Dona Nelson (b. 1947) has been recognized as one of the most technically innovative painters since the 1970s. Their gestural, richly complex compositions demonstrate a rigorous commitment to exploring the possibilities of material invention. “Material is intelligent, more intelligent than meanings I or others might ascribe to my paintings,” says the artist.
From early on in their career, Nelson rejected a distinction between figuration and abstraction. In the 1980s they made large portrait paintings from life and painted interior scenes such as Daily News (1983), in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The “Octopus Paintings” (1991-1992) dissolve into the abstract by merging metaphor with the sensual experience of painting itself. While describing the series, curator and gallerist Klaus Kertess wrote, “So completely does Dona Nelson immerse herself in and identify with the vicious movements and matter of her paint that she can stand in front of a painting surface that is contorted by an amorphous blue congealing into a continuous skein of wrinkled bundles, tendrils, whorls, and curls and declare,‘it’s a self-portrait like a lot of my paintings’.” The Stations of the Subway series (1997-98) conflates the objecthood of large abstract paintings with the architecture and impressions of late 20th-century New York City.
In 2003, Nelson liberated their canvases from the wall and began making two-sided paintings. These paintings are novel in the way that each side is distinct yet “strongly interconnected, both conceptually and artistically” as put by art critic Brooks Adams. Canvases are worked from above while laying face down on milk crates, without looking at the side that is parallel to the floor. Once dried, the canvases are often flipped and re-stretched, and the original “front” of the painting becomes the back. In a process of staining and soaking with fluid acrylics and subsequently re-stretching the canvas, Nelson extends each medium and technique to its maximum potential. They often add strips of gel-soaked fabric and painted string as textual elements, frequently ripping off these materials at a later stage of working on the painting. At other times, Nelson feeds painted string through the canvas to their assistant on the other side, allowing the composition to emerge from a dynamic of play. In an interview with Nicholas Chambers, the curator of a 2018 group exhibition, Unpainting, Nelson stated, “I have always had procedures, sometimes written up as lists. I do one thing, I do the next thing and the next thing and so on until the painting has a kind of character…."
Nelson’s idiosyncratic painting ‘procedures’ are foundational to their process-driven practice. “In a sense, I have rebelled against having to do anything predictable. I think, as a woman, you always have a tempestuous relationship to painting’s history. You stand a little to the side of it,” the artist has said. Critics have compared Nelson’s oeuvre to those of leading second-generation Abstract Expressionists, including Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. In a New York Times review of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Roberta Smith described Nelson as “one of the best artists working today,” adding that their paintings have “a mind of [their] own.”
At times monumental, Nelson’s recent paintings activate viewers’ bodies and demand attention beyond that of a photograph or traditional two-dimensional piece. The bilateral compositions explore the possibilities of contrasting physical surfaces which are distinct yet inseparable, mutually reinforcing. In a 1994 interview Nelson says, “People talk endlessly about the computer age and technological invention and the future, but the body still is the center of our experience. And painting is always for me about that physical, sensory experience which isn’t separate from ideas.” said Nelson in a 1994 interview.
Dona Nelson received their B.F.A. from Ohio State University in 1968 and studied at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program that same year. They participated in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and have been the subject of survey exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1999), the Weatherspoon Museum of Fine Art (2000), and the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College (2018). Nelson’s paintings are included in museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Museum of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. They received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1994 and a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2011. From 1992 to 2023, they taught as Professor of Painting and Drawing at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Temple University in Philadelphia. Nelson lives and works in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.