Tara Donovan, Haze, 2003, translucent plastic drinking straws, installation dimensions variable © Tara Donovan


Qualitative Quantities

by Tara Donovan

Published Wednesday, Aug 23, 2023

(opens in a new window) The World Outside: Louise Nevelson at Midcentury, on view at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, through January 7, 2024, brings together more than 50 works by Louise Nevelson, a giant of the postwar era whose practice was marked by tireless and vigorous experimentation with materiality, shape, and space. In a new writing for the exhibition’s catalogue, artist Tara Donovan—known for her transformations of everyday objects into talismanic, shapeshifting works of art—discusses her relationship to Nevelson’s work and legacy. Her essay, titled “Qualitative Quantities,” follows below.

I don’t think you can touch a thing that cannot be rehabilitated into another life. And once I gave the whole world life in that sense, I could use anything. [1]

Louise Nevelson has always occupied a vaunted place in my thinking about art not as a practice, but, rather, as a perspective—a way of seeing the world around you—that recognizes the infinite potential of the materials and objects you see and experience every day. I’ve always been in awe of her supreme confidence and fearless approach to working. While Nevelson is certainly a towering figure of twentieth-century art, I think her radical legacy is still muffled not just by the kinds of gendered critical responses she endured but also a lack of acknowledgment of her primary contribution to the very idea of what we now call “site-specific installation art” (she referred to her works as “environments,” which is arguably a more generous term). The control she exercised over the conditions of spectatorship—scale, placement, lighting—in relation to the architectural specifics of the gallery allowed the viewer to enter her highly personal and idiosyncratic way of seeing as a phenomenological experience that unfolds in time and space.

I also deeply relate to Nevelson’s irreverent approach to materials. As an artist known for engaging with a singular material to create an entire body of work, I find the critical impulse to spin yarns around the choice of material indicative of a lack of imagination. Nevelson famously said “If I loved wood so much, I wouldn’t paint it black” [2]—a statement that demonstrates her understanding that the material itself is simply a medium like any other (such as a can of paint). Her genius lies in her ability to rehabilitate and transform these found pieces of wood into fantastic environments through a process of assemblage that was both strikingly improvisational and deliberate at the same time. Because I actually live with a work of Nevelson’s from her Mirror Shadow series in my home, I have had endless opportunities to kind of delve into her psyche. If there is a single guiding principle that I have extracted from her as a source of inspiration and motivation, it is her very evident lack of hesitation in her decision-making. She just kept moving forward by trusting her instincts in a cumulative approach that relied on one decision informing the next to build her signature aesthetic. While it may seem self-evident that most artists must work in such a manner, I can say from my own experience that it is not always so easy. I sometimes think of my own process as constantly trying to solve a problem (of my own making) that I can never quite articulate. If you get too bogged down in trying to articulate the problem, your ability to generate potential solutions can become arduous. It’s a delicate balance that, I believe, Nevelson was so masterful at achieving.

NEVELSON_inst_GCM_1958_v01-High Resolution ? 300 dpi

Louise Nevelson, Untitled (Sky Cathedral), 1970-1975 © 2023 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

She is, of course, best known for her exploration of monochromy—in particular her use of black—as a means of transforming objects into their essence of line, form, volume, and shape, which could then be combined endlessly into units that coalesced into patterns defined by their infinite variation in order to create what I would refer to as a totality. And that is what black meant to her. She said that “black encompasses all colors” and that “it is the total color.” [3] Black allowed her alchemical process to neutralize the objectness of her chosen materials so that they are trading their functionality in everyday life for a new austerity that gives them the appearance of a singular material. It’s a quieting effect akin to a hush that Nevelson performs on what would otherwise be a cacophony of material identities asserting themselves. We are no longer thinking about bed frames or banisters or crown moldings in the presence of her work. Instead, she invites us to consider loftier, transcendental ideas that have an even more dramatic impact through her use of scale. Seeing her stacked walls was one of the first instances where I understood the relationship between art and architecture as one where the room itself becomes the frame, which was truly revelatory for me as I developed my own practice of site-responsive installations (fig. 1). I think Nevelson understood the idea of the “field” as a screen of material that could extend to infinity and is only limited by the reality of architecture as a container. She made her ambitious use of scale known when she wrote, “if I’d had a city block it wouldn’t have been enough, because I had this energy flowing like an ocean into creativity.” [4] Her expansive approach reflects her generosity toward her audience, which is memorialized in her statement “I want a lot of quality in a lot of quantity.” [5]

The way Nevelson’s environments are activated by the viewer—via the dramatic play of light and shadow as they move through the spaces they inhabit—has become of primary importance to me. The experience of Nevelson’s work unfolds in space and time in such a way that wide-ranging associations come into play. It is this same type of unfolding experience I try to achieve with my own work in order to introduce viewers to a visual “shift” that exposes the mechanics of perception as they negotiate the constant flux of attempting to discern between part and whole. I was fascinated to read about Nevelson’s 1958 exhibition Moon Garden + One (fig. 2) in which she conceived the work as including the space of the gallery along with her stacked walls and other freestanding pieces. She wished for the gallery to be entirely unlit so that visitors were engulfed in darkness upon entry and only slowly would the forms and boundaries of the installation emerge as eyes adjusted to the environment. [6] Her intention to create a work in which the viewers’ perceptual capacities are taken into account as part of the experience was truly groundbreaking.

Nevelson applied the same vivacity and generosity so evident in her work to the cultivation of her magnanimous artistic persona, which has a legacy of its own that is intricately linked to her work. Her penchant for collage and assemblage is evident in her idiosyncratic fashion sense replete with layered juxtapositions that, while esoteric, always effortlessly harmonized. When I see film and video of her, I am always struck by the confidence and charisma she projected. In much the same way her work invited people into a world of her own making, the gravitas of her personality had the same effect. Her longtime dealer (and my current one) Arne Glimcher described her life as “such an intricate pattern of fantasy synthesized with reality that separation of myth and fact is nearly impossible.” [7] She exemplified the collapsing of boundaries between art and life in such a way that, as Glimcher declared, “Nevelson’s life itself is her greatest work of art.” [8]

  1. Peter Selz and Kristine Stiles, eds., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 512.
  2. “Nevelson in Process, 1977,” video, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 28 mins. (March 27, 2020), (opens in a new window) https://www.metmuseum.org/perspectives/videos/2020/3/from-the-vaults-louise-nevelson.
  3. Selz and Stiles, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, 513.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Arthur C. Danto, “Black, White, Gold: Monochrome and Meaning in the Art of Louise Nevelson,” in The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, ed. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, exh. cat. (New Haven: Jewish Museum with Yale University Press, 2007), 43–44.
  7. Michael Stanislawski, “Louise Nevelson’s Self-Fashioning: ‘The Author of Her Own Life,’” in The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson, 27.
  8. Ibid.
  • Essays — Qualitative Quantities by Tara Donovan, Aug 23, 2023