Near the bottom of page 42 of a small Jasper Johns sketchbook from 1963–1964, between two similarly dense observations about art, is a kind of Albert Einstein axiom of aesthetics. Johns, then 33, almost a decade away from creating his art-history-altering American flag and at an apex of thinking about art at the time, penned a post-Duchampian E = Mc2 theorem that delineated an artistic universe and that could also could fit on the front of a T-shirt:
Take an object.
Do something to it.
Do something else to it.
Much contemporary art fails because it never goes beyond Johns’s second sentence. Too many artists take an object and merely do something to it. They manipulate a text, photograph, or whatever else and put it on a wall, in a box, or on the floor, and that’s it. They fail to see that the first two operations have created a new thing in itself, something that takes on its own autonomous structure. No further transformation takes place, thought stays outside form, satisfaction stands in for metamorphosis, one-liners flourish.
Johns’s three-step rubric has been reduced to a two-step formula in many ways. On the sculptural side of the tracks there’s what could be called “Installationism.” The twist here is that the artist takes an object and does the same thing to it over and over again. A room might be filled with 155 or 155,000 bottles, bombs, buckets, broomsticks, toothpicks, or whatever. When not scattered willy-nilly in the clusterfuck aesthetic common of late, these objects are often deployed in an orderly geometric configuration. The results are almost always the same: A pleasingly photogenic, essentially empty arrangement.
Occasionally however, accumulation and multiplication—both of which may be hard-wired into us—overcome convention and carry you away. Multiplication connects us to infinity which connects us to our desire for it; repetition is reassuring, terrifying, and mysterious all at once—it is a field of dreams and a comfortable prison, part of the cosmic continuum, something that’s been there since the beginning. Repetition is difference repeated within such narrow strictures that it opens new possibilities. At its best repetition conjures what Baudelaire called the “sacred machinery.” That’s why sometimes when rooms are filled with arrangements of objects, when configurations are fashioned from hundreds, thousands, or even millions of similar things, repetition turns metaphysical, obsession and process become transcendental, and magic happens.
In 2003 Tara Donovan conjured just such a magical moment. At the time she was 33 and three years removed from a so-so appearance in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, in which she created Ripple, a generic-looking square of what looked like 155,000 snippets of electrical wire. Her 2003 breakout was a solo debut at the gigantic-to-the-point-of-scary Ace Gallery. Especially stunning was Haze, a 42-foot-long wall of over two million clear plastic drinking straws stacked like wood nearly to the ceiling. It was a vertical earth work, a numinous portal to another dimension, matter made vapor, and vice versa. To approach it was to be enveloped in a sort of chemical snare, to experience one’s cognitive functions slipping in and out of phase. It was hard to know if this wall was solid, liquid, layered, or fog. Retinas warped, spines tingled, and a career was born.
Donovan, whose work harks back to process-oriented post-minimalists like Sol Le Witt and Agnes Martin and light-and-space phenomenologists like Robert Irwin and James Turrell, has said, “I make a rule and then the rule is repeated.” This credo is taken to insane lengths in her current one-work PaceWildenstein debut. Untitled (Plastic Cups) is a 50-by-60-foot arrangement of over 3 million seven-ounce plastic drinking cups in regular rows of different heights. The overall piece resembles an undulating otherworldly river valley, an ethereal cloudscape, a pixilated city, a celestial honeycomb, or an iridescent ice field.
Although Untitled is not out of this world like Haze, it is serene and majestic. There are ravishing moments where the effect turns tantalizing, but alas the cups remain cups; the overall shape never synchs up with any “sacred machinery”; you never really leave the room or go into the piece. It’s more of an ahhhh than a wow, a sigh not a spark. This may be due to Untitled following the contours of the gallery so exactly and seemingly without question.
Untitled finds Donovan poised between Ripple and Haze, between her weaker Andy Goldsworthy/Bill Viola tendency to make elegant, heartfelt, but nevertheless decorative installations, and her considerable ability to blow you away. (Another artist who makes giant floor pieces involving one material is Jim Lambie, whose tape floors laid out in geometric configurations aren’t as majestic as Donovan’s but are more physically involving and palpable.) Untitled doesn’t signify a downturn in Donovan’s oeuvre. It simply reinforces how hard it is to build something in public without having tinkered and experimented at full scale endlessly in private first. Regardless, even in midstep Donovan is formidable.