When I was growing up in Boston, my parents often took me to the Museum of Science and the Museum of Fine Arts. After a few minutes of walking around the exhibition Abby Donovan: THE COLORS ARE LIKE WORDS THAT ARE NOT WORDS BUT COLORS at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center, organized by Lisa Panzera with assistance from Lilly McEachern, I felt the work could be shown in both institutions. At one point I even felt that Donovan’s sculptures, made of colored sheet glass and lead solder, and her projection devices (made with Tom Hughes), would not look out of place in the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which is devoted to preserving artist-built environments by self-taught and vernacular artists, and they could easily be shown alongside Emery Blagdon’s Healing Machines (1956–86). Both artists seem interested in capturing something we cannot see or name.
I cannot think of another artist whose work can sit comfortably in these three very different museums. Donovan does more than question the boundaries dividing aesthetic and scientific experience into separate categories; she reminds us that divided thinking leads to sequestered conclusions.
In the brochure accompanying the exhibition, Panzera cites three historical figures with whom Donovan has long been engaged: Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, a 10th-century Iranian mathematician and astronomer who is considered “the father of modern optics”; the 17th-century English polymath Sir Thomas Browne; and the 19th-century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whose writings inspired Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederic Edwin Church to see the world differently.
Using lead solder, Donovan joins pieces of stained glass in different primary and secondary hues to construct irregular planar forms with an opening in the middle. By interlocking the planes, she assembles three-dimensional shapes that resonated in this viewer’s mind with crystals. The objects are placed on white tables, usually in pairs, like something you might see in a science lab. Their placement in relationship to each other, and on the table, seems essential, but the logic of these decisions remains opaque.
Donovan’s sectioned forms are unlike anyone else’s. At the same time, I don’t think she is trying to be avant-garde or attuned to art-world trends — worldly concerns appear to be of little interest to her. Her objects serve to break down, shape, and project light into different sections of color.
Lighting above the pieces refracts their colors and forms onto the table. The effect is mesmerizing: A form made of both planes of light and pieces of colored glass manifests as a flat image on the table and as a tactile object. Is it one or the other or — as I see it — both? Donovan takes her inspiration from what I am tempted to call occult thinkers, individuals who were interested in approaching the spiritual through the observation of the natural world.
In the projection pieces, Donovan and Hughes used a custom-made projection device, lenses, one of her objects, and a light source. The suspended object turns, causing its large projected image to turn. There is a gap between the physical object and its form in light and shadow. When I learned that the artist was a serious student of the writings and scientific discoveries of Ibn al-Haytham and von Humboldt, it occurred to me that she is interested not in optical effects — how the eye sees color — like artists such as Georges Seurat, but rather in what the eye sees when it sees color and light.
Donovan is not a literalist. And yet I don’t think of her necessarily as a spiritual artist. She is closer to being a philosophical observer of common phenomena. Her interest in language, in the writings of Sir Thomas Browne and James Joyce, and the relationship between sound and meaning, syllable and word, distinguishes her from other artists investigating the optical realm. That elusive connection between language and experience, what we can and cannot express — the limits of language, as the analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein succinctly stated — summarizes her unique trajectory in contemporary art.
Abby Donovan: THE COLORS ARE LIKE WORDS THAT ARE NOT WORDS BUT COLORS continues at the Shirley Fiterman Art Center (81 Barclay Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) through August 5. The exhibition was curated by Lisa Panzera with assistance from Lilly McEachern.