Donald Judd

long - term view

<p>Donald Judd, <i>Untitled</i>, 1991. &copy; Donald Judd Foundation. Photo: Bill Jacobson, New York. </p>

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1991. © Donald Judd Foundation. Photo: Bill Jacobson, New York.




In a remarkably fertile though brief period in the early 1960s, Donald Judd not only forged his aesthetic but also determined the iconography, materials, and forms that were to ground his practice for the remainder of his career. Celebrated as a preeminent Minimalist, despite his antipathy to the term, Judd refined, honed, and parlayed his rigorous visual vocabulary through an enormous range of industrial materials, most of which had never been extensively employed in art production: anodized aluminum, stainless steel, brass, copper, Plexiglas, plywood, and galvanized iron (often enameled or anodized) were among those he preferred. His simple geometric forms, whose mode of fabrication is directly exposed and immediately legible, are presented as single works, or combined serially into greater wholes, or composed according to conventional mathematical progressions. Typically, these lucid forms are declaratively simple and obdurately factual, and their surfaces sensuous, even sumptuous, so that, as Judd stated, "the image, all of the parts, and the whole shape are coextensive."1 Commensurate with his stringent conceptualizing, his works were fabricated with an elegant regard for niceties of finish and detail by a range of technical specialists.

In relentlessly probing issues of similarity and difference, likeness and identity, Judd required that each of his works be closely and attentively scrutinized. The recognition of the specificity of each element informs the viewer's appreciation of the relation of the individual to the collective, of the singular entity to the larger series, and of repetition to order. Such recognition has implications that are as much social and ethical in character as they are aesthetic. "Aspectual diversity"—the sequence of distinct vantage points required to navigate each work, and to negotiate its multiple faces, in an engagement that necessarily takes place in real time and actual space—plays a fundamental role in the apprehension of his work.

Change rather than evolution characterizes the shifts in Judd's practice during the 1960s. In the early 1970s his art increased in scale and complexity, as he closely engaged with issues of site and presentation and accorded greater emphasis to the problem of created space (as opposed to space treated as simply an empty surround).2 Comprising fifteen plywood boxes fabricated from the finest Douglas fir, an untitled work of 1976 manifests this development. From the first glance the viewer recognizes that, while the dimensions of every box are identical, each is different, each is unique. Certain boxes immediately capture attention, notably one whose top seems to be suspended over a four-inch spatial gap; by contrast, others—most obviously the most bare container— appear austerely uninflected. Yet others—among them one with a compound slope, whose lid tilts from an upper corner to the opposite corner at the bottom of the box— are almost unreadable. Just as no rigid system has been exhaustively explored to determine all the different configurations possible with this elementary module, so no identifiable system accounts for their overall sequence—that is, for the juxtaposition of any one box with its often quite distinctively different neighbors.3 Nevertheless, a sense of order can be apprehended, one that eschews both a hierarchical placement and the suppression of the individual to the whole. As art historian Dieter Koepplin aptly stated, Judd favored "free individuation" over structural subordination, the likely outcome of uniformity.4 Each box consequently retains its autonomy and identity. A multipartite entity, the work is constructed collectively, by consensus, as it were, neither given nor preordained.5

Composed of twelve stainless-steel boxes with deep blue Plexiglas panels forming the back plane of each interior, untitled (1975) contrasts tellingly with the plywood piece discussed above, in that here all the units are identical. Once again, though, appearances change radically as the viewer explores each element in the sequence. For example, the color of the inner spaces fluctuates according to the play of light, the back plane at times darkening almost to black—like the negative of a mirror—at other moments swelling with a sumptuous blue that diffuses the crystalline interior into a softly glowing ambience. A hue relatively new to Judd's palette in 1975, ultramarine inevitably compromised the effects of "transparent factuality" (formerly considered axiomatic), since it permits shadow to modulate light, eroding angles and edges and rendering space indefinite.6

Even as Judd tempered his desire for the uninflected clarity that had been a hallmark of his early endeavors, his approach was not fundamentally altered: rather, he now more fully acknowledged the contingencies inherent in the act of looking.7 His conviction that his works be lit by natural, even light, in preference to artificial illumination, also remained firm. In these opulent metal boxes, the interior spaces appear to expand or to contract, so that at moments they become perceptually at variance with the same spaces as they are defined externally by planes and edges whose precise configurations from most vantages read as strictly controlled. Given their high polish, reflections render the components unstable, diffusing their svelte surfaces and divesting them, albeit intermittently, not only of mass and weight but even of shape and surface. Relatively small in size, these compact wall boxes approximate in proportion to a double cube, yet they are subtly tempered in ways that further enhance the sense of stable harmonious balance—that is, of visual resolution. Since their interiors appear slightly shallower than their exterior depths, even a lateral viewpoint affirms the finely calibrated horizontality of the work as a whole.

Conceptual presuppositions constantly founder before the particularity—the specificity—of each of Judd's finely honed works, given that every encounter is always phenomenologically determined, as untitled (slant piece) (1976), the third work in Dia's collection from this midpoint in Judd's oeuvre, vividly attests. First exhibited at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York's SoHo in 1976, this singular sculpture was devised for that location; the length of the back wall of the room, as well as the given dimensions of a sheet of plywood, governed its dimensions. Scale and placement were consequently a function of this particular site and were attuned to such aspects as the distance of the gallery entrance from the piece.8 The given width of the material determined the degree of the angle of the sloping plane. Only when the work is approached closely does the role of the secant plane that modulates the void into two equal spaces, one visible and the other concealed, become fully apparent.

Unequivocally abstract, this work, like the two others discussed above, reveals itself in ways that both structurally and formally parallel certain familiar experiences generated in the natural as well as the built environment. A resolutely materialist art grounded in abstraction, Judd's work eschews metaphor and association. It nonetheless garners meaning and affect from its engagement with space, time, and existence, with what French philosopher Henri Bergson termed la durée.9 An elective affinity links his work with that of Bridget Riley, Agnes Martin, Robert Irwin, and Robert Ryman, among others, who have also explored an abstract art based in phenomenological and perceptual experience, rather than in transcendental or idealist visions of the kind that informed much of the radical nonfiguration of the 1910s and 1920s. In this regard, the definition of Judd's sculpture as a hermetically formalist Minimalism seems too confining a rubric.


1. Donald Judd, "Specific Objects," in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in association with New York University Press, 1975), pp. 181–89. See also Judd, "Local History," in ibid., pp. 148–55.

2. Yve-Alain Bois has acutely explored the way that space in Judd's later work is purposely made, that is, formed like a solid. Treated equally, he contends, space and solid symbiotically define each other. Bois, "The Inflection," in Donald Judd: Sculpture 1991 (New York: Pace Gallery, 1991), n.p.

3. The box entered Judd's repertoire as his principal form in 1963. From the early 1970s, the motif of an open box with multiple modalities increasingly preoccupied him, as he constantly explored different materials, proportions, scales, and compositions. From 1971, works constructed from plywood were fabricated by master craftsman Peter Ballantine. A number of related works—plywood boxes with the same overall dimensions but configured differently—were executed at this time. Sixteen boxes were made for an exhibition at Heiner Friedrich's gallery, New York, in 1977; see Donald Judd: Fifteen Works (New York: Heiner Friedrich Gallery, 1977); Thomas B. Hess, "Boxing Day," New York, 11 April, 1977, pp. 70–72; and Kenneth Baker, "Donald Judd: Past Theory," Artforum 15, no. 10 (Summer 1977), pp. 46–47. Judd decided to exhibit only fifteen, however, and these were then kept together as one work, untitled (1976), now in Dia's collection. An identical second set was sold as separate works.

4. Dieter Koepplin, Donald Judd: Zeichnungen/Drawings 1956–1976 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in association with New York University Press, and Basel: Kunstmuseum Basel, 1976), p. 9.

5. Order was an issue that much preoccupied the artist. Refusing the a priori, which he linked to rationalistic procedures, he instead sought a logical method, which he defined as "a local order, just an arrangement, barely order at all," and on another occasion as "one thing after another," a modus operandi that for him ensured autonomy and immediate accessibility for the components of any multipartite work. For a fuller discussion see Lynne Cooke, "Donald Judd: Reordering Order," in Donald Judd (London: Waddington Galleries, 1989), pp. 5–10. Order is often proposed in opposition to composition, which Judd relates to part-to-part assembling—a practice he abhorred, for he sought a holistic form, a totality. For a fuller discussion see "Don Judd: An Interview with John Coplans," in Don Judd (Pasadena: Pasadena Art Museum, 1971), pp. 19–44.

6. Among the first works in Judd's oeuvre made from stainless steel, these boxes were fabricated by Bernstein Brothers in Queens, who had previously made many of Judd's works in other metals. As with Judd's other wall-mounted works, these sculptures are affixed to the supporting surface by techniques customarily used with lightweight industrial objects, such as cabinets and appliances. For Judd, these techniques had to be practical and conventional; for him, cantilevering should not require engineering solutions. For a fuller discussion see "Don Judd: An Interview with John Coplans" pp. 19–44.

7. Rosalind E. Krauss brilliantly acknowledged the role of illusion in this and related works in "The Material Uncanny," in Donald Judd: Early Fabricated Work (New York: Pace Wildenstein, 1998), pp. 7–13.

8. It is possible to expand this work to fit a similarly sized but not identical location, for it is not site specific but site related. In principle, Judd would reinstall these and other more environmental works on an appropriate occasion. The dimensions of the standard plywood sheet he used are four feet by eight feet.

9. Judd's clearest account of this comes in a text written in 1983, in a discussion of the work of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman, his most important forebears: "Pollock and Newman have no immediate emotion of the kind [found in the art of Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko]. The thought and emotion of their work is of the more complex kind, unidentifiable by name, underlying, durable, and concerned with space, time, and existence. It's what Bergson called 'la durée.'" Judd refers again to this notion, a governing precept of his own aesthetic, when he concludes, "I think the extension of extremes in a work of art is classical, again for lack of a better word. The greater the polarity of the elements in a work, the greater the work's comprehension of space, time, and existence." Judd, "John Chamberlain," in John Chamberlain: New Sculpture (New York: Pace Gallery, 1989), pp. ix–x.

Lynne Cooke

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