At MOMA, a retrospective of the artist’s work showcases his rigorous visual intelligence.
I would tell you my emotional responses to the gorgeous works in the Donald Judd retrospective that has opened at the Museum of Modern Art if I had any. I was benumbed, as usual, by this last great revolutionary of modern art. The boxy objects (he refused to call them sculptures) that Judd constructed between the early nineteen-sixties and his death, from cancer, in 1994, irreversibly altered the character of Western aesthetic experience. They displaced traditional contemplation with newfangled confrontation. That’s the key trope of Minimalism, a term that Judd despised but one that will tag him until the end of time. In truth, allowing himself certain complexities of structure and color, he was never as radically minimalist as his younger peers Dan Flavin (fluorescent tubes) and Carl Andre (units of raw materials). But Judd, a tremendous art critic and theorist, had foreseen the change (imagine, in theatre, breaking the fourth wall permanently) well before his first show of mature work, in 1963, when he was thirty-five. Slowly, by erosive drip through the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the idea that an exhibition space is integral to the art works that it contains took hold. It is second nature for us now—so familiar that encountering Judd’s works at moma may induce déjà vu.
We are talking about, for example, an untitled piece from 1964: a wall-mounted, square-sectioned, polished brass tube, seven feet long, from which descend five vertical tubes in iron, lacquered blue. Of the same vintage, there’s a rectangular box, almost four feet long, with a top and sides of translucent orange Plexiglas and ends of hot-rolled steel. The works register as material propositions of certain principles—chiefly, openness and clarity. They aren’t about anything. They afford no traction for analysis while making you more or less conscious of your physical relation to them, and to the space that you and they share. As installed by the curator Ann Temkin, with perfectly paced samples of Judd’s major motifs—among them, floor-to-ceiling “stacks” of shelflike units, mostly of metal-framed, tinted Plexiglas, which expose and flavor the space they occupy—the second of the show’s four big rooms amounts to a Monument Valley of the minimalist sublime. Don’t miss it. Less enchanting, though expertly appointed, are a room of tentative early work and two that feature such later developments as boothlike, angled constructions, at joins of wall and floor, in raw plywood; large aluminum boxes containing differently oriented, lushly colored sheets of Plexiglas; and a huge congeries, nearly six feet high by more than twenty-four feet long, of stacked, bolted, and multicolored horizontal aluminum open boxes.
Not represented are Judd’s curatorial adventures, which included an exquisitely revamped building at 101 Spring Street, where he lived for a time and experimented with ways of installing art. It has been preserved as a museum. Then came the artist’s Bayreuth, his Mecca, in the remote (from anywhere!) desert town of Marfa, West Texas. There, starting in 1971, he converted old military, civic, commercial, and domestic buildings to house permanent and temporary installations of his work, that of artists he favored, and his collections of Navajo blankets and other choice craft objects. He also created studios, guest quarters, and his own living space, tucked into one end of a former gymnasium.
Works by Judd are almost routinely beautiful, but coldly and even imperiously so, as if their quality were none of your business. If you have any feeling, it might be chagrin at being underqualified to cope with so rigorous a visual intelligence. He’s Donald Judd; you’re not. He came on as a Savonarola of art in early writings and interviews, preaching a chastened aesthetic that should be “non-naturalistic, non-imagistic, non-expressionist,” in addition to “unrelational,” “nonillusionistic,” and “neither painting nor sculpture.” That dispenses with an awful lot of what normally appeals to people about art, leaving, in my case, a state of chilled awe. The one solid pleasure still provided is that of decoration: art that is meant not to be looked at but to be seen in relation to the environments that it enhances—keeping in mind that Judd’s ideal environments are voids. (Come to that, we owe to Minimalism the stubborn fashion in architecture and design of hygienically spare, white-walled interiors and sleekly simplified commodities.) Success did not mellow him. Nor was he much given to humor. His statement of purpose, in 1986, for the Chinati Foundation, which he instituted for Marfa, admits no doubt about the grandeur, and the grandiosity, of his enterprise: “Somewhere, just as the platinum-iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.” Visiting those places, you’re not an art lover. You’re a pilgrim.
‘It’s just boxes,”I once overheard a viewer say to his companion about an installation of Donald Judd’s raw-plywood sculptures at Dia:Beacon in Beacon, N.Y. “I woke up in a box. I traveled here in a box. And now,” he continued, “I’m in another box looking at more boxes.” Although Judd (1928-1994) didn’t like being referred to as a sculptor, or his objects being called “sculptures” (he may have preferred the term “boxes”), it’s impossible, from our vantage point, not to see his groundbreaking work, which did away with the pedestal, as anything but sculptures.
It’s true that Judd, a pioneer of American Minimalism (another term he abhorred), worked with boxes: raw, painted, solid, closed, open, hollow, compartmentalized and transparent—in plywood, plexiglass, iron, acrylic, aluminum, copper, brass and stainless, painted and galvanized steel. And his bare-bones sculptures suggest architecture and building blocks, and sometimes push toward Minimalism’s mute extremes. But what matters in Judd is his exactitude, his rigorous attention to scale, amount, increment and interval; how he beautifully orchestrates the various qualities and properties of his materials—not just colored plexiglass and reflective metals, but light, shadow and empty space. How he compresses, pools, patterns and halos colored reflections; how he meticulously speeds up and slows down our movements among forms, around corners and across planes; how he transforms void into elastic, palpable volume.
These gifts are in full force in “Judd,” a retrospective of 70 sculptures, drawings and paintings (almost all are “Untitled”) at the Museum of Modern Art. Organized by Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, and former associate curator Yasmil Raymond, with curatorial assistant Tamar Margalit and research fellow Erica Cooke, “Judd”—his first U.S. survey in more than 30 years—is commandingly handsome.
This is the kind of chilly, upright exhibition that makes you tighten your coat and straighten your posture. Right angles; clean, crisp edges; and faceless, industrial materials abound. There is little here, beyond its many square yards of raw plywood, that is remotely personal or warm and fuzzy. But there is surprise, mystery. Judd’s most compelling works are powerfully impersonal and plainspoken feats of poetic engineering.
The magic of Marfa – the making of an art mecca
As MoMA opens a major retrospective of the American minimalist Donald Judd, Rima Suqi looks at how the remote desert town became a cultural hub.
This is shaping up to be a banner year for the late American artist Donald Judd. His first US retrospective in over three decades opens this weekend at MoMA in New York. Alongside it is "Prints: 1992", an exhibition at the Judd Foundation in SoHo featuring 20 of the artist’s late-period woodcut prints on paper, curated by his son Flavin. A book, "Donald Judd Spaces", offering a glimpse into his living and working spaces (ranging from the 1870 classic cast-iron SoHo building he bought in 1968 to a 40,000-acre ranch bordering the Rio Grande), will be published in a few days. And basking in this glow is the tiny town of Marfa, Texas, where the godfather of minimalism (though he loathed the term) created one of the world’s largest permanent installations of contemporary art – some of it, significantly, set outside in the scrubby brush.
Judd unwittingly contributed to transforming the town into not only a pilgrimage site for art and architecture aficionados, but also, post his death in 1994, into a bucket-list destination. Those who come today may not even have heard of Judd, but have connected with the town’s growing cultural significance via Beyoncé on Instagram, or because they want to pop by that much-photographed Prada “store”. Judd’s Chinati Foundation estimates it’ll have 50,000 visitors this year, up from 12,500 just seven years ago, while Marfa Invitational, an international art fair that debuted last year, promises to be an annual event.
But how did Marfa transform into a destination that appeals to such a wide audience and a moniker found on luxury goods including a perfume by Memo Paris and stiletto boots by Tamara Mellon? Judd first travelled here in 1971. “I wanted to be in the southwest of the United States and be near Mexico, and also to have room for large permanent installations of my work as well as room to install work by other artists,” he noted in his book "Donald Judd Writings". Essentially, he was looking for space.
The Many Moods and Pleasures of Donald Judd’s Objects
There is a beautifully complex language of materials to savor in a survey of the artist’s work at MoMA. It’s his first U.S. survey in over 30 years.
I wonder if it even occurs to young artists in the globalist, pluralist present to try to stake out a spot in art history by changing the way history goes. Donald Judd, pioneer of the 1960s movement called Minimalism (the label wasn’t his; he hated it), thought about this constantly. He wanted, right from the start, to be a big art deal, a super influencer. Long before his death in 1994, at 65, he was.
Major American and European museums owned his work. His signature sculptural image — a no-frills, no-content wood or metal box —had not only been adapted by other artists, but also riffs on it became a fixture of international architecture and design. To some degree, we all lived in Judd-world, and still do.
Yet over time, Judd himself seems to have retreated from view. The survey of 70 works that opens at the Museum of Modern Art on March 1 is the first in New York in more than 30 years. It’s a fine show: carefully winnowed, persuasively installed, just the right size. Its one-word title, “Judd,” suits the artist’s view of his wished-for, worked-for place in history: so assured as to need neither qualifiers nor explanations.
The big, and maybe only surprise, particularly for Judd skeptics, is how really beautiful some of the art looks, how poetic, and mysterious. These were qualities that Judd himself, at least when he was starting out, would not have wanted applied to his work, which in the 1950s was painting. Beauty and mystery belonged to the art of yesterday. His was an art of today, a today that he kept close tabs on as a busy New York art critic in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Writing led him to network widely in the contemporary art world. It allowed him to observe its career-making machinery in action, and to consider how to position himself within it. His reviews — listy, pontificating, proscriptive — were a form of self-advertising that also served as a useful means of self-critique.
Through evaluating the work of hundreds of other artists, many his generational peers, he came to see that his own paintings — two examples introduce the MoMA show — were not, and would never be, strong enough to take him in the history-making direction he aspired to. He had to go another, less conventional way, and around 1960, he began to make work that was like no other art around.
Thinking Outside Judd’s Boxes: His Legacy Still Shapes Artists
Influence can be a tricky topic. Sometimes artists are reluctant to cite those that have shaped their aesthetic, lest they seem unoriginal or easily swayed.
But the work of Donald Judd has seeped into the creative culture more deeply than most, from Instagram hipsters to any artist who makes a sculpture with right angles.
“His influence extends far beyond those following him in a direct line,” said Ann Temkin, the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art and the lead organizer of the Judd retrospective opening to the public March 1 (and to members now).
“For much of art history, sculpture was secondary to painting, and the radicality of Judd and his colleagues in the ’60s was to change that around, and reframe the possibility for what an artist could do,” Ms. Temkin said.
Judd was a painter early in his career, but moved to the three-dimensional work — his boxes and stacked-unit installations — that would make him a famous Minimalist, a term he never embraced. He designed plywood furniture, wrote criticism and worked on dozens of architectural projects. On Spring Street in SoHo and then on a sprawling scale in Marfa, Texas — formerly private spaces, now part of the Judd Foundation — he created precisely arranged environments for living, working and displaying art.
We asked five noted makers to reflect on Judd, the person and the artist, as inspiration. The conversations have been edited and condensed.
Donald Judd wanted his work totally empty. Which allowed the world to make anything out of it.
You know Donald Judd’s work even if you don’t know you know it. Judd is to minimalism as Picasso is to Cubism. But unlike Cubism, which lives much more vibrantly inside museum walls than anywhere else in the world, minimalism quickly achieved exit velocity from the art world and took over … everything. Since the 1990s, endless streams of derivative decorators, designers, architects, less-is-more self-help gurus, Calvin Klein stores, landscape artists, furniture-makers, and corporate-office planners have owed many of their ideas to misunderstanding Judd’s notions of objects, space, material, and interior design, the built and lived-in environment. His wall sculptures became wall shelves, floating on the white space of generic HGTV-approved interiors and carefully layered with books and small sculptures. He is in everything from the buildings we live in and the furniture we sit on to our work spaces and iPhone design. Judd’s minimalism is the ubiquitous dark design energy of everyday modern life. Always there, even if you never consciously recognize it.
Today, this might make it hard to see Judd’s work — showcased starting March 1 in a MoMA retrospective, his first in 30 years — as art at all. In fact, his iconic boxes were meant to be an end point of a sort: not a form of expression but “the thing in itself,” an art-historical object emptied of all referential art-historical meaning. He wanted his art to have definite qualities, plain power, a sense of singleness — to make things that “aren’t obviously art.” He wanted to create works that were “neither painting nor sculpture.” The experience of his art, he said, should be democratic, available all at once, never mystical, hidden, expressionistic, or illusionistic. He was against weight and mass in sculpture because these weren’t things you could accurately ascertain just by looking. He was against all forms of figuration and certain forms of authorship — his vision was so much his own it was revolutionary, yet the works themselves were produced by machines or made to look that way, tributes of a kind to American industrial production. While he admired Brancusi and Giacometti, he thought their art implied the human body. He refused to suggest anything outside the work itself.
The problem was as soon as Judd emptied his objects of art history, the world changed on a dime, demanding the vacuum of form he established be filled again with content. In the era of Vietnam and civil rights, women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, the idea of pure formalism lost its currency. A hundred other types of art sprung up: Land and Earth art, process art, performance art, video art, Conceptual art. Many of these made use of Judd’s form, appropriating or stuffing those boxes with life, politics, history, biography, science, or biology. First came Eva Hesse putting squiggly plastic things into boxes. Then Robert Smithson filled them with rocks. Michael Heizer gouged two rectangles out of the sides of a mesa in Nevada. Félix González-Torres’s stacks of paper are Judd boxes with social commentary. Jeff Koons put appliances in boxes and invited us to worship them. Rachel Whiteread made boxy concrete casts of negative spaces. Damien Hirst put dissected animals in boxes. In the end, Judd was less an end point than a reset, an end of modernism and a beginning of everything that followed, who, in trying to invent a form of pure object, actually ended up producing a platform — or a theater — onto which everyone else’s ideas about everything else could be projected.
I first saw Judd’s work in the mid-1970s, when I was in my early 20s. Even though it was barely ten years after Judd caused a sea change, his art already felt like it came from another world. It scared me, like I wasn’t up to coming to grips with whether these manufactured objects could be art. Judd’s work isn’t even spiced with the puckish, riddling frisson of Duchamp’s readymades, which his boxes might otherwise call to mind in their pure objectness. It also doesn’t have the messianic fervor of early monochrome artists like Malevich and Rodchenko, who made art out of rules, metaphysics, and philosophy on canvas. Judd, for all his seriousness, is less grand and more quotidian — nearer to the stripped-down wholeness, visual lucidity, and existential absorption conjured by photographer Walker Evans. Both artists feel close to the land, hardscrabble, serious, dignified, Spartan.
Decades after first encountering his work, I’m still of two minds about Judd. I love the totality of this Renaissance man who made paintings, sculptures, prints, and furniture; designed buildings; created outdoor works in his own landscapes; transformed museum-exhibition ideas; and was perhaps the best art critic between 1959 and 1965 — when much art criticism was seen by artists as almost universally bad. (Peak Judd is his awesome West Texas Gesamtkunstwerk in Marfa, itself now a strange, genuine art-world pilgrimage site turned generic Instagram backdrop.) Yet I also hate what Judd represents, how unyielding and antagonistic his abstract art can be.
Several decades on, the art of Donald Judd is still stunning. In the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that opened March 1, smartly curated by Ann Temkin, Yasmil Raymond, Tamar Margalit, and Erica Cooke, all the work looks fresh (kudos to the conservators), but the early paintings and objects are especially vivid. The intensity of the cadmium red, often made tactile by roughened surfaces of board and wood. The physicality of the specific shapes, such as a yellow oval affixed to the support or a tin pan embedded there. The first tentative move into actual space with a painting whose aluminum top and bottom curl outward toward us. And then the initial objects, cut in sharp geometries, set boldly on the floor without pedestal or plinth.
Also very impressive, the second gallery presents several pieces Judd exhibited in his first solo museum show in 1968 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. At this point, he had already begun to repeat elements, as in his “stacks,” which consist of identical shelves set on a wall at regular intervals from floor to ceiling, as well as in his “channels,” which are comprised of rectangular frames spaced on the floor so as to describe a perfect square. Represented here, too, are other familiar series, such as his “progressions,” which are made of box and bullnose units sized and arranged along horizontal bars according to mathematical orders like the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.). The second gallery marks a shift in production from the homemade work of the early 1960s, when his father, a skilled carpenter, assisted Judd, to the pieces fabricated later in the decade in iron, stainless steel, brass, aluminum, and Plexiglas by sheet-metal specialists. Some of these objects have a fragile finish that in the ’70s Judd offset with pieces in unpainted plywood, which recovered the crafted hardiness of the early work and allowed him to go larger than he had heretofore.
Along with a few other templates, Judd turned these series into a basic language that he deployed in different materials, colors, and sizes for the next two decades of his life, excellent instances of which are displayed in the third gallery. The fourth gallery of the exhibition is dominated by pieces that represent a final twist in his practice. In 1984, Judd began to collaborate with a Swiss fabricator that helped him assemble long blocks of color units in enameled aluminum. This is Judd at his most pictorial (the blocks are often set on the wall); the random combinations of colors might call up the grids of Ellsworth Kelly or even the charts of Gerhard Richter. This is also Judd at his most free; the work has little of the asperity usually associated with “late style,” but then Judd died prematurely, felled by cancer in 1994 at the age of sixty-five.
With Judd it is impossible to separate the artist from the critic, and some of his words remain as forceful as most of his objects. “Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture,” he stated in the famous first lines of “Specific Objects” (1965). “Much of the motivation in the new work is to get clear of these forms. The use of three dimensions is an obvious alternative.” Although Judd appeared to dismiss painting in toto—“The main thing wrong” with it, he remarked in his usual deadpan, “is that it is a rectangular plane faced flat against the wall”—it was Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt who prompted his shift into three dimensions. Along with a commitment to large scale, unmodulated color, and emphatic materiality, their painting mandated a “sense of singleness” for Judd, who felt that this “wholeness” had “a better future” outside that medium.1
When you were a child, you likely didn’t watch “Gigi” on the TV in your parents’ townhouse with the Studio 54 impresario Steve Rubell, as New York City’s brightest social and creative lights rang in the new year on the floors below. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut probably didn’t take a liking to you at a social gathering, showing you off to guests as if you were his very own 3-year-old. And it’s virtually certain that even if you did call your own father by his first name, and even if that name happened to be “Don,” your dad was decidedly not the legendary artist Donald Judd, nor did you live in a cast-iron building turned permanent Minimalist art installation in the heart of SoHo, at a time when the neighborhood was not a tony shopping destination but a kind of frontier village — albeit one with loading docks and factories instead of vegetable patches and chicken coops.
Though they might have something of the enchanted quality of a fairy tale, these experiences did, in fact, happen to (respectively) Patricia Herrera Lansing, the daughter of the fashion designer Carolina Herrera; to Zoe Jackson, scion of the actors LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Samuel L. Jackson; and to Flavin and Rainer Judd (named after their father’s fellow Minimalists and friends, the choreographer Yvonne Rainer and the sculptor Dan Flavin). And they happened, crucially, in 1980s New York — a time and place that allowed for an eccentric and productive sociocultural cross-pollination that seems, with every passing year, as the city becomes more expensive and more staid, less and less likely to recur.
For these now-adult children — born at different stages in their parents’ lives, they range in age from 27 to 53 — often first-generation New Yorkers growing up in the then still-gritty, still-weird, still-in-flux East Village or SoHo or TriBeCa or Harlem or even Park Slope, life was significantly not about (or not just about) having famous parents. Rather, it was about witnessing culture making at the closest range possible — from within the family unit — and learning along the way how to become culture makers themselves. And while the privileges that come along with a proximity to glamour and, sometimes, resources, cannot be denied, these children were often exposed to something far rarer and more expansive. They learned at a young age that family could widen to include friends and co-conspirators in both celebration and creative work. And they gathered from both their parents and their parents’ associates that creative work was neither magic nor a chore, but something you never stopped doing, a matter “of passion and choice,” in the words of the writer Nadja Spiegelman, the daughter of cartoonist Art Spiegelman and editor Françoise Mouly. Cultural work was an occupation that was just as, if not more legitimate than, say, practicing law, like those “funny people with briefcases who carried papers,” as Flavin Judd says.
Rare Donald Judd Paintings Made the Trek From Marfa to Miami
Twentieth-century artist and architect Donald Judd didn’t want his masterpieces traveling around like an artsy circus.
"In Marfa, Texas, he set up 16 buildings with his art as he wanted it to be seen," says Ellen Salpeter, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) Miami and Judd Foundation board member. “He was known as the father of the permanently installed space, and it is a pilgrimage and journey to see it.”
In addition to maintaining his wildly artsy compound in Marfa — which displays modernist and period furniture, large-scale architectural projects, early paintings from the '50s and '60s, and other pieces — Judd also had a private living space and studio in New York City, which is now open to guests.
But beyond these permanent houses, some rare items trickle out into museum shows across the nation. And some truly remarkable work, paired with a great backstory, is being housed at the ICA.
The exhibition "Donald Judd: Paintings" presents 14 paintings created by the artist between 1959 and 1961, which were vital transitional years for Judd in his experimentation in form and color. These experimentations ultimately helped form the ways he represented space and color across so many mediums.
As for the paintings themselves, though they might seem simplistic, Judd fans will see some prevailing patterns and colors that were later prevalent in other forms. In addition to showing paintings, the ICA will display one of Judd’s sculptures, Untitled (1964).
“Many of these pieces have not been seen by the public ever, and what an opportunity for us,” says Salpeter, who co-curated the exhibit alongside Judd’s son, Flavin, and the ICA’s chief curator, Alex Gartenfeld. “These pieces were in storage in Texas, and the foundation and Judd family granted us permission to show the work.”
How does this exhibition fit into the ICA’s broader mission and current times?
"Our goal and mission is to present the most important art of our time and to ensure whatever we represent is relevant to the world around us," Salpeter says. "Painting has seen a resurgence. If you go to museums today, it can feel like people stopped painting in the '70s and '80s. I think when the public sees Judd’s work from then, they’ll say, ‘Wow, that is not what I think of when I think of Donald Judd.’ It gives them insight and a new appreciation of everything that’s out there."
The writings of Donald Judd are triumphantly matter-of-fact. The sculptor, who died in 1994 at the age of sixty-five, was decisive even about his second thoughts and doubts. “Cocksure certainty and squirming uncertainty are both wrong,” he once wrote. “It’s possible to think and act without being simple and fanatic and it’s possible to accept uncertainty, which is nearly everything, quietly.” In the essays that he published over more than three decades, he turned even his equivocations into dictums as he explored subjects that included not only art, architecture, and the art world, but also urban development and national affairs.
What rescues even Judd’s most sweeping pronouncements from crackpot irascibility is the easy, pungent power of his prose. He arranges relatively simple nouns and verbs (and a minimum of adjectives) in sentences and paragraphs that have a plainspoken, workmanlike beauty. Judd’s direct, unequivocal writings are a perfect match for his sculptures, with their precisely calculated angles and unabashed celebration of industrial materials such as plywood, aluminum, and Plexiglas. This fiercely independent artist belongs in a long line of American aesthetes who embraced an unadorned style, including figures as various as Ernest Hemingway, Barnett Newman, Virgil Thomson, and Walker Evans.
Reading Judd’s prose two decades after his death, you will experience, amid the overheated and gaseous atmosphere of the contemporary art world, an invigorating blast of cold, clear air. Donald Judd Writings, although not the first collection of his prose, is the first to span his entire career. Edited by Flavin Judd, the artist’s son, and Caitlin Murray, the book includes, in addition to previously published work, selections from notes that Judd made over the years. All the way through, you hear the voice of a man who was never afraid to say no. It was not the refusal of an outsider, however, at least not in his earlier years of writing and exhibiting. Judd’s no is that of the dedicated avant-gardist—the man who leads the charge. This no is fundamentally positive and celebratory—a cry for the new.
Judd believed that the search for the new involved, both in his own work and the work of his contemporaries, a rejection of the conventions of painting and sculpture in favor of new forms, which were often aggressively curious or idiosyncratic and startlingly sized or scaled. Judd refused to favor either representational or abstract images. He was an enthusiast for Claes Oldenburg’s oversized quotidian objects, Lee Bontecou’s shaped canvas convexities, Lucas Samaras’s bedecked and bejeweled boxes, and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent geometries. He gathered these variegated works by his contemporaries under a singular rubric when he titled one of his most famous essays “Specific Objects” (1964).
Although Judd had a great deal to say about many varieties of art, architecture, and design, he was a man with one big idea. “Most works finally have one quality,” he wrote in “Specific Objects.” “The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.” In Judd’s grandest sculptures he certainly proved his point. I’m thinking especially of the hundred aluminum boxes gathered together in two buildings in Marfa, Texas, and the richly polychromed wall-hanging compositions of his later years.
While everybody who cares about the arts will agree that unity and complexity are both qualities to be admired, there is a fundamental divide between those who crave a complexity that may risk disunity and those who crave a unity that may give short shrift to complexity. Judd, although his heart was always with unity, knew that it was enriched by variety. His hundred aluminum boxes, although alike in their external dimensions, are subdivided inside in many different ways. His polychromed wall-hanging compositions dazzle with their playful, unpredictable color orchestrations.
In an essay entitled “Symmetry” (1985), Judd declared that “art, for myself, and architecture, for everyone, should always be symmetrical except for a good reason.” But he immediately went on to observe that “symmetry itself allows variation,” and that there are forms of symmetry that are “very close to asymmetry.” There are intricacies amid Judd’s simplicities. That’s what gives both his sculpture and his writing their staying power.
Judd grew up in New Jersey, served in Korea in 1946–1947, and attended the Art Students League and Columbia University, where he studied philosophy and graduated cum laude in 1953. The first three essays in Donald Judd Writings, previously unpublished, were written while he was doing graduate work in art history at Columbia later in the 1950s. They reveal a mind and a style almost fully formed. In these essays about a Peruvian wood carving, a marble relief by the seventeenth-century French sculptor Pierre Puget, and an Abstract Expressionist painting by the New York artist James Brooks, there is already the methodical attentiveness and the razor-sharp analysis.
Judd abhors a mystery. He demands clarity. In describing an impossibly crowded Baroque battle scene, he cuts straight through the pileup of human beings in various states of stress, arguing that the painting is “organized through a virtual grid of diagonals of varying directions and prominence.” Judd took at least one course with the great art historian Meyer Schapiro at Columbia, which leads me to wonder if he was somehow influenced by Schapiro’s bold but methodical mind—by his combination of boundless curiosity, strenuous critique, and analytical precision.
“I leapt into the world an empiricist,” Judd wrote in 1981 in an essay about the Russian avant-garde. In the graduate school essay about James Brooks, he quoted David Hume’s ideas about “the nature of substance,” and commented that “much present American painting seems related to the indigenous pragmatic philosophy, especially Peirce, and its source, the similar British Empiricists.” Judd began with an empiricist’s taste for the concrete, the particular, and the specific. That taste never left him. He wanted to nail things down. He began his long discussion of Brooks’s lyrical abstraction with a simple declaration: “In the contemporary dichotomy of the dispersion or concentration of form, Brooks’s work is mediate.” In the next few sentences, he assigned particular places within this contemporary dichotomy not only to Brooks but also to Jackson Pollock, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and a Frenchman, Pierre Soulages. Judd, still a student, was very much in control—a young, masterful mind, sizing up the situation.
Beginning in the late 1950s, when many writers were still inclined to cast what was being referred to as the new American painting of Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko in a romantic light, Judd argued that these artists weren’t dreamers and mythologizers but realists and pragmatists, albeit of an altogether different kind. Writing about Pollock in 1967, he complained that most discussions of Pollock were “loose and unreasonable.” No doubt thinking of the writers who had associated Pollock’s mazelike dripped canvases with mystical cosmologies or the hurly-burly of urban life, Judd observed that “almost any kind of statement can be derived from the work: philosophical, psychological, sociological, political.” He wanted to distinguish Pollock’s paintings from the expressionism of Soutine and van Gogh, which he saw as “portray[ing] immediate emotions.” This, so he explained, “occurs through a sequence of observing, feeling, and recording.” Pollock, Judd believed, wasn’t concerned with emotions but with “sensations.” Emotions were evolutionary; sensations were immediate. “The dripped paint in most of Pollock’s paintings is dripped paint,” he wrote. “It’s that sensation, completely immediate and specific, and nothing modifies it.”
For Judd writing became a way of reasoning his way through the world—of reconciling the singularity of his own artistic vision with the chaotic heterogeneity of the art and ideas that he encountered everywhere he turned. When he first collected his writings in 1975, he claimed that much if not most of what he had written between 1959 and 1965 for Arts magazine he had written “as a mercenary and would never have written…otherwise.” Writing had been little more than a way to eke out a living. “Since there were no set hours and since I could work at home it was a good part-time job.” I don’t think this can be taken at face value. While Judd was surely frustrated by having to write short reviews of the work of artists who interested him little if at all, there was a wonderful steadiness about his eye and his mind as he chronicled the sea changes that were overtaking the New York art world in the early 1960s. It was a tumultuous time, with contemporary art acquiring a growing prestige even as many artists and writers worried that the old modern ideas and ideals that had nourished the Abstract Expressionists were proving unworkable and perhaps totally irrelevant. Judd was eager to sort it all out and find a way forward.
Critical essays and reviews resurrected decades after they were first written can convey the atmosphere of a time, but they can also feel dim and obscure—the stakes once so high now registering as little more than stale skirmishes, with yesterday’s battle lines all but erased. I can understand readers dismissing as hardly more than ill-tempered backbiting and gossip Judd’s characterization of Clement Greenberg’s views as “little league fascism” or Michael Fried’s opinions as “pedantic pseudo-philosophical analysis.” But if Judd’s rhetoric sometimes reached a fever pitch, it was not without reason. A great deal was at stake as the authority of the Abstract Expressionists waned. Judd was one of a number of artists who felt the need to speak out and found themselves doubling as eloquent critics. In Art News and The Nation, the painter Fairfield Porter looked toward a revival of representational painting that might build on the strengths of de Kooning’s painterly abstraction. And writing alongside Judd in Arts, Sidney Tillim, although a painter little known today, vigorously articulated the sense shared by many that Abstract Expressionism had mostly degenerated into mannerism and affectation.
For all that Judd believed in the unity, wholeness, and singularity of works of art, he was equally convinced that the conditions that invited creation were variable, diverse, and unpredictable. In both “Specific Objects” and another essay written in 1964, “Local History,” Judd rejected any unified theory of the history of art. This was the heart of his disagreement with Greenberg—as well as with Fried, who even as he was extending and transforming Greenberg’s ideas launched a direct assault on Judd in his essay “Art and Objecthood.” Judd sensed an underlying and unwanted Hegelian idealism in Greenberg’s belief that any authentic artistic style, as Greenberg put it, “had its own inherent laws of development.” “The history of art and art’s condition at any time,” Judd wrote in 1964, “are pretty messy. They should stay that way.”
Judd disliked the simplification implicit in a stylistic label such as Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, he rejected the labels that were ascribed to his own work and that of close friends, such as Minimalism and ABC Art. “‘Crisis,’ ‘revolutionary,’ and the like,” he observed, “were similar attempts to simplify the situation, but through its historical location instead of its nature.” Judd, whatever the unified look of his own work, applauded the pluralism of the early 1960s. He saw a situation in which “a lot of new artists” had “developed their work as simply their own work. There were almost no groups and there were no movements.” He believed not in world history but in what he called local history.
Judd had his first one-man show at the Green Gallery in New York in 1963, at a time when he was as active as a critic as he would ever be. He exhibited a number of works that hung on the wall and behaved rather like paintings, even as their curved and convex edges, insistently symmetrical compositions, and elements of galvanized iron and aluminum put gallerygoers on notice that they were dealing not with metaphors but with actualities. Perhaps even more arresting were a few works that Judd set on the floor. With their blunt, carpentered wooden shapes, they suggested enigmatic inventions not yet under copyright. The most striking was a right angle made of two pieces of wood painted cadmium red, with a black pipe fitted between them and also right-angled, so as to create a pokerfaced juxtaposition of right-angled red wood and right-angled black pipe.
The inscrutability of Judd’s work, which some might be tempted to describe as a Platonic cool, could more accurately be described as an impassioned particularity. The key to it is to be found in the distinction between emotions and sensations that Judd made when he wrote about Pollock. From the very first, he wanted to present gallerygoers with surprising sensations. In the early work exhibited at the Green Gallery, it was sensations of rectilinearity, right-angledness, curvedness, and redness. Judd turned his back on narrative or storytelling, which abstract artists from Kandinsky and Brancusi to de Kooning and David Smith had not so much jettisoned as reimagined in nonnaturalistic ways. Judd hungered for something sharp, clear, and immediate. He was for being, not becoming.
In 1989, looking back to the idealism of the early twentieth century, Judd remarked that “Mondrian tried to keep the larger view in mind, while I, we, are not sure that there is a larger view.” That “we” is striking—a declaration of a communal sense of diminishment. For all the aloof, mandarin elegance of his art, Judd was in many respects a characteristic figure of the later 1960s and early 1970s, when the initial hopes of the Civil Rights movement and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society had given way to despair following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy, the traumas of the inner cities, the struggles of the antiwar movement, and the ever-growing radicalization of the left. Judd’s work was fueled by a determination to create something extraordinarily lucid in a world where confusion reigned. He had no choice but to embrace the particular and enlarge it—ennoble it.
Speeding in a pickup truck along an unpaved road in the Chihuahuan Desert, Flavin Judd, son of the late artist Donald Judd, lets out a hoot of delight as the horizon ahead is filled by the raw expanse of the Chinati Mountains. “This is why Don came to Texas,” he says. “Marfa”—the lonely cattle town that Judd transformed into an art pilgrimage site—“was really just a grocery store and a school for him.” Glimpsed through the cracked windshield are cattle grazing in fields dotted with cactus and buzzards soaring overhead. For the entire 90-minute drive, there’s not another car to be seen. Wearing a weather-beaten Stetson, denim jacket and cowboy boots, Flavin, 49, has inherited his father’s passion for this radical emptiness. The view is so poetic that he almost slows down. “This is the most dangerous stretch of road,” he notes at one point, as the speedometer hovers at 90 mph. “It’s where the deer hang out.” Laughing, he presses his foot to the pedal and breaks 100.
Behind a cattle gate stands Casa Perez, one of Donald Judd’s three ranches on the 40,000 acres of land that he collectively called Ayala de Chinati. Framed by the bluffs of the Pinto Canyon, the plain adobe structure was built in the early 1900s. Beneath the windmill sits a circular water tank with a wooden deck, where Flavin and his younger sister, Rainer, used to swim as kids. “Just watch out for rattlesnakes,” he says before pulling out an old key to unlock the metal grilles over the doors and windows.
Inside the two-bedroom ranch house, there is a sense of casual domesticity, as if Judd might have just stepped out on an errand—which in a sense is true, since he left Marfa on a trip to Germany in late 1993 with no idea that he was terminally ill with cancer and would never return. Next to the back door is a small bookshelf with tomes that reveal his myriad interests. ("A History of Ottoman Architecture, Gaudí, Birds of Texas, Stars and Planets.") As with all the buildings Judd acquired, he left the basic structure untouched but transformed the interior into a bright, open space. In this rustic isolation, it’s startling to see one of Judd’s signature box sculptures on the crisp white wall. During his 40-year career, he created over 3,000 artworks, most of them untitled, a catalog headache for curators. One renowned piece consists of 100 enormous milled-aluminum blocks displayed in two former artillery sheds at Marfa’s Chinati Foundation; his passion for the box was such that a popular bumper sticker souvenir reads I █ JUDD. No less striking is Judd’s own furniture. In the ranch house’s homey kitchen, where black frying pans hang over a rustic stove, stands a wooden counter he designed with the same clean, strong lines and rigorous craftsmanship as his sculpture. There is also a wooden daybed crafted in a raw style that has since been dubbed “Texas rough.” The sparse layout—the furniture is deliberately pulled away from the walls—makes the pieces seem like site-specific works. “Judd’s furniture was born of necessity, but each piece is a dissertation on proportion worthy of a Renaissance master,” says Michael Govan, CEO and director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which acquired, in conjunction with the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Garden, a desk and chairs Judd made for Flavin. “You could not ask for something more simple—the wood is still the same width as when it came from the lumberyard—but it is transformed by his compositional intelligence. It’s not as abstract as his art, since you actually sit on his chairs, but there is the same beauty.”
“I would put Judd’s furniture together with his sculpture, his writings, his houses,” says curator Ann Temkin, who is overseeing a major Judd retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art when new construction there is complete. “The idea that a whole room would contain one simple steel box and Judd would consider it full has had a huge influence on the architecture and design world over the last 25 years.”
Despite the furniture’s influence, since Judd’s death in 1994, its availability for purchase has remained a well-kept secret in the art world. Over the years, almost every high-end design company on the planet has made offers to reproduce it, but the not-for-profit Judd Foundation—which was established upon the artist’s death to safeguard his property and artistic legacy and is overseen by Flavin and Rainer, 46—has always declined. Instead, it continued to produce his designs strictly on a made-to-order basis, resulting in the ultimate bespoke furniture: The metal pieces take 12 weeks to make in Judd’s foundry in Switzerland; the wooden versions, created mostly in California by one of Judd’s favorite craftsmen, Jeff Jamieson, take a minimum of 18 weeks. Each of Judd’s designs can be done in 21 colors of anodized aluminum or copper and a variety of woods—for a total of 345 combinations for metal or over 900 combinations for wood—which are listed in two fat binders kept in his former loft home in New York, 101 Spring Street, now a combination Judd Foundation office, museum and shrine. The popular daybed costs $12,600, while a wooden desk with chairs is $14,500. (The pieces produced when Judd was still alive, known to aficionados as “pre-’94” or “lifetime furniture,” are valued much higher, with some pieces fetching prices in the hundreds of thousands; one stainless-steel coffee table from the early ’70s sold at Sotheby’s in 2011 for $506,500.)
Starting next month, for the first time, the Judd Foundation is making available pieces that will be ready to purchase directly from inventory, meaning that impatient Judd fans can acquire them without a lengthy wait time. For the first release, the foundation selected the Corner Chair and the Library Stool as iconic pieces that Judd used in Marfa. More will be added each year. Anodized aluminum was chosen for the $6,900 Corner Chair, while the wood for the $1,900 Library Stool is pine, an homage to the first pieces Judd made in Marfa from the materials that were on hand. Also in May, an exhibition of Judd’s “pre-’94” furniture will be on view at the foundation’s New York headquarters at 101 Spring Street.
The renewed attention to Judd’s furniture provides more than just a curious footnote to the life of one of the 20th century’s most significant American artists. It also gives insight into his complex character and his grandiose vision in Marfa. “There was no separation between Judd’s art and life,” says Jenny Moore, director of the Chinati Foundation. According to his children, the desire to live with his own designs grew from his rejection of the strip-mall culture that he felt was being imposed on American society by corporations, along with a deluge of disposable, dispiritingly ugly objects. “Don took the way things looked seriously,” says Flavin. “There is a reason for everything, and it’s all interconnected.”
Judd bought 101 Spring Street in 1968 for a modest $68,000. Each floor of 101, as the 19th-century factory is familiarly known, has enormous windows and soaring ceilings, creating an exhilarating sense of space, within which every piece of furniture and art is meticulously placed. There is the same elegant morsa, or prosciutto holder, as in Marfa, the same Dean & Deluca olive oil bottles. It was here that Judd created his first piece of furniture in 1970, a bed built a few inches off the floor, despite the inconvenience for his then-wife, choreographer Julie Finch, who was pregnant at the time. “It was hell,” Finch says, laughing as she recalls having to roll over and make the bed before she got up, since she couldn’t reach it while standing. She never asked Judd why he had made it so low and large. “It was very elegant in the room. Why would he consult me? He was designing a bed!” Furniture was already a serious business: A fight over a brown corduroy sofa Finch bought from Bloomingdale’s was one of the most tumultuous in a volatile marriage, the kids remember. (The couch is still in their mother’s possession, they add. “It’s actually really nice,” Rainer says.)
In 1977, Judd made the move to Marfa. By then, he was renowned for his ever-more-monolithic abstract sculptures—he was only 39 when he had a major show at the Whitney—but had become disillusioned with the New York art scene, which he described as “harsh and glib.” In SoHo, gentrification had begun, galleries were sprouting, tourists were arriving in droves, and Judd, a shy man, found his celebrity a burden. Finch recalls people stopping him in the street to make comments. “There was a lot of envy of his fame,” she says. “Other artists were resentful. So he just stopped walking around SoHo.” On a creative level, Judd had rejected the gallery system, in which his work was shown only for a short time in less-than-ideal spaces and sometimes even damaged during installation. He had a vision of finding a remote site where his work could rest permanently.
The choice of West Texas has become part of the Judd legend. He first considered Baja California, and then turned to the high grasslands of Presidio County, the emptiest corner of Texas, which he had first seen in 1946 as a young G.I. on his way to Korea. (When the bus stopped in Van Horn, he famously sent a telegram to his mother: DEAR MOM VAN HORN TEXAS. 1260 POPULATION. NICE TOWN BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY MOUNTAINS LOVE=DON.) Twenty-five years later, in 1971, he came across Marfa by chance. “There was no plan,” Flavin says. (In one essay, Judd says that he might have chosen Australia had he visited it earlier.) When a military base, which had been set up in the early 1900s, and an Army airfield closed after World War II, Marfa lost perhaps half its population. Land and buildings were cheap, and Judd had funds.
In the following years, he bought eight properties within the town itself, including an abandoned bank, supermarket and beauty salon as well as the three ranches in brush country. Soon they were converted into his art studio, architecture office, galleries and library, employing over 50 people. None of these personal spaces were intended to be seen by the public. (“He was building it for himself,” Flavin says; his father was creating “different buildings for different parts of his brain. Think of Marfa as one big house with the structures as different rooms.”) The heart of this self-contained world was known as The Block, where Flavin and Rainer lived until high school. According to those who visited in the ’80s, there was a sense of entering a different dimension presided over by Judd. Locals still like to reminisce about the artist’s difficult ways, his drinking, his fits of fury, as well as his crackling intelligence and charm.
Not everyone was welcoming. West Texas was still trapped in the conservative ’50s, and many of the old rancher and Border Patrol residents looked askance at Judd’s ponytail and free-spirited family. (“We were the hippie, Commie f—s,” recalls Flavin.) Still, Judd moved to Marfa full time in 1977, coinciding with an acrimonious divorce with Finch that included Judd picking up the kids after school one afternoon in New York and whisking them to Texas, from where he conducted a custody battle that he ultimately won.
Rainer and Flavin are today so close that they sometimes seem like telepathic twins, finishing each other’s sentences or giving the punch lines to each other’s jokes. They grew up discussing philosophy around the dinner table in The Block and still enjoy bouncing abstract ideas back and forth, probing them with restless curiosity. They also have a playful sense of humor. For much of the time talking about their father (whom they have always called “Don” rather than “Dad”), they sit on a couch in a friend’s house playing with her son’s Legos, joking that they feel like they are in a therapy session. (Flavin, who is named for Judd’s close friend Dan Flavin, has three children with his wife Michèle—Miuccia, Lysandre, and Pascal—and is based in Los Angeles, while Rainer lives in New York.)
They explain that Judd’s decision to make furniture in Texas was a direct response to a practical need. “The furniture you could buy in Marfa was so, so, so, so, so bad that he couldn’t look at it,” says Rainer. Judd also reacted against his parents’ overstuffed suburban décor in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, and yearned for the simplicity of his grandparents’ rural lifestyle. “They were farmers, so they just had the stuff they needed, damn it, and they weren’t going to pretend to be anything they weren’t,” Flavin says. One of Judd’s favorite dictums was, “A good chair is a good chair.”
When they moved to Marfa, Judd decided to make beds for the kids, among only a few pieces he built with his own hands. “He was not a natural carpenter,” says Rainer. “He was not what you would call a handy dude. But that allowed him to excel in collaboration. He was really good at getting people to trust themselves and use whatever craftsmanship they had, to take a risk.” Soon he hired two local brothers to execute his designs. Desks, daybeds, chairs, bookshelves and tables followed as he needed them.
Judd had already spent years studying “scale and proportion and harmony and even our needs in regard to light and space, the psychological effects of how much ceiling you have over you,” says Rainer. “He had a Ph.D. in all these subjects by the time he started making furniture.” Its popularity in art circles followed naturally as the first intrepid visitors to Marfa saw and admired the pieces. In 1984, Judd expanded into metal furniture, although he always distinguished between his art and the utilitarian pieces. These were not released in editions but were instead individually numbered and stamped, and unlike his immaculate artworks, they were made to be used and touched, gaining a patina of age.
It’s hard now to remember just how radical Judd’s furniture designs were at the time, inspiring several exhibitions during the ’80s and early ’90s in New York and Europe. Not everyone in the art world was adulatory; there was a sense that Judd was outside his field. “There was a whiny article,” Flavin recalls. “It was like: ‘We had to suffer through Dan Flavin’s drawings, and now we have to suffer through Donald Judd’s furniture.’ It was considered, ‘Why are you guys doing this? You shouldn’t be doing this—you’re artists!’ ”
But Judd approached the furniture with utmost seriousness. Govan recalls visiting him in Marfa in the early ’90s and seeing the latest drawings scattered across his desk. As with his art, the fabrication process itself was a key element. “Judd used materials straight from the factory—industrially produced materials—and added the quality of the handmade to them,” Govan says. (One of his most radical, and influential, innovations in the ’60s was to argue that an artist’s
Has there been a more rigorous sceptic than Donald Judd? Set aside, for a moment, the philosophers who only think about the world, and picture Judd in Long Island City at the Bernstein Brothers metal shop in 1970 telling fabricators how to make his work. Picture him at home in Manhattan at 101 Spring Street, the building he bought in 1968 as a studio, home and space "in which to install work of mine and of others" so he could spend a long time looking to see whether or not something worked. Imagine him at his desk with pen and paper complaining about those who were too sure: "I gave up on Michael Fried when I heard him say during a symposium that he couldn’t see how anyone who liked Noland and Olitski or Stella could also like Oldenburg and Rauschenberg or Lichtenstein, whichever."
Judd liked Noland and Olitski and Stella and Oldenburg and Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein—and that's all it took, Fried was already disproven. It was too artificial for Judd, this idea that art should hang together in a perfect ideological constellation. Who was Fried to say, as he did at that symposium, that anyone who liked both Noland (the supposed heir to Pollock) and Lichtenstein (a supposedly frivolous aberration) was "in the grip of the wrong experience"? What made Fried the adjudicator of proper and improper experience? Judd felt that whatever a work of art had to say, it said so clearly and directly. It required no special knowledge; it had no ulterior motive or "any hidden subjective depth," as the scholar David Raskin says. It was all right there.
"Most people have some philosophical ideas," Judd wrote in 1983. "Almost none live by one of the grand systems, only by their fossil fragments." The crystal ball of Modernism was broken. Now each individual had to piece things back together in a way that made sense to him or her. It was senseless to form a "closed situation," which he accused "Clement Greenberg and his followers" of trying to do in an essay he published in the magazine Studio International in 1969. Their teleological ideas were not only needless; they were absurd:
"I’ve expected a lot of stupid things to reoccur – movements, labels – but I didn’t think there would be another attempt to impose a universal style. It’s naive and it’s directly opposed to the nature of contemporary art, including that of the artists they support. Their opinions are the same as those of the critics and followers of the late 1950s: there is only one way of working – one kind of form, one medium; everything else is irrelevant and trivial; history is on our side; preserve the true art; preserve the true criticism. This means that Grace Hartigan and Michael Goldberg were better than Reinhardt and Rauschenberg and that Jack Bush and Edward Avedisian are better than Oldenburg and Flavin. Both groups, by these attitudes, slowly destroy the work they’re protecting."
These are the polemics that emerge from Donald Judd: Writings (or the orange book, for the colour of its cover), which was published by the Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books in November. The book reveals a deeply incredulous man whose arguments were sustained and broad. He was against dealers and collectors, sub-par painters, architects of all kinds (they are "like dentists, in that they are routine and don’t think beyond what they’re doing, but at least dentists are practical"), art handlers ("the various shippers are careless and usually the museum staff that handles art is careless"), critics (Peter "Schjeldahl should try to think and not ramble and jeer"), clueless middling bureaucrats, the US government, Richard Nixon and the first George Bush. He had not the slightest appetite for polite back patting. Ellsworth Kelly, a gentle man if there ever was one, once told me with a resigned sigh that Judd had dismissed him as a "good old European" artist, a barb Judd used often.
Doubt always came first. Even his 1965 essay Specific Objects—which sets out to define, in the broadest terms, the characteristics of the best contemporary art—begins negatively. The opening line is: "Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture." The next paragraph begins: "The new three-dimensional work doesn’t constitute a movement, school, or style. The common aspects are too general and too little common to define a movement. The differences are greater than the similarities." And they are. The artists he was drawn to—Yayoi Kusama, John Chamberlain, Lee Bontecou, George Segal, Ronald Bladen, H.C. Westermann—make a distinctly heterogeneous group. They share less a formal or conceptual tendency than an ability to attract Judd's interest.
Fried was wary. In "interest," he saw the true measure of Judd's lack of principle. The artist had many misgivings, but where were his positive values? What did he believe in, what did he defend? In Specific Objects, he wrote that a work of art "needs only to be interesting," which Fried dismissed as intellectual frivolity. For the critic, there was much more at stake. A work of art needed to be significantly more than "interesting"; it had to compel conviction—"specifically, the conviction that a particular painting or sculpture or poem or piece of music can or cannot support comparison with past work," as he wrote in his essay Art and Objecthood, first published in Artforum in 1967. Minimalism (or Literalism, as Fried called it) had no such investment in tradition. It negated art until all that remained was the mere, hollow objecthood of a spare metal box on a gallery floor.
Judd's reply, which came in 1969, was characteristically biting: "That prose was only emotional recreation and Fried’s thinking is just formal analysis and both methods used exclusively are shit." Yet the critic had a point: Judd's method seemed to always emphasise negativity and doubt, whereas for Fried, doubt was a hurdle to be overcome. For the critic, as the art historian James Meyer writes in his book, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, "Only an assertion of faith in the means of expression could stave off the dadaist doubt that art could still matter, still convince, still have something to say." Persistent scepticism looked to Fried like plain nihilism and nothing short of religious zeal was the proper corrective. It is no coincidence that Art and Objecthood begins with an epigraph by the 18th-century Colonial Calvinist preacher Jonathan Edwards.
But Fried had missed something about Judd. He was an atheist, certainly, but a pessimist? That cannot explain his belief that art had political and moral dimensions. Barnett Newman, one of Judd's idols, felt that if his paintings were truly understood, "it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism," which was a sentiment Judd largely echoed. Like Newman, he was an avowed anarchist and he bristled when a curator from the Guggenheim Museum said their Hans Haacke show from 1971 was cancelled because the museum charter's prohibited political art. "I was offended," Judd said, "since that meant that my work, acceptable as so-called abstraction, had no political meaning." It did have such content, he felt, because a work of art was like a person, a complete character, full of the same convictions and confusions, half-thoughts, guesses, intentions and wavering reflections. "It's seldom said," Judd wrote in 1984, "that art involves all of the concerns of philosophy, even of living."
When Judd was still young, he developed the conviction that only a mechanical description of a work of art could be true; anything else was empty speculation. In 1959, when he was a graduate student in art history at Columbia University, he wrote a paper for Meyer Schapiro where he mapped out a painting by James Brooks, with letters designated for various sections, and wrote:
"'E' and 'C' are both light and similar in color, yet 'C' functions as a concavity while 'E”'is convex and is one of several such areas surrounding 'C.' The convexity is formed by the outward bulging contour, by the light orange patch and the black line – a reference to the frontal black plane of 'D' – laid across 'E,' which prevent its recession and describe its curve, and by a blue-green earth-colored stroke, which pushes the area inward, on an angle into space, also described by the lines, and separates 'E' from 'C.'"
To be fair, Judd was young—only 31—when he wrote this essay and he did not intend it for publication. But a certain tediousness never left him. His prose, especially in large doses, can be tiresome, which was a quality he cultivated. He did not care for Art News poet-critics like Frank O'Hara, whose book on Pollock had "some baloney, and no real thought." Judd's style was tougher, more exact; more practical criticism than art criticism. Nuts and bolts were what he was after: shape, colour, tone, hue. In a review of Burgoyne Diller's work from 1963, he wrote: "The color structures suggest the idea that different colors, given the same volume, appear to have different volumes in space. Or that different volumes, painted the right colors, can be equal or otherwise related. This is a good idea, but it needs considerable development."
He wrote hundreds of reviews like this between 1959 and 1973, primarily for Arts magazine where Hilton Kramer was the editor and paid $6 for 300 words. The articles are often sharp and articulate, but never quite completely comprehensible. Judd was an exact writer: specific, deliberate, but often too close to the thing to see it whole, like an assembly line worker who only does the fittings. He was an applied critic; his insights came from the mechanics of the thing and he disparaged those full-time writers who "invent labels to pad their irrelevant discourse" while artists actually made art history. No writer since Greenberg had explained Pollock as well as Judd did in his 1967 essay on the painter, but even then he was worried it didn't make sense. "It would take a big effort for me or anyone to think about Pollock’s work in a way that would be intelligible," he said, adding that he couldn't write "what I think should be written about Pollock." To really understand the painter "would be something of a construction. It is necessary to build ways of talking about the work"—to literally make something of it.
Here, at last, is the root of Judd's positive belief: that art is a holistic activity that requires not just ideas, but production, too. Through 1973, the latter had been difficult. Judd's work was expensive to make and difficult to sell. He made most of his money writing until then. In the early 1970s, through the dealer Leo Castelli, he finally found consistent support from the Italian collector Giuseppe Panza, who bought 11 works in those years. Panza was fond of Judd; he liked the artist's pragmatic openness to selling cheap. He wanted to buy in bulk to decorate his Italian villa in Varese. By 1974, he was purchasing not just finished sculptures, but plans too, like a sketch for a work of eight open plywood cubes and another for a sculpture made of 70 brass boxes. It was win-win: Judd had a patron and Panza got a discount by buying just the idea.
From then through the early 1980s, Judd published irregularly. The money he began to earn from his work allowed him to make more of it, which occupied much of his energy. It also helped finance his purchase, in 1973, of a city's block worth of land in Marfa, Texas, where he later spent much of his time. But his relationship with Panza steadily soured. He thought he had been clear with the collector: the works on paper were only proposals, not blueprints. They could not simply be fabricated in Italy without the artist's oversight, as the collector had done. ''The understanding was that my work would be paid for by Panza and constructed under my supervision,'' Judd later said, but that had not happened. Panza, citing lower fabrication costs, simply went ahead and had the works made. Judd alleged that the sculptures were "fakes," but it was too late: Panza, "an attorney, after all, was technically correct," as Meyer points out in his essay The Minimal Unconscious. "The certificates Judd signed pointedly omit the requirement that he make the work." Panza was within his right. "His were 'bad' Judds, perhaps, but they were legal—and so legally speaking—authentic."
Why did Judd's scepticism fail him? Why did his otherwise extreme distrust of collectors, fabricators and handlers, his attentiveness to exhibition design and the rhetoric that surrounded his work abandon him when it came to Panza? Maybe the simple answer is financial: the stability the collector offered may have been too difficult to give up. But the episode also speaks to the limits of Judd's method. Doubt can only take one so far; at a certain point, we all have to take some things for granted, as even he knew. "Otherwise we could never get from A to Z, barely to C, since B would have to be always rechecked," he wrote in 1983. "It’s a short life and a little speed is necessary."
Specific Objectives: The Complex Task of Preserving Donald Judd’s Legacy
One recent afternoon in Donald Judd’s old house in downtown Manhattan, the late artist’s children—Flavin and Rainer—were discussing their father’s career. Flavin has a boyish, unlined face framed by reddish-blond hair. Rainer inherited her slender build from their mother, dancer Julie Finch. Flavin, standing in the kitchen, froze abruptly, his pale eyebrows furrowing. “The meat thing is in the wrong place,” he said.
“No!” his younger sister said, stricken. Absorbing this sacrilege from a balcony, she reconsidered. “Which meat thing? Oh! That meat thing. I actually moved it.”
The meat thing was a morsa, a hefty, surgical-looking clamp designed to slice prosciutto. Flavin regarded the displaced device with consternation. “It’s not supposed to be here,” he said.
“You can move it back,” said Rainer. Dust motes, let alone morsas, don’t usually move in 101 Spring Street, the five-story cadet-blue cast-iron building in SoHo at the corner of Mercer, where Rainer and Flavin spent their early childhood. The building is now the headquarters of the Judd Foundation, established in 1996 to protect and preserve the artist’s work. In the basement are the foundation’s offices; on every other floor is an astonishing feat of conservation.
The top floor glows violet in the aura of a fluorescent sculpture by Dan Flavin, Judd’s friend and his firstborn’s namesake (Rainer is named for Yvonne Rainer, the dancer). Judd’s wool jackets and work shirts hang in small closets. Near the low walnut platform bed, a Judd design, is an example of his early work: a dense assemblage of steel and cadmium red–painted wood that he made by hand in 1961, before he famously began outsourcing fabrication to industrial factories. Down on the second floor, the kitchen and dining area are flooded with the same scorching sunlight causing clothes to stick to tourists on the street below, but with none of the heat, honks, or grime of the outside world. The silent rooms remain almost exactly as Judd left them when he died in 1994. Nothing is arbitrary or accidental. Gingerly exploring the home-studio engenders an acute awareness of oneself as an interloper, a messy unplanned element in this hyper-considered realm, like a germ infiltrating an operating theater. Unlike when Judd lived there without air conditioning, the space is now cool, its temperature perfectly calibrated to keep Judd’s residence, and legacy, on ice.
Born two years apart, in 1968 and 1970, Flavin and Rainer present a tightly unified front. Earlier that June morning, they sat barricaded behind an enormous mahogany table. It is a formidable piece of Judd’s own design: clean, deliberate and utterly uncompromising, rather like the artist himself and the foundation that bears his name, of which his children are co-presidents. The siblings talked about making their father’s prodigious output accessible. “The Judd Foundation is one big tool box,” said Rainer, evoking the archive of Judd’s writings, his carefully installed properties in New York and Marfa, Texas, his 13,000-volume library, and his artwork and furniture. “I mean, hell if we don’t need a tool box right now,” she added.
In November, David Zwirner Books, the publishing imprint of the gallery that represents the Judd Foundation, will release, in collaboration with the foundation, "Donald Judd Writings," a tome containing the artist’s obscurely or never-before published essays, personal letters, and notes. These are woven in amongst the texts collected during his lifetime which were published as "Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975." Better known as the Yellow Book, it was reissued by the foundation this past March. "Donald Judd Writings" augments the known essays on art and architecture—clear, direct and tersely unequivocal—with welcome shades of nuance. In ruminative asides, we witness Judd working through his ideas.
The new book is a prelude to a larger moment for the artist. By now, Judd’s influence is so widespread, so casually ingrained in contemporary art and design, it’s easy to forget it’s there. That will change over the next year. Since 2009, the foundation has been updating Judd’s catalogue raisonné—a previous, necessarily incomplete one was published during his lifetime—and put out a call for works this past May. Next fall will bring a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York curated by Ann Temkin. The long-awaited survey will be Judd’s first in the United States since 1988, when 30 works went on view at the Whitney Museum, and will provide a fresh opportunity to consider his incisive originality and lingering impact.
Meanwhile, Rainer and Flavin preside over a sprawling kingdom. They became executors of their father’s estate when they were 23 and 25, along with Marianne Stockebrand, the German curator who was Judd’s companion for the last four years of his life. (The estate’s assets—including artworks, 101 Spring Street and numerous live/work spaces in Marfa—were ultimately transferred to the foundation.)
The children each inherited $300,000, millions in debt, and a request that would determine the rest of their adult lives: Judd wanted his properties in New York and Marfa to be preserved the way he had so carefully installed them. In Judd’s will, this was his wish; for the heirs it was a commandment. They had no choice, they felt, but to protect these spaces. Others with a stake in Judd’s career disagreed. Controversy has followed the artist posthumously, raising the question: What is the right way to steward an artist’s legacy when some of his most significant works are not objects that can be bought and sold?
Judd purchased 101 Spring Street for $68,000 in 1968, when the neighborhood—a warren of sweatshops and small factories—didn’t have a supermarket, let alone Stella McCartney. “There was no SoHo when Judd bought his building,” artist Carl Andre said. Working floor by floor, Judd transformed the building into a forceful expression of his aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations, installing artworks and objects in harmony with the architecture.
Judd spent the final decades of his life in Marfa, however, leaving 101 Spring to languish, a Minimalist version of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. Chunks of cast iron crumbled off the facade. Judd looked into repairing the structure in the early ’90s, but balked at the expense.
Judd’s children would realize the restoration their father could not. The siblings searched for the least invasive compromises possible, shackled to both building ordinances in a very different SoHo and to their father’s sometimes wildly impractical installations. Their adherence to his preferences was unbending and obsessive.
But the question was how to fund this extensive $23 million overhaul, which would include replacing the building’s 60 giant windows with UV- and temperature-regulating glass that still undulate like the original panes, and swapping the open spiral staircase corkscrewing through the space with an enclosed stairwell to meet modern fire codes. In order to create an endowment that would allow them to pursue grants and donations, Rainer and Flavin opted to consign to Christie’s 36 of Judd’s works, none of which had ever come to market. Twenty-five of them sold in a single evening auction in 2006.
The sale sparked fierce protest from people who had been close to Judd, including Stockebrand, who sat on the board of the Judd Foundation, and Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery, which represented Judd at the time of his death.
“I didn’t like the idea [of selling] all those works at auction,” Stockebrand said. “I thought that it was too many and it came too quickly, and I resigned from the Judd Foundation board when that decision was made, because I didn’t want to be responsible for it.”
Glimcher agreed. “That auction got rid of all the best stuff in the inventory,” he said, naming Richard Schlagman, then the owner of Phaidon books and a foundation board member, as the architect of the sale. “I think Schlagman did a terrible job with the estate by getting rid of most of the works at bargain prices.” Some of those who had known Judd were relatively tolerant of the sale—New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who worked for Judd briefly in the ’70s, wrote that he “might have viewed the sale with a certain pragmatic equanimity. . . . He remarked more than once that one purpose of his smaller, portable sculptures was to make money to pay for bigger projects.” Others thought that his children had carted off some of his best work—work that altered the course of art history—in favor of maintaining a shrine. The three-year restoration of 101 Spring Street was completed in 2013.
kind of creepy.”“It’s almost a little unpleasant,” said Paula Cooper, who represented Judd for six years before he left for Pace in 1991, of being inside the renovated building. “Maybe for those of us who knew him, it’s kind of creepy.”
Rainer and Flavin have given over their adult lives to their father, weathering criticism from those who, they say, don’t understand what Judd would have wanted. “Nobody whose opinion I respected opposed [the auction] so it wasn’t much of a problem for me,” Flavin said. If certain people in Judd’s cadre saw vultures circling around the Christie’s auction, Flavin has much the same opinion about the sale’s detractors. “When he died, there were already dark forces gathering,” said Flavin, conjuring wolfish bottom-liners who saw Judd’s properties and artwork as so many assets to be liquidated. “It was very obvious that the stupidity was at our doorstep,” he added. The Judd children saw themselves as the only thing standing between their father and prospectors looking to make a quick buck off Judd’s sizable reputation. “No, we didn’t think 22 years later we’d still be doing it,” Flavin said of the foundation. “But we’re not done yet.”
Financially, the Judd Foundation appears to be in good health. Its revenue was $5.4 million in the 2013 fiscal year, according to tax returns. The foundation’s director of operations, Richard Griggs, earned around $100,000; Rainer and Flavin each received salaries of roughly $150,000. The operating budget as of June 2016 was $3.1 million.
“There’s this weird, subtle, unspoken thing that we expect good people doing good things to be struggling financially . . . and I think we need to embrace good people [making] smart, wise business choices,” said Rainer. “Good people who are doing good things can be financially organized.”
Born in Missouri in 1928, Judd roared onto the New York art scene in the late 1950s. After receiving a master’s degree in art history from Columbia University, where he studied philosophy as an undergrad, the artist rapidly asserted himself as a vocal fixture in the downtown milieu. Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, Judd shaped the cultural discourse of his time—not only through his radical sculptures, but with his prolific writing on his peers. He championed the artists he admired (Yayoi Kusama, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg) and succinctly eviscerated those he did not. Judd espoused utter contempt for contemporary figuration, and he lambasted lazy art historians who lumped the new work he, Andre, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, and others were making under narrow terms of convenience like “Minimalism,” as they had lumped Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline under “Abstract Expressionism.” (Of the young painters who aped the Ab Ex titans, he wrote: “The situation is grotesque.”)
“[We were] not only hostile to postwar European art, but hostile to 10th Street art,” Stella said of his generation’s far-reaching belligerence toward members of the old guard and the avant-garde alike. “We were pretty hostile to just about everything.”
Judd preferred entertaining at home—the reverently preserved bottles at 101 Spring Street reflect his fondness for Scotch—but he occasionally hit Max’s Kansas City, the beloved downtown art bar, where Andre once watched him nearly come to blows with Robert Morris. “It was an incredibly fertile time,” said Andre.
Judd initially showed with Leo Castelli, the keen-eyed dealer who had championed Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Judd’s stark box sculptures, industrially fabricated from his own designs, eventually came to define the art being made in New York in the 1960s as much as Pollock’s drip paintings had the decade before. His success was hard-won, however. Describing a 1966 exhibition at Castelli, Hilton Kramer of the New York Times was in awe of Judd’s boldness (“it is work that consigns to the trash can of history most of our conventional beliefs about sculptural craftsmanship”), but also lamented “the sense of loss that one feels in seeing art carried to such an extreme of depersonalization.” No other artist of such renown had the “But is it art?” question lobbed his way more often than Judd. He left Castelli for the Paula Cooper Gallery, and had his first show there in 1985.
“We helped him be resuscitated,” Cooper said in her office, her hands resting on a pale Judd desk with built-in slots for papers. “He was respected, but his work was not selling at all, he wasn’t having museum shows. Nothing was happening, and we just believed so fervently in him.”
Cooper and Judd enjoyed a close friendship, frequently meeting for drinks and long talks about art and architecture. Despite his reputation for apoplectic rants, largely born out of his writing, he was soft-spoken in person. Videos show a pensive artist with a sense of humor, prone—as his children are—to studying patches of