Sublime for Modern Times: Tara Donovan at the Smart Museum

by Nathan Worcester


Tara Donovan’s art grabs you and doesn’t let go. Assembled from tar paper, mylar, drinking straws, and other everyday objects, her colossal, site-specific installations transform their surroundings and fill one with awe. Though her works are sometimes beautiful, that quality seems beside the point. She is an architect of the sublime. But what does that really mean?


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Before going any further, I should explain why I am using such antiquated language. After all, what does beauty have to do with contemporary art? What’s more, serious talk of the sublime gradually fizzled out after 1800 (fig. 1)


Figure 1: Sublime in decline according to the Google Books NGram Viewer


The terms of this debate were set by Edmund Burke in his entertaining 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Working within the tradition of British empiricism, Burke sought to differentiate the sublime from the beautiful based chiefly on the psychological reactions with which the two were associated.

According to Burke, the sublime is that which elicits “delight.” Somewhat confusingly, however, in Burke’s vocabulary, “delight” is not the same thing as pleasure, or at least “positive pleasure.” Rather, delight is the species of enjoyment that results from a kind of risk-free yet exhilarating encounter with things that would normally cause pain or suggest danger—what he memorably calls “tranquility tinged with terror” (italics added).1 In nature or the works of man, the pinnacle of the sublime is that which astonishes. The beautiful, on the other hand, is linked to that which produces positive pleasure. While the sublime tends to be vast, the beautiful tends to be small; where the sublime is rough, the beautiful is smooth. The sublime is grounded in fear and the beautiful in love.

This then is the substance of Burke’s famous distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. Of course, he himself admits that it is sketchy. Others might dismiss it as too heavily influenced by the particularities of Burke’s viewpoint.2 I, for one, would root the sublime in an awareness of death and the self-understanding engendered by that awareness rather than in pain or fear more generally.3

Immanuel Kant was one of those who considered Burke’s analysis too subjective. In his 1790 Critique of Judgment, Kant argued that Burke’s empirical approach could not provide the basis for any normative judgments related to taste. He himself differentiates the sublime from the beautiful based on two uniquely human mental faculties previously described in Critique of Pure Reason: the understanding, which synthesizes representations taken from experience into what he calls pure concepts, and reason, which produces concepts or notions (“transcendental ideas”) that are definitionally independent of experience.

Kant tells us the beautiful is something with form, which makes it an “indeterminate concept of the understanding.” On the other hand, the sublime’s “limitlessness” and closely linked “totality” make it “an indeterminate concept of reason.”4 Thus, a tempest-tossed sea is not inherently sublime. Rather, it is the sort of object that tends to elicit certain associations in people. Those associations in turn lead them to depart their senses and contemplate final metaphysical ends using their faculty of reason.

I might buy Kant’s argument if pain, fear, and, more specifically, the fear of death originated independently of experience. Yet it seems impossible to disentangle the origins of pain and fear from experience. If one argues that pain and fear are at least partly innate because biologically evolved, it still does not necessarily follow that they are Kant’s transcendental ideas.

Their epistemological differences aside, Burke and Kant broadly agree on what the sublime and the beautiful look like. I see no reason to depart from their overall picture.

Other critics have relied on more recent philosophical work to evaluate Donovan. Jonathan T.D. Neil, for example, relates her pin drawings to the omnipresent screens with which we spend more and more of our waking hours.5 For Neil, those pieces update earlier minimalist explorations of the phenomenology of perception. He places them in the conceptual framework set by Jaron “You Are Not A Gadget” Lanier and other theorists of the Information Age.

Why then do I turn to the unfashionable likes of Burke and Kant? Well, for one, I am less moved by Donovan’s pin drawings than by her sculptures. The latter come closer to embodying the sublime (indeed, the very fact that I find them moving in a certain way constitutes their sublimity).

More selfishly, I seek to stand on the shoulders of giants instead of those moderns whose work may prove ephemeral.6 Additionally, my approach owes much to Burke and Kant even as I struggle against the limits of their analyses. To rework Edmund Husserl, who called phenomenology a tool for getting “back to the ‘things themselves’” (“‘Sachen selbst’”),7 I hew to Burke in grounding my analysis in what Kant condescendingly labeled “empirical anthropology”—namely, how I and others react to Donovan’s work in the real world. I may not get to the things themselves, but at least I will stick with the identifiably human.


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I first stumbled on Donovan’s show, “Tara Donovan: Fieldwork,” after shambling through a different exhibition that was opening at the Smart Museum. Escaping the press of bodies and the foul stench of politics, I wandered into another gallery and found myself standing in front of Untitled 2015/2019—a towering, interconnected upswelling of Slinkys. Yes, Slinkys—the toy from your childhood. Clever—beautiful—yet something else as well…

“Slinkys!” laughed a man nearby. He waved his wife over and urged her to get a closer look.

As with so many other observers, his mode of engagement shifted in the presence of Donovan’s work. The look of Serious Artistic Contemplation gave way to a goofy grin. I, meanwhile, sifted through a mass of associations while viewing the piece: tinsel on a Christmas tree; coral reefs; other artists, such as Jessica Drenk, who have also employed the detritus of consumer culture to whisper organic forms into being.

Donovan’s work tempts you to play while hinting at a global sense of threat—comparable, perhaps, to Burke’s “tranquility tinged with terror.” Like a mysterious abandoned building or the sort of dangerously rickety playground you weren’t allowed to visit as a child, it calls out to you. In line with Kant, her art is shot through with “limitlessness”—in this case, a feeling of deliberate incompleteness or uncontainability. The site-specific nature of Donovan’s art also gestures toward the infinite. As long as she is alive and producing art, her restlessly generative practice offers an open horizon.


Tara Donovan, Untitled (Mylar), 2011/2019, Mylar and hot glue, dimensions variable. Installation view, "Tara Donovan: Fieldwork," Smart Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery. Photo: Michael Tropea.


Though “rhizomatic” is a buzzword, as a biological metaphor, it justly applies to Untitled (Mylar Tape), 2007/2019. Beneath the skillfully arranged gallery lights, this piece is a living thing; give it time and it could envelop the world in its pearlescent tentacles. The fungiform Untitled 2018 (Mylar, tape, and hot glue) also mesmerizes. Like a pointillist painting projected into the third dimension, the dense, shining form seems to mushroom outwards, straining against its rectilinear perimeter.

A brief and deeply unscientific study of the #taradonovan hashtag on Instagram, which has been used more than 13,400 times, reveals countless image-conscious young women (and at least one man) staging deep, social media-worthy reactions to Donovan’s work. One of them is comedienne Ali Wong, who looks, well, astonished. Burke would be pleased.

In the northeast section of the exhibition, Haze 2003/2019 partakes of the sublime and the beautiful in roughly equal measure. Seen from afar, its undulant surface has many of the qualities Burke associated with beauty: smoothness; delicacy; gradual variation. Yet when I learned that it was composed of translucent drinking straws, different associations came to mind. Considered objectively, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a terrifying prospect. Subtly evoked in this space, however, it subsides to a worry in the back of one’s mind


Tara Donovan, Haze, 2003/2019, translucent plastic drinking straws, dimensions variable. Installation view, "Tara Donovan: Fieldwork," Smart Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery. Photo: Michael Tropea.


As I approached the piece, a group of kids—young enough to play unselfconsciously; old enough to fear death—were dashing away from it.

“If you press your ear against it, you’ll hear a roar,” one of them explained.

I leaned toward Haze, careful not to touch it. Crouching in that pleasant, climate-controlled setting, I suddenly felt like my eardrum would burst. The millisecond of fear passed, but a faint impression remained.


"Tara Donovan: Fieldwork" is on view at the Smart Museum of Art, Chicago from June 14 through September 22, 2019.


Nathan Worcester is a writer and assistant editor of the New Art Examiner. All comments welcome via or on Twitter @theworcesterest.


1 Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Inquiry…, Part IV, Section VII, accessed at on August 9, 2019

2 A modern feminist critic might argue that Burke’s empirically grounded conceptualization of the beautiful is largely a product of his 18th century male gaze. Consider also Burke’s unintentionally funny description of how “love” is experienced; it’s so rigid and specific that it seems likely to have emerged from the self-examination of a relatively passionless man, which he then recasts as a more searching examination of the world: “The head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an inclination to the object; the mouth is a little opened, and the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh; the whole body is composed, and the hands fall to the sides. All of this is accompanied with an inward sense of melting and languor” (Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Inquiry…, Part IV, Section XIX, accessed at on August 9, 2019).

3 On my reading, an appreciation for the sublime or beautiful is something one grows into, perhaps imperceptibly. In fairness, Burke does not ignore death: “There are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death: nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors” (Ibid., Part I, Section VII).

4 Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgement. Part I: Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith. Accessed at, August 9, 2019.

5 Neil, Jonathan T.D. “The Screen,” in Tara Donovan (New York: The Pace Gallery, 2015); and Tara Donovan: Drawings (Pins) (New York: The Pace Gallery, 2011)

6 Jaron Lanier already seems a bit 2011. Of course, anyone might seem giant today if they’re promoted by The New York Times.

7 Husserl, Edmund, Logical Investigations, Vol. 1, trans. J.N. Findlay, 2001, pp. 168

Tara Donovan, Untitled, 2014/2019, Styrene index cards, metal, wood, paint, and glue, 12 feet 5-1/2 inches x 22 feet 4 inches x 22 feet 11-1/2 inches. Installation view, "Tara Donovan: Fieldwork," Smart Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery. Photo: Michael Tropea.



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