Athena Tacha, Sculptor
1981 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR VISUAL ARTS
Unlike many contemporary artists, Athena Tacha can be identified as a Renaissance woman, not only for her varied artistic accomplishments but also for her humanistic view of life. She has said that her goal is no less than to understand the universe, and her many pursuits indicate that she is constantly questioning the meaning of all life within the cosmos.
Perhaps this view results from her birth in pre-World War II Greece and her youth lived amid the chaos and uncertainty of the war’s aftermath. Perhaps it comes from her upbringing in a rural environment while pursuing her artistic studies and nurturing an interest in the sciences. In any case, her unflagging energy has produced beautiful and thought-provoking work in almost every medium: from photography, visual and literary conceptual art, wearable and installation art, to site-specific sculpture. In fact, she has been credited with not only creating some of the earliest site-specific pieces in this country (the work for which she is best known) but also with coining the phrase “site-specific sculpture” in the mid 1970s.
Tacha was drawing and sculpting by the age of 10. She completed her practical art studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Athens in 1959, receiving a master's degree in fine arts. She received another master's in art history at Oberlin College two years later and finished her studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, earning a doctorate in aesthetics in 1963. She returned to Oberlin where she became curator of modern art at the Allen Memorial Art Museum and produced books on Rodin and Brancusi. From 1968 until 1998, while teaching sculpture at Oberlin, Tacha was winning an international reputation as an artist.
Since 1998 she has lived in Washington, D.C. Tacha has had over 50 commissions for site-specific sculptures in this country, and numerous one-woman exhibitions in New York and elsewhere, and has received a number of awards and honorary degrees. At least four books and many gallery catalogues have been written about her work Dancing in the Landscape, (Washington, D.C.: 2000) is the most complete accounting of her outdoor sculpture.
The ideas for many of Athena Tacha’s works have come from her relentless travels all over the world, which she has enjoyed with her husband, the art historian Richard Spear. Many of her sculptures reflect the rhythm of movement in water and rock formations of which she made photographs. An essential part of the artist’s credo is that “all things flow” (the great insight of the Greek philosopher Heraklitos) and indeed they do in most of Tacha's work, from her 1970s’ experiments with viscous materials dripping in plastic containers to step sculptures resembling waterfalls, to the movement of lava flows captured in her photography.
Another influence on her work has been the ancient ruins she came upon in Greece and other parts of the world. Her outdoor sculpture evokes these monumental forms, stirring thoughts of past glory and future stability. On a visceralo level, the “cosmic rhythms” of these large installations have about them a feel of beauty and utility that seems to appeal to the public (she is adamant that art should be for all people). The viewer is always invited to be a participant in her work: As visitors walk through and around the sculpture, the work changes in appearance, often evoking very different feelings and perceptions.
This business of of continually changing perspectives is central to Tacha’s many investigations of her own life as a part of the universe. Who and what one is looks different from moment to moment, depending on what part you're interested in or what pattern you notice. “I believe everything is one whole, and I am a little part of it, like a wave in the ocean.” The myriad photographs she has taken of herself and pamphlets she has written about herself, at different ages, with their minute analysis of things like physiognomy, gesture, emotions and aspects of heredity—such as are seen in The Process of Aging (Fragment of an on-going thorough self analysis and description to be completed by the end of my life)—have to do with her belief in the need to integrate all of these splintered aspects of our being: a reminder that all of us—despite our seeming separateness—are part of some larger thing.
—Diane De Grazia
Cleveland Arts Prize
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