode and fall apart. Then you have someone like Tara, whose work is incredibly rigorous and formal, with a very precise relationship to specific materials.”
Artist Chuck Close, a friend who shares many of her preoccupations, goes further: “At this particular moment in the art world, invention and personal vision have been demoted in favor of appropriation, of raiding the cultural icebox. For somebody to go out and try to make something that doesn’t remind you of anybody else’s work and is really, truly innovative—and I think Tara’s work is—that’s very much against the grain of the moment. To me, it represents a gutsy move.”
Donovan concludes her house tour on the roof, with its sweeping views of the Williamsburg Bridge, pointing out the spot where she plans to install a hot tub—an almost unheard-of luxury in New York. Her mother, she recalls, wasn’t at all happy about Donovan’s decision to choose art school over a more traditional college. “Art school didn’t exactly equal a job!” Donovan says, laughing. “She’s happy now.”