For some time, I’ve felt that the discipline of art history, with its emphasis on historical progression and stylistic evolution, wasn’t quite adequate to the task of coming to terms with the work of the American artist Donald Judd (1928–94). Judd came to prominence in the 1960s with colored metal boxes placed either singly and directly on the floor, or in vertical groupings projecting from the wall known as stacks. They were typically seen as a reaction against the emotional expansiveness of Abstract Expressionist painting and as the germ of the Minimalist art movement, in which capacity they were said to represent the latest iteration of modernism’s simplification and reduction of form. Yet looking at Judd’s work in recent years, that reading has increasingly come to seem too facile. Certainly Judd felt it was. In a note to himself in 1984, he denounced what he called the “nonsense about minimalism,” and observed that “most people view my work through the clichés of the art magazines and the survey books.” With the looming prospect of a Judd retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, I thought the best starting point for an appraisal would be to see the work through Judd’s own eyes. So I turned to the two volumes of writings and interviews recently published by his foundation.
This was no easy task, and not just because, taken together, the books run to over two thousand pages. Judd’s prose swings between head-banging abstruseness and crystalline clarity, often within the space of a single page. Thus in a 1963 essay on the sculptor John Chamberlain he wrote, “Freedom and indeterminacy are antecedent to and larger than order. The order of Chamberlain’s work was never a priori. The concluding order is not an essence.” And so on. In the next paragraph, however, he offers this succinct and penetrating summary: “Chamberlain’s sculpture is simultaneously turbulent, passionate, cool, and hard.” Unfortunately, there’s more of the former type of writing than the latter. (For this reason, the second volume might have been better titled “Translations,” since at least the interviewers occasionally press Judd to explain himself.)
Then there is his critical vocabulary, which tends towards the broad and abstract. A number of words turn up repeatedly as descriptors or terms of approbation—“specific,” “definite,” “generality,” for example—without Judd elaborating on what he means by them. “Quality” appears often, but it takes a while to figure out that Judd is referring to a work’s overall aesthetic character and not, as one would assume given the context, levels of artistic accomplishment or an individual trait. Finally there is his adamant refusal, when talking about his own work, to use the word “sculpture.” (Question, from 1966: “You said that your work is not sculpture. If it isn’t sculpture, what is it?” Answer: “I don’t know what it is, and I don’t feel that I have to give it a title.”) He prefers the phrase “three-dimensional work.” He even rejects the term “form.” (It’s “pretty hard to handle,” he told an interviewer the following year.)
Still, a clear aesthetic gradually emerges from these pages. Judd started out in philosophy, receiving a B.S. in the subject from Columbia University in 1953, having been particularly drawn to empiricism and positivism, and that background very much defines his outlook. Question, from 1971: “What do you consider art is about, then?” Answer: “About what I know.” Indeed, there are times when his pieces strike one not so much as works of art in the conventional sense but as philosophical statements, proofs of propositions about the nature of things, for which the labels should read “Donald Judd, q.e.d.,” rather than, as they uniformly do, “Untitled.”
In his art, Judd sought to replace what he called “all the structures, values, feelings, and everything of the whole European tradition” with an art that does not “allude to other things” and is a “specific thing in itself which derive[s] a specific quality from its form.” To this end he turned his back on all forms of illusionism and what he called “composition,” or the hierarchical arrangement of the separate parts within a work. In its place he sought “wholeness,” an arrangement of the disparate parts so the work is perceived as a unity.
"I’m a painter,” Judd told an interviewer in 1987, after some three decades of making three-dimensional work.
For this reason the modern artist Judd admired the most was—wait for it—Jackson Pollock. He called him “the primary artist,” and there are more citations for him in the two indexes than for any other artist. Judd doesn’t see Pollock as an expressionist but as a kind of positivist. In an important 1967 essay he hailed him as the first American to break with the European tradition of part-to-part composition, the person who “created the large scale, wholeness, and simplicity that have become common to almost all good work.” He went on to say that the “dripped paint in most of Pollock’s paintings is dripped paint. It’s that sensation, completely immediate and specific, and nothing modifies it.” Also in the pantheon were Barnett Newman, Josef Albers (his “arrangement of squares within squares . . . provided enormous versatility and complexity”), Malevich, and Mondrian, although he faulted the Dutchman for his intimations of illusionistic space.
Returning to Judd’s aesthetic, he embraced geometry not out of a desire for purity of form or to express essences but because it is “nonnaturalistic” and carries no outside associations. Yes, he uses color, but its purpose is purely practical. The “only point about the color was its capacity to define the form with clarity,” he said in 1971. He may be making art, but he states quite clearly that he isn’t creating “objects for contemplation.” But we should not conclude from this that Judd was cultivating an art of mute impersonality. “Yes, of course,” was his response to the question, “Do you feel your work has expressive quality?” in 1966. But he declined to elaborate, beyond adding that “I don’t exactly like talking about ‘spirit,’ ‘mysticism,’ and that sort of thing, because those words have old meanings.”
Thus steeped in Judd’s hard-headed empiricism, I was wholly unprepared for the tidal wave of feeling that washed over me the instant I set foot in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The mood generated by the four galleries of emphatically present, brightly colored objects is one of unalloyed joy, abandon even.
“Judd,” the first retrospective in the United States since the Whitney’s in 1988, was organized by Ann Temkin, moma’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, along with her colleagues Yasmil Raymond (who has since left the museum), Tamar Margalit, and Erica Cooke, and features some seventy sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints. It has been superbly installed, with works talking to one another across the galleries and enough space around each to let them reveal themselves and breathe. The show’s pacing is just as good. You walk into a blast of Cadmium Red Light in the first gallery, a color midway between fire-engine red and orange in which the punch of the former is leavened by the warmth of the latter. The next gallery is something of a color explosion as Judd’s palette expands to include the whole spectrum. After that, the show throttles back, chromatically speaking, as the third gallery displays works that are either monochrome or dominated by a single color. That softens you up for the final gallery of works with multiple color combinations, dominated by an enormous (59 by 295 by 65 inches) 1991 floor piece composed of sixty rectangular elements (each one 12 by 59 by 3 inches) and employing eight different colors. This all-the-stops-out exercise in color pulsation reads like a three-dimensional version of Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), only without its vestigial illusionism.
Judd started out as a painter but found himself unduly constricted by the flat surface and rectangular shape of the canvas and frustrated by his inability to avoid any kind of figure–ground relationship or illusionism when he put marks down. Almost the earliest work in the show, and an exception to the Rule of Red in the first gallery, shows us his initial efforts to move in a new direction: a 1961, all-black “painting” into whose center Judd has inset a rectangular baking pan. It is a marvelously witty (dare one use that word with Judd?) and ingenious solution to the problem of illusionistic space in painting. In a move that seems equal parts Picasso (the sheet metal Guitar of 1914) and Duchamp (his Readymades), Judd here introduces actual space—that inside the baking pan. I use quotation marks in describing this work since, to further avoid any suggestion of illusionism, Judd has built it out (at four inches, it is twice as thick as a conventional painting), ensured the area around the baking pan has a uniform, surface-asserting color and texture, and painted the sides of the painting black as well, to indicate that they, too, are part of the aesthetic program. The result is a painting–object.
Within a few years he had moved into making the freestanding three-dimensional objects that elsewhere populate this gallery. Unfortunately, our understanding of this stage of his evolution is hampered by the absence of a pivotal work owned by the Judd Foundation but which couldn’t be loaned: a roughly four-feet-square 1962 work in which two black enamel horizontal bands sit within a field of Cadmium Red Light and a length of pipe perforates the center. As he told an interviewer in 1971, “I did the pipe relief and kept it on the floor. . . . It was meant to go on the wall, but it looked all right on the floor. . . . And I didn’t want it to sit back against the wall. A piece that was completely three-dimensional was a big event for me.”
One way Manet and later Matisse revolutionized painting was to transform black from a “negative” color, one used to depict shadows and dark corners, into a “positive” one. In a 1990 stack, Judd extends this into three dimensions in ten boxes whose outward-facing sides are black while the horizontal surfaces are clear Plexiglas, the dark hue holding its own as a “real” color as sturdily as the other hues in the exhibition. But he does those earlier modernists one better by doing the same thing for gray, transforming it from a drab neutral to an element of real chromatic force. Judd said he began to color his metal works because, while he liked the material’s natural appearance, he felt its color range was too limited. You’d never know it from this exhibition, where we see Judd exploiting the expressive potential of some half-dozen shades of gray, ranging from near-white to near-black, across as many types of metal, each one with its own optical texture (matte and softly snowy anodized aluminum, for example, or highly polished and brittle-looking stainless steel) and visual incident (from the mottling of galvanized iron to what in another context would be called gestural markings that make the sheets of hot-rolled steel suggest a monochrome painting by Helen Frankenthaler.) There’s so much to engage you in just this aspect of the show that it merits its own exhibition some day: “Donald Judd: Gray.”
Judd began working in plywood because that was all he could afford, then switched to metal in the mid-1960s because he felt he needed to define his forms “more rigorously.” He added Plexiglas to his arsenal toward the end of that decade, drawn by its reflectivity, the way it allowed a view into his volumes, and the fact that, unlike his metal pieces, color wasn’t applied to but embodied in it. In his hands it is the most emotionally potent of all the materials he uses. What it does with light is just as important as its chromatic attributes. Light passes through it, irradiating nearby forms and surfaces with its designated hue. A 1968 stack in the second gallery is ravishingly beautiful. Its outward-facing surfaces are polished stainless steel and its horizontal ones yellow Plexiglas. The interiors of the boxes glow with that color and the overhead illumination passing through them projects a huge wash of yellow onto the back wall down the entire length of the piece. Looking at it, I kept thinking of the Greek myth of Danaë and the shower of gold, and wondering whether Judd, who did graduate work in art history at Columbia with Meyer Schapiro and Rudolph Wittkower, had Titian’s painting (or some other version) in mind when he made it. Almost as potent is the contrast between the warmth of the yellow and the icy silver hue of the polished stainless steel. Elsewhere the Plexiglas will trap light, as it does in a large work from 1969 composed of large boxes, each open at the sides, whose interior surfaces are lined with blue Plexiglas whose edges fairly glow. Judd never mentions this aspect of his art—one looks in vain for the word “light” in the indexes of both books—yet it is an indispensable component of it.
“I’m a painter,” Judd told an interviewer in 1987, after some three decades of making three-dimensional work. “I just really love color.” It was a rare moment of self-revelation, and the more powerful for being so. It provides the key to his aesthetic and explains not only his obdurate refusal to hew to the standard descriptive language in discussing what people called his “sculpture,” but also his reluctance to parse it. (“You’re asking me what the work’s all about, and I can’t answer just like that,” he said in 1967). For he created a hybrid idiom that is almost beyond the reach of words. In Judd’s work, three-dimensional form is the platform, like the canvas shape, narrative schema, and figure groupings in the art of the European tradition he was so determined to leave behind. Yet the painterly impulse persisted, even as he worked in three dimensions. Of course, in the most literal sense, this work is “sculpture,” for it is solid, space-displacing form. Aesthetically speaking, however, it is, to paraphrase Clausewitz, painting by other means. Form, the province of sculpture, serves to harness, contain, shape, and structure emotion, then to release it through the means particular to painting: color and light. q.e.d.
1 Donald Judd Writings, edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray; David Zwirner Books, 1,056 pages, $39.95.
Donald Judd Interviews, edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray; David Zwirner Books, 1,008 pages, $39.95.
2 “Judd” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, on March 1 and remains on view through July 11, 2020.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 8, on page 56
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