Rethinking Judd

Untitled, 1991. Mill aluminum, five units, each 150 x 150 x 150 cm.; overall length 841 cm. View of work as installed in Judd’s studio in Hafenstrasse, Cologne.

Donald Judd’s work is an exegesis on precision. Given the technical advances and analytical capabilities in both the arts and sciences over the last century, it is possible to refer now to an aesthetics of precision. But like any other domain of aesthetics, one cannot easily disengage the quality factor—its potential to express feeling, its coherence, its sense of wholeness—from the forms that constitute its theoretical model. In considering other artists whose work is virtually defined by precision, I think of Glenn Gould’s uncanny performances of Bach, Vladimir Nabokov’s Four Quartets, and Stanley Kubrick’s films Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut. (Any director who could make Tom Cruise look that good has to be a genius.) One might extend the list to include Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. And in the field of music, we might add Vladimir Horowitz, Miles Davis, and, yes, Billie Holiday.

Granted, my selection is a subjective one; but the point about precision in art, as in science, goes beyond rationalism. For Judd, rationalism was too close to the European tradition and therefore exempt from his concerns. As with the architect Louis Sullivan, Judd was interested in a uniquely American art, an art that was free from illusionism.1 Also, he believed that European art was too relational: that is, too configured or imposed in its compositional structure (a concern shared by the painter Barnett Newman some years earlier).2 In contrast to the rationalist/relational model of the Europeans, Judd endorsed a kind of intuition, a conjugation of thought and feeling, an intensity that made way for wholeness. This is often expressed in Judd’s criticism about other artists’ work, as well as in his statements about his own.

Untitled, 1989. Red and black painted aluminum, 30 x 120 x 30 cm.

From a generalized historical viewpoint, no art is born out of a vacuum. There are always antecedents, styles, ideas, prototypes, movements, schools, and other artists’ works displaced from recent history, whether or not an artist chooses to see them. In his diligence to discover what uniquely characterized American art, Judd often neglected to see his own relationship to Europe, particularly to the earlier Constructivist and Neo-Plasticist traditions. In the first instance, the reference is to abstract sculpture, in the second, to abstract painting. This gave Judd enough raw material to rebel, to break away, and to talk about “specific objects” in three-dimensional space, objects that were neither painting nor sculpture but were hybrids, often ultra-refined, as in his early “Minimal” seriations.3 Even so, Judd possessed a clarity in his resolve to make this new kind of art. Like Reinhardt, he was a believer in art as a purist activity and felt it somewhat more substantial, more qualitative in its ability to embed concepts within form.

The argument could be made that Judd remains one of the most significant artists in the dialogue that constitutes late 20th-century art. He is most often associated with the Minimal art of the late ’60s/early ’70s, somewhere on the cusp between art world ideologies—a period of high transition on many levels, more about passages than summations. For many observers, this period constituted a turning point in 20th-century art, a time of acceleration, of momentum giving way to a reductive (as opposed to constructive) complexity in art, perhaps erroneously associated with Judd.

In an exhibition entitled “Late Work,” at Pace Wildenstein last November in both the uptown and downtown locations, there was an opportunity to contemplate Judd’s precision aesthetics in a wide range of work completed in the last six years before his untimely death in 1994. The term “fast thinking,” originally used by Judd in a lecture given at Harvard in 1992, suggests the accelerated pace of late Modern art. According to art historian Richard Shiff, “fast thinking” is more than just a vernacular expression transferred from techno-culture to art. It is the ability to sense the “wholeness” of a work of art through a recognition of its polarities.4 The idea is a complex one, but necessary to understand in order to understand Judd’s opposition to “relational art.”

Untitled, 1989. Clear anodized aluminum with blue Plexiglas, 100 x 200 x 200 cm.

Shiff interprets the sense of “wholeness” in Judd’s art as referring to the polarities inherent in a work’s structure.5 These polarities constitute a formal (not formalist) opposition of parts that, in fact, is contiguous, interdependent, and intensely complementary. For example, the colors red and black used in Judd’s Untitled piece from 1989 or the sheets of ivory Plexiglas placed inside Cor-Ten steel boxes mounted in a horizontal sequence on the wall in another Untitled (1990) represent oppositions or polarities that, in fact, unify the work.6 The extent to which these polarized elements (materials) exist within the same frame, so to speak, is less about separation than unity. The result is the intuition of wholeness, what Shiff equates with the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s notion of “abduction” or an idea strongly felt that has no accessible analytical counterpart. In other words, the polarity finds wholeness in lieu of separation.7

Both Pollock and Barnett Newman had important influences on Judd. Initially Pollock provided the greater challenge, given his use of “dissimilar elements” within the context of his generality (his all-over pictorial surface), as in Autumn Rhythm (1950). Eventually, Newman became more connected to Judd’s evolving interests. The formal compression in Newman’s Onement (1948), shown at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery, had set the stage for Judd’s wholeness. Newman’s brushed vertical line cuts through the center of a cadmium red field and gives the painting its power and resonance. The expansive Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1951), with its intervening vertical “zips” (referring to the compression of Judeo-Christian history), revealed a sensory cognitive power that connected with Judd’s concept of polarity. Rather than adapting the mythological, historical, religious, and symbolic references in Newman’s work (in short, the content), Judd embraced it on a formal level, emphasizing the structural aspect of the vertical line as a tautology of the physical support of the canvas. Judd wanted the weight of content to be within the form; therefore the polarizations that occurred within the formal decisions of constructing the work needed to be as implicit in their directness as possible.

Untitled, 1989. Douglas fir plywood, two units, 50 x 100 x 50 cm.

For Judd, the literal and empirical aspects of his art would not permit any reference to the metaphorical. (In this sense, he was removed from a “European” artist such as Josef Albers who, in fact, later in his career became interested in the metaphors of his color relationships.) As with the critic Clement Greenberg—a truly ironic comparison—Judd was not keen on literary or narrative references.8 It is no accident, for example, that the artist’s later works, as shown in the recent Pace Wildenstein exhibition, are all untitled. Even so, Judd was not a formalist. His approach was to maintain a focus on “specific” elements within the structure without allowing the work to relinquish its polarized tension. He refused to let the generalities supersede particulars. Judd was not given to abandonments, despite what some critics may regard as his overly idealistic “purist” orientation.

It is well known that Judd had a certain antipathy for the so-called Neo-Expressionism, alternatively referred to as Zeitgeist or Transavanguardia (Transavantgarde). Although the terms vary slightly according to nationalist or stylistic differences, they generally refer to a type of large-scale abstract figurative painting that dominated the art market throughout the ’80s. Judd’s antipathy for this kind of work was, in fact, an opposition to a weakened imagism, which he believed was a trivial, even decadent pursuit, not worthy of the attention it was being given. Given his background as a critic, Judd made it clear that aesthetically he stood against expressionism.9

Donald Kuspit’s attack on Judd, in his recently republished book The Dialectic of Decadence: Between Advance and Decline in Art, especially on the artist’s opposition to a Neo-Expressionism represented by Sandro Chia, states that “decadent disintegration may not be the worst thing for art; it may be necessary for its revitalization.”10 Kuspit’s point is well taken in relation to culture—that is, what’s left of culture with its intensely mediated yearning for fashion, entertainment, and sexualized politics (with its shifting modes and mores), but I am not convinced that the dialectic to which he refers has much to do with art. I do not understand how art can exist without some recognized criteria, without some critical tension as a necessary and implicit intervening variable.

When criteria in art are negated in favor of an oscillating pulse between advance and decline, and when it becomes impossible to state what is good or bad in relation to one’s own aesthetic position, then we (as a culture or body politic) have no recourse by which to analyze, interpret, substantiate, and evaluate the significance or value of art. Instead, we are left only with the recourse for attack, a raging system of attack, an academicized ploy that has virtually nothing to do with art. In our overly politicized, hyper-mediated, and market-globalized society, it is no wonder that we can no longer read advance in relation to decadence. Objects and events become what they are not, the opposite of what they pretend to be. Judd’s position is to retain a criterion in spite of what the rest of the world is doing or saying or too frightened to say and forgetting to do. Like Duchamp he belongs to an iconoclastic tradition, an American-style iconoclasm.

Untitled, 1993. Douglas fir plywood with transparent amber/orange Plexiglas, 100 x 100 x 50 cm.

The late work, presented in the two galleries of Pace Wildenstein last fall, suggests a continued effort to focus his precision objects, using a variety of materials, a crafted approach, and a rigorous experimentation with color. There is an ultra-refinement in much of the work as, for example, in his Untitled (1989) in aluminum and blue Plexiglas or in his extraordinary five-unit floor piece, Untitled (1991), in milled aluminum. Even in the plywood structures, we sense Judd’s dedication to precision in the angles and the cuts. Anyone who has worked seriously in carpentry understands the difficulty of making wall boxes such as Untitled (1991) in Douglas fir plywood.

Judd’s late work, especially, relates implicitly to “the structure of art.” As used some years ago by the critic Jack Burnham, the phrase refers to the structure (in the linguistic sense) within a work of art that reveals how content is signified.11 Put another way, Judd was after the precision of the idea in art as it relates to a material structure. It is this specificity about the object that attempts to show why Minimal art is not painting. Minimal art is about the material structure of objects in space that are neither painting nor sculpture in the traditional sense. They exist in and for themselves; they signify their own content through the space they occupy and the time they encompass. Therefore, these objects may offer illusions (in the optical sense), but they are not about illusionism.12 The distinction is a critical one.

Untitled, 1993. Clear anodized aluminum with yellow Plexiglas, six units, each 25 x 50 x 25 cm.; 300 x 50 x 25 cm. overall.

One may regard Judd’s museum in Marfa—both the large outdoor pieces cast in concrete and the indoor aluminum pieces—as representing a key expression of his aesthetic. They allow for illusion without being conceived or executed to disguise their factual presence in the environment. I think of the mosque in Cordoba (Spain) as being very close to this idea. The alternating red and white stones in the arches, which may give the illusion of the floor being elevated in the midst of prayer, are not a gimmick built on illusionism. Rather the illusion happens through the natural (optical) effect of the structure, through the repetition of modular elements in space being observed over time.

One final point. Judd’s work—in contrast to expressionism—is intentional. Here I am using the term as developed by the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.13 The intentional object is the object as it “appears” in memory. Its accuracy, i.e., precision, is as real as when it was seen. The object has been bracketed, so to speak, through the observer’s perception as related to one’s corporeal being in time and space. There is a complex argument here as to how exactly this bracketing procedure occurs, how it moves from immanence to transcendence. But Judd’s intentionality (reflecting on his work, after experiencing it but not seeing it) is one of his major achievements. It can exist equally within physical space and in the mind of the beholder. Unlike expressionism, Judd’s work can exist philosophically as an empirical instant within the mind’s eye as it exists in real space and time as a spur for intersubjective experience. This is what gives Judd’s work an indefatigable endurance and what will allow it to persist within the relative world of our desperately dialectical culture.

Robert C. Morgan is a critic and artist whose books include Between Modernism and Conceptual Art.

1 Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,“ Arts Yearbook 8 (1965). Reprinted in Ellen H. Johnson, ed., American Artists on Art: From 1940-1980 (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 108.
2 Newman used the term “Non-Relational Painting” in reaction to the followers of Mondrian, the Neo-Plasticists in Europe. Conceivably, Newman may have used the term in defiance of his Russian-immigrant colleague, Ilya Bolotowsky, who titled works Relation Painting. One of these hangs in the collection of the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, New York. It would seem logical that Judd, who greatly admired Newman, appropriated the concept from him.
3 Judd, “Specific Objects,” op. cit., p. 106–108.
4 Richard Shiff, “Fast Thinking,” in the exhibition catalogue Donald Judd: Late Work (New York: Pace Wildenstein, 1999), pp. 4–23.
5 Ibid., p. 13.
6 Ibid., pp. 13–18.
7 Ibid., p. 7.
8 Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” Art & Literature (Spring, 1961). Reprinted in R. Kostelanetz, ed., Esthetics Contemporary (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989), p. 197.
9 Donald Judd, “A Long Discussion About Master-Pieces But Why There Are So Few of Them Today, Part I,” Art in America 73 (September 1984), pp. 13–14.
10 Donald Kuspit, The Dialectic of Decadence: Between Advance and Decline in Art (New York: Allworth Press, 2000), p. 36.
11 Jack Burnham, The Structure of Art (New York: Braziller, 1971).
12 Shiff, op. cit., pp. 8–13.
13 Edmund Husserl, Ideas. Trans. W.R. Boyce Gibson, 1913. (New York: Collier, 1962).