Fifty Years Inside an Artist’s Mind: The Journal of Athena Tacha | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Fifty Years Inside an Artist’s Mind: The Journal of Athena Tacha

Fifty Years Inside an Artist’s Mind: The Journal of Athena Tacha
Athena Tacha; Richard Spear, Editor

BookBaby, Pennsauken, NJ, 2020
780 pp., illus. 64 col. Trade: $175.00
ISBN: 978-1-09832-670-8.

Reviewed by: 
Anne Collins Goodyear
February 2022

On September 7, 1972, writing at Oberlin College, where she would begin her career as a curator before going on to teach sculpture for over a quarter century, Athena Tacha speculated: "I thought, a few days ago, that perhaps I should set as the project of my life to describe and analyze myself as thoroughly as possible. My best capacities are self-analysis and observation, and it would be a unique document on a human being. Perhaps I should concentrate on this….” [1]

Fifty Years Inside an Artist’s Mind: The Journal of Athena Tacha, covering the period from 1970-2020, demonstrates that Tacha, now approaching her eighty-sixth birthday, has made remarkable strides toward achieving the ambitious goal that she set for herself. The scale and the scope of the volume reflects at first glance the extraordinary ambition and breadth of Tacha’s career and of her omnivorous intellectual appetite. At the same time, as readers will quickly perceive, the “self-portrait” Tacha presents is unflinchingly and courageously intimate, revealing personal concerns and self-doubts, even as she relentlessly pursues the questions that inspire her art. Early in her career she observes: “The problem with me is that I want to be everything: artist and scientist, maker and thinker, ascetic and sensualist, superhuman and yet human, classic and baroque in my art (balance through asymmetry). Is it possible?” [2]

A pioneer in the fields of site-specific art, environmental art, public sculpture, and in pursuing intersections between art and science and art and technology, Tacha demonstrates through her Journal her efforts to “invent a new approach to art,” while chaffing against the predominant artistic idioms first of minimalism and later of postmodernism. [3] Her entries shed light on the conceptual interconnections between the broad range of projects, media, and scales in which she has worked: from public monuments to intimate to self-portraiture; from stone, to shells, feathers, charcoal, light, and digital media; from sculpture to photography, artist’s books, and drawings; from objects intended to be traversed by the body to objects—such as her “Shields”—shaped for the human body. While Tacha (in partnership with her husband, the art historian Richard Spear) has meticulously documented her work through exhibitions and other publications, her Journal offers new insight into her practice. [4] Present here is not only the history of those ideas manifested in pieces that took shape, but also the illuminating aspirations behind projects never executed. In one instance, Tacha notes with excitement that a show she hoped to mount on the invisible force of the wind “all goes back to my original interest in fluidity and interfaces!” [5] Although the exhibition never took place, her comment testifies to the interconnection of works from across her career executed at diverse scales and in diverse media, from her Charles River Step Sculpture (Homage to Heraclitus), 1974, an early project for an (unrealized) site-specific installation; to Snowcracks (New Zealand), 2005, a photocollage of aerial shots of a glacier; to Brook, 2006, a small sculpture evoking the flow of water across rocks; to her Riverbed, 2014-15, a photocollage of views of her eyes and wrinkled skin. Tacha’s Journal, then, teases out the strands of thought that weave throughout a long and productive career.

Thus, while the publication provides a remarkable autobiographical account of the artist’s activities, aspirations, and accomplishments, it goes far beyond providing a copious record of the events and people most meaningful to Tacha. Rather, the artist invites the reader into a sustained conversation tracing the evolution of her thought over time. While the Journal unfolds chronologically, with clearly dated entries, often accompanied by the name of the place where she wrote, we quickly learn that the artist’s journal has served as a working document for her. We therefore observe with some regularity annotations added years later indicating either approval or revision of earlier ideas. Thus, the medium of time itself asserts itself as an essential ingredient in Tacha’s practice. The artist’s attentiveness to temporality is further signaled by the fluid movement of her commentary across the “space and time” of human history and that of the cosmos, seamlessly integrating the ancient history and philosophy of her native Greece with informed reflections on another worldview: that of contemporary science. [6]

Indeed, one of the most distinctive and impressive features of Tacha’s Journal, especially for readers of Leonardo, is the artist’s deep engagement with the most advanced scientific theories of her era, and with individual scientists themselves. From page to page, we witness her finishing one tome after another, carefully making notes on her reading, and often quoting passages of special interest to her. [7] Interested in everything from cosmology, quantum physics, molecular biology, ecology, and psychology, Tacha works to identify analogies between the micro and the macrocosm, between the human body and the universe. Even memory, Tacha surmises, may reflect the physical laws of the universe. [8] In December 2001, for example, while reflecting upon the discoveries of NASA’s Viking probe to Mars, Tacha notes: “[Physicist] John Wheeler and [mathematician] Roger Penrose both believe that quantum mechanics and consciousness are linked.” [9] Yet, while Tacha clearly admires the authors she cites, the pages of her Journal not only demonstrate an insatiable appetite for new ideas, they also reflect the mind of a critical reader. She notes, for example, when sources she is reading reflect “outdated” ideas, even if observations authors make may be useful. [10]

Tacha’s thinking is clearly influenced by her voracious interest in new scientific literature. As she writes in May 2003, “I am tormented by the wish to render visible the new exciting concepts of ‘quantum foam,’ dark energy, dark matter and all the incredible aspects of reality that today’s physics and cosmology keep ‘discovering.’” [11] But, at the same time, her Journal clarifies that her goal is never to “illustrate” scientific principles, but rather to understand the manner of nature’s operation so as to create work that responds to these natural laws. Describing her execution of drawings in her Singularity series (2001-2), for example, Tacha writes: “My main intention in this series was to evoke a sense of the infinitesimally small (quantum scale) and to capture “invisible reality” … How can one evoke quantum fluctuations or a black hole? They cannot be depicted, they have to manifest themselves.” [12] Three years later, with specific reference to her “Small Wonders” series, and particularly Cliffs, Copper Canyon, and Wave, she elaborates: “I never pretend to be realistic … I am not making imitations of nature, but analogues to it—I synthesize. I don’t copy, I recreate a landscape image through a process comparable to the one that generated it … Unlike in painting, my landscapes have no ‘horizon line’ or frame (no viewing hole)—no references to an outside world. They are it, each its own world.” [13]

In other instances, it becomes clear to the reader that Tacha’s reading of scientific texts also provides a way for her to understand more clearly principles that she has already intuited and acted upon as an artist. As she reflects in 1996: “Reading through two years of Scientific American these days, I realize that facts only interest me as they help me to draw conclusions for understanding reality. Theories help me to read the truth through form. But I am good at interpreting form—and drawing conclusions from it.” [14] Four years later she observes, upon reading Ian Stewart’s Life’s Other Secret: The New Mathematics of the Living World (1997): “I was right to equate radiating dendritic patterns with spheres.” Describing his account of the dendritic growth of crystalline forms according to the formation of systemic and analogous symmetries, she rejoices: “Here is the explanation for comparable forms in different scales and materials that I have been trying to understand!” [15] In 2003, she observes a relationship between her design for the landscape installation Connections, 1981-92, in Philadelphia, and an article by Albert-Láslzló Barabási and Eric Bonabeau in Scientific American describing “scale-free networks,” which she also hypothesizes may be a way of understanding the brain. [16] In 2008 she points out how new discoveries by geneticists about the microbiology of the human body (specifically the elbow) map onto her 1996 digital artwork, The Human Body: An Invisible Ecosystem. [17] Indeed, Tacha’s own serious engagement with scientific discourse through her work as an artist is such that she not only avidly reads recent scientific literature, but also engages actively in discussions with her scientific colleagues, such as physicist Sidney Perkowitz, psychologist Paul Ekman, and anesthesiologist Sesh Mudumbai.

Tacha’s fascination with the human body and mind prompts her astute study and documentation of her own. One of the most poignant threads of discussion weaving through Tacha’s writing is the challenge of aging. An interest in the principles of genes and heredity revealed at the outset of the Journal metamorphosizes into ongoing and ever more concerning encounters with evidence of the artist’s own increasing years, from problems with falling, to issues with sleep, to the pain of watching loved ones become ill and pass away. But despite her unflinching observations about physical and mental transformations, Tacha maintains her indomitable curiosity and determination to create, observing in 2015: “My work has always been beautiful and peaceful, and I now enjoy making something more aggressive (before I die!).” [18] Thus the artist frames some of the boldest works of her career: His and Hers (In/Out), 2014, a photographic study of the “shit” of the artist and her husband, and “body landscapes,” such as Double Yoga, 2018. Describing this piece “as one of my most important and autobiographical photo-works,” she explains its significance in revealing fashion: “the work is a metaphor for my mind and my art—studying the human body … and then then human mind, which has directed me to wondering about the universe.” [19] The book concludes, in poetic fashion, with an illustration of one of Tacha’s favorite works, 700 Agean Dives, created in 1992. The exquisite sculpture, one of the artist’s “Shields,” reflects many of the artist’s personal affiliations: her Greek heritage, her love for the ocean and natural forms, and her exquisite ability to create formal rhythms evocative of the natural laws that govern the cosmos and the earth. Equally important is the protective strength radiated by the work’s delicate materials, an assertion, it would seem, of the power of art itself.

Tacha’s rich autobiographical record will be of interest to artists, scientists, and to historians of these disciplines. This beautifully illustrated volume provides detailed information about the creation of numerous works of art and the philosophical goals behind them. Tacha’s Journal also reflects upon her upbring in Greece during the Second World War and some of the challenges implicit in adapting to American culture. Also noteworthy, if not a topic specifically engaged by the artist, is the fact that Tacha’s Journal provides us with the record of the work carried out by a female artist during a period when and in an area (the intersection of art, science, and technology) where few women found professional support and success. It is significant, then, that other women play a key role in providing professional guidance or friendship, including Agnes Denes, Anne Frye, and, most notably, the art historian and curator Ellen Johnson.

Tacha is not unique among artists in keeping working notes. One thinks of Leonardo, of Marcel Duchamp, of Jasper Johns. But Tacha’s Journal, which reflects her own doubts and vulnerabilities, together with her artistic research, may most clearly evoke the intersection of personal and professional achievements and challenges: the marriage of art and life. This courageous and engaging volume, Fifty Years Inside an Artist’s Mind: The Journal of Athena Tacha, will reward readers with fascinating insights, wry humor, and a tale of creative and intellectual tenacity. In its faithfulness to its subject, it promises to become a classic in writings about contemporary art and contemporary art’s engagement with scientific thought.


Where indicated, I have included information about the place as well as the date of Athena Tacha’s journal entries.

[1] Athena Tacha, Fifty Years Inside an Artist’s Mind: The Journal of Athena Tacha, ed. Richard E. Spear (Owl Press, 2020), Oberlin, Sept. 7, 1972, 73. Tacha began her work at Oberlin College in 1963 at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, where she became Curator of Modern Art in 1967; from 1973-2000 she served as Professor of Sculpture.

[2] Dec. 18, 1977, 107.

[3] Tacha’s journal entry of January 3, 2003 (331) quoted here, offers a great overview of her work and aspirations, including her resistance to minimalism and systemic art; her entry of Dec. 20, 1989 (199), reveals the challenge she perceived of being out of step with postmodernism. Ellen Johnson credits Tacha with introducing the concept of a “site-specific” artwork with a show at the Zabriskie Gallery in 1975; see Ellen Johnson, “Nature in Athena Tacha’s Art,” in Athena Tacha Public Sculpture (Athena Tacha, 1982). Tacha also speaks to this in Avis Berman’s “Oral History with Athena Tacha,” December 4-6, 2009, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution(, accessed Jan. 9, 2022). Tacha participated in Experiments in Art and Technology in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at MIT in 1974, a history discussed in her oral history with Berman.

[4] A comprehensive overview of Tacha’s exhibitions and publications, together with a digital catalogue of her work is available at:

[5] Nov. 2011 (no specific date given), 502. Emphasis, the artist.

[6] In one striking juxtaposition, Tacha writes in consecutive entries about Lee Smolin’s The Life of the Cosmos (1997) and Quintus Curtius Rufus’s Histories of Alexander the Great (1st century CE),using the (Greek) volume owned by her father, see En route back from Dallas, July 27, 2001, and August 6, 2001, both 302.

[7] The comprehensive bibliography included in this volume, documenting Tacha’s library, gives some idea of the enormous range of scientific literature that she has consumed over the course of her career. The pages of her journal reveals not only deep engagement with these sources, but also with numerous articles from the Scientific American, which she has made a long practice of reading voraciously.

[8] See, for example, her entry of June 11, 2003, 339; her reference to Julian Barbour’s The End of Time (1999) continues her discussion of his work on May 20, 2003 (337-38).

[9] Washington, December 15, 2001, 305

[10] See for example entries discussing Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? Mind and Matter (1968), Malia-Koukia, July 1, 1990, 206; Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau, The Conscious Universe (1990), Malia Koukia, August 20, 1994, 234;  and Jerome M. Siegel, “Why We Sleep,” Scientific American, Nov. 2003, Nov. 14, 2003, 347; and Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang (1997), Nov. 16, 2003, 347.

[11] May 12, 2003, 337.

[12] July 15, 2001, 296.

[13] Feb. 16, 2004, 355. Tacha’s “Small Wonders” became the focus of an exhibition, Athena Tacha: Small Wonders: New Sculptures and Photoworks, Katzen Arts Center, American University, September 6 – October 29, 2006, curated by Jack Rasmussen, with an accompanying catalogue.

[14] Bellagio, Italy, June 17, 1996, 243-4.

[15] Malia Koukia, July 2, 2000, 279.

[16] August 8, 2003, 341.

[17] May 23, 2008, 436.

[18] April 28, 2015, 615.

[19] March 21, 2018, 725-6. Emphasis, the artist.