NEW YORK, NY -- The first U.S. retrospective of Donald Judd (1928-1994) is currently the subject of a stunning exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, now temporarily closed to the public. I am hopeful that MoMA will reopen to visitors before the retrospective's closing date of July 11, and I will be able to experience the exhibition in person. In the meantime, I ventured online for a close look at the images that MoMA has provided on their website.
Can an artist whose work is so dependent upon the space in which it inhabits be truly appreciated remotely? What would Donald Judd think of someone reviewing his exhibition in this manner? As I am currently reconsidering almost every aspect of my life, from grocery shopping, to exercising, to doing laundry, the act of seeing art is obviously ripe for reevaluation. I realize now how much I've taken for granted the luxury of being mere moments from a premiere institution like MoMA; a privilege many elsewhere do not have, regardless of a city-wide shutdown. The biggest stumbling block seems to be the lack of scale or dimension, which is of course crucial to Judd's work. In person, there is a presence. Different from the 2001 obelisk-like volume of Richard Serra Cor-Ten steel walls that overwhelm, but more like being within the components of a supercomputer.
I’ve always felt detached from Judd’s work, the impersonal machine-like nature. Viewing this exhibition remotely, I am no closer. The thumbnails are stand-ins, a necessary solution given our current circumstances. The images provided make logical sense, in that the work appears very much in harmony with the renewed pure white space of MoMA. There remains a clinical coldness to the objects readable even through these images. The works appear untouched and unwelcome of touch, like a bank of diodes on some piece of machinery that if any esoteric button is pressed, could cause disaster. And while in person, Judd’s sculptures can surprisingly reveal flaws and imperfections and limitations of the materials used, here they are relentlessly stark. Would Judd have preferred us not to see those imperfections? Could social distancing result in an experience closer to what the artist's true intentions were?
The old adage about jazz is that it’s about the notes they’re not playing. And with Judd, it’s not the stacked objects but the space between. While many have casually dismissed his work as it does not instantly entertain, Judd achieves a clinical serenity, a calming peace in the barrenness and quiet imposing his sculptures bring to the space they inhabit. And as Ellsworth Kelly and other Color Field and hard-edged abstract artists wished to remove the human hand from their work, and Light and Space Movement artists embraced industrialized manufacturing, Judd showcases the simplicity of contemporary materials and the concept of simple, perfect forms. So all said, why are his three-dimensional works so impenetrable, while works by Carmen Herrera, Al Held and other geometric abstract painters seemingly so much easier to grasp? It may be user error. Judd stated that “the main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.” So if Judd gives us more than what a painting can offer with his objects, why do we treat it like less? I’ve always fought an expectation that these works should “do” something and that may be the point of frustration. Judd is an artist in defiance of everything, including, seemingly, the viewer -- like a postmodern steamroller, and aesthetically, there’s some common ground to that machine as well.
Though Donald Judd was a painter early on, essentially every work of importance was subcontracted to a fabricator. There’s a conversation to be had here about why Jeff Koons is a similarly clinical hands-off idea man who farms out his art to be made commercially and is often cast as impure, a brand manager, or maybe worst of all, uncool - yet Donald Judd not only avoids this, is quite the opposite: perceived as an art world monk, above reproach, of the highest integrity. Is it just a rejection of populism? That his work doesn’t look good on a t-shirt? Well, the child who famously climbed one of Judd’s stacks at the Tate London in 2014 probably would have enjoyed treating a Koons balloon dog like jungle gym just as much. And while Koons wants your love (and money) Judd wants you to be confronted with the simplicity of perfection.
The provided images showcase a large 1991 enameled aluminum rectangle made up of smaller multi-colored metal rectangles that is bright and commanding. Behind it is a similar wall mounted bar of enameled aluminum rectangles. A grid of six plywood boxes with inner dividers and red backings sit nearby. These objects are all untitled, and they have no illusory quality. Judd refused to call his works sculptures, which is emblematic of the man and his work: one of the most well-known sculptors of the 2nd half of the 20th Century rejects even the use of the very word for his medium. Judd despised the term Minimalism; easier for me to accept but similarly frustrating. At every point, you are pushed back, rejected, found to be in error. You are John Henry, Judd is the steam engine. You are Kasparov, Judd is Dark Blue.
A group of four vat-like metal cubes sit together, one with a pop of bright blue within it. Behind them, a 1988 group of ten 2D woodcuts hang, looking not unlike a collection of semaphore flags. There are splashes of color that illuminate the objects, but it sometimes feels as though Judd is begrudgingly awarding us the pleasure of the fantastic glow his inset Plexiglass provides, like some sort of reward for endurance. And while some works seemingly share a relationship with the West Coast Finish Fetish artists, the underlying intent could not be less similar. There is none of that LA sparkle, none of the nostalgic glee of Craig Kaufmann, Judy Chicago or DeWain Valentine -- if those artists' works are the Batmobile, all ridiculous fins and glitter, Judd’s works are a Maytag washing machine, stripped down to essential functionality.
The works as shown probably still don’t have enough breathing room as is. What’s the right amount of empty? Judd thusly built a town-sized permanent exhibition in the remote Marfa, Texas at least in part in an attempt to answer this question. Fellow Minimalist Michael Heizer continued even farther down this road to the nth degree with City - a work still under production decades after initial groundbreaking, and one we may never ultimately see in person. Were the Minimalists just cranky old curmudgeons? As a firm believer that perfect is the enemy of good, I both love the unwavering drive and precision, yet find myself wanting to clunk all their heads together like Moe Howard. And as maddening as I find it all, part of me is almost glad to not be at the MoMA in person to hear the comments of the sarcastic masses and their “my kid could do that” or “we could buy one of those at Ikea” pathetic snideness. I suppose snobbery has a ranking system.
Donald Judd is not easy, but rewarding (and to many, downright spiritual) for those with patience and focus. It’s fine to ask yourself what you don’t get: is your reflection in the high polished metal part of the work, an illusory element acknowledging your humanity? How would one live with these - do they look good over the couch? Wrongheaded as it may be, it’s easy to assume Judd has contempt for his audience, like Miles Davis turning his back to the crowd. It’ll be perfect but it’ll be perfect on his terms and if you don’t get it, try harder.
All things considered, is Judd the human embodiment of the Erased deKooning? That clean slate Rauschenberg un-made launched he and his peers forward to create in new ways free of prior limitations. Has Donald Judd done this for Contemporary Art in its entirety? Like a meditative sound bath, Judd at his best provides a simple tone to wash off the horrid minutiae of the human condition. A pathway to reconsider the form at its purest. I suppose the most challenging thing is that there is no narrative, no metaphor, no illusion, no clear entryway into understanding or, for some, even enjoying. The objects simply Are. Art is problem solving, and sometimes the simplest answer is best.
The Museum of Modern Art until July 11, 2020
View Installation Images at MoMA.org
Donald Judd. Untitled. 1991. Enameled aluminum, 59″ × 24′ 7 1/4″ × 65″ (150 × 750 × 165 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Bequest of Richard S. Zeisler and gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (both by exchange) and gift of Kathy Fuld, Agnes Gund, Patricia Cisneros, Doris Fisher, Mimi Haas, Marie-Josée and Henry R. Kravis, and Emily Spiegel. © 2019 Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: John Wronn
Installation view of Judd, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 1–July 11, 2020. Digital Image © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Jonathan Muzikar
Donald Judd. Untitled. 1989. Enameled aluminum, 11 13/16 × 70 7/8 × 11 13/16″ (30 × 180 × 30 cm). Private collection, Belgium © 2020 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo Courtesy Galerie Greta Meert
Donald Judd. Untitled. 1968. Stainless steel and amber Plexiglas; six units, each 34 × 34 × 34″ (86.4 × 86.4 × 86.4 cm), with 8″ (20.3 cm) intervals. Overall: 34 × 244 × 34″ (86.4 × 619.8 × 86.4 cm). Layton Art Collection Inc., Purchase, at the Milwaukee Art Museum © 2020 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: © John R. Glembin