Dennis was born in 1942 in her maternal grandparents' house in Springfield,
Ohio, the eldest of four girls. She attended public schools there
and in Washington, D.C. until her family, including her grandparents,
moved to Rye, New York in 1949. There she attended Milton School and
later, Rye High School, graduating in 1960.
cannot remember a time when she did not want to be an artist. As a
child she drew and painted all the time, and was encouraged by her
teachers and her parents, especially, her mother. Her favorite game
as a child was a universal one - making a "house" out of
almost anything boxes, blankets, branches and crawling
inside. Especially inspiring was a snapshot of her mother as a child
standing at the door of an igloo made by her uncle after an Ohio snowstorm.
Her mother had wanderlust and the family took month-long, vaguely
planned car trips every summer. These were better than Christmas.
Frequently, the family spent the night in slightly run-down tourist
cabins the only available accommodation after the more modern
motels had lit up the "No" on the neon "Vacancy"
sign out front. Donna hated the cabins, preferring the motels with
their swimming pools, but they left her with vivid memories of both
intimacy and alienation. One trip to Boston when she was six or seven
included a visit to the Old North Church of Paul Revere fame. At the
time, the church seemed run down and forgotten. She remembers being
shocked and feeling the same sort of sadness for the building that
she would feel for a person in a similar situation.
Rye High School, Donna continued to receive encouragement for her
art, especially from teacher Mabel D'Amico, an artist who exhibited
in New York. During her high school years she created sets for several
student productions and in the senior year book she was described
as "our poet and artist". Donna has often turned to poetry
and fiction for inspiration and keeping journals is an important part
of her work process, helping her to develop the metaphorical content
of her work. A critic once called her "a poet of infrastructure."
Carleton College she majored in art, focusing on painting and took
lots of literature courses. The year after graduation, she spent in
Paris with Martha Diamond, a fellow art major at Carleton and explored
the city and its cultural milieu with two other Carleton classmates,
Peter Schjeldahl and his then wife, Linda O'Brien. In Paris, she studied
painting with an American sculptor, Roger Barr, in a classroom at
the top of the American Center on the Boulevard Raspail.
from Paris, Donna settled in New York City, working full time by day
and attending the Art Students' League at night. Peter introduced
her to his circle of poet friends centered around the Poetry Project
at St. Mark's Church, including Ted Berrigan, who, at the time, was
also an art critic. She later came to think of Ted as her mentor.
the late 1960's she began to move from painting toward sculpture without
realizing that was where she was headed. By the early 1970's she was
making painted false front "hotel" facades which she thought
of as shaped canvases. Although she was drawn to some sculptors; Bontecou,
Flavin, Tony Berlant, her inspiration came mostly from painters: Hopper,
De Chirico, Matisse, Magritte, Burchfield, Dine, and photographers:
Atget, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Wright Morris. She also loved
women's movement gave her both a larger purpose that was liberating
and the courage to draw on her own early experiences. She remembers
reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own as crucial in
developing the central metaphor of her work: finding women's voice
and placing it in the world.
1973 she had her first one-woman show "Hotels" at a co-op
gallery in Soho. The hotels were set up like a tropical village with
bird calls and hot lights. The slightly reduced scale of the work,
a scale she uses to this day, was derived from her own body: the first
hotel was 68" tall and the top of the front door came to her
1975 the collector Holly Solomon asked Donna to join the gallery she
was starting and in 1976 she had her first show there, "Subway
Stations and Tourist Cabins". In the late 1970's her work began
to become more widely known. She exhibited at the Walker Art Center
in 1977 and in 1979 she was in both the Whitney Biennial and the Hirshhorn
Museum's "Directions". In 1975 she was awarded a Creative
Artists Public Service grant, the first of many grants to follow,
including several NEA's and a Guggenheim.
the 1980's her work began to be seen internationally, including at
the Venice Bienale in 1982 and 1984, the Tate Gallery and Ludwig Forum
fur Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany. Then, in the late 1980's
and the 1990's, while continuing to create and exhibit large architecturally-inspired
installations, she also completed a number of permanent public art
commissions in New York and Boston. Over the years she has also collaborated
with poets (Ted Berrigan, Anne Waldman, Kenward Elmslie) and with
performers (Dan Hurlin). She is a Professor of Art at Purchase College,
State University of New York.