Striking in its dazzling finish and bold coloration, this stunning open box stack is among the most exceptional examples of the apogee of Minimalist aesthetics, encompassing as it does several key properties that were defined early on by Donald Judd, its primary practitioner. In its shape, color, arrangement, and materials, Untitled, 1988 (Menziken 88-16) is emblematic of Judd's aesthetic goals--to create a "polarization" of elements, which incorporates the viewer into a play of tension between elements. Here, the opposition of color compliments--red and green--is emphasized in the formal pairing, split within a contained volume by internal aluminum panels. The present work is a rare example in Judd's oeuvre, part of a small number of works in which the artist layered Plexiglas panes to create a play of color effects and tones not separately available in the factory-ready material. This newly created tonality backs volumes, bounded square "frames" that, when placed contiguously as they are here, create rectangular shapes, repeated. Repetition is fundamental to this aesthetic, the notion that the serial was a method of production, rather than a style, for example, as in the locomotion studies of the nineteenth-century photographer Edweard Muybridge, Jasper Johns' numerals, or Warhol's soup cans (Mel Bochner, "The Serial Attitude," in A. Alberro, Conceptual art: a critical anthology, Cambridge, MA, p. 23). As Muybridge repeats elements, so in Untitled, modular units are repeated, and in its elegant iterations, the sense that the series could continue ad infinitum lends the work an absorbing beauty that is as compelling as it intellectually demanding.
Judd was an exacting logician. The artist's systematic approach to measurement, the internal arrangement, and placement of the stack in Untitled (spaced according to the dimension of the form itself), speak to Judd's mastery of each detail of the work's fabrication, presentation, and viewing experience. His ability to control over how various properties of the work appear to the viewer was paramount-not in order to delude the viewer through illusionistic mimesis, but rather so that he can make the viewer aware of the materials as elements in a surrounding space: just as volume fills space, materials and colors create volume: "Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors--which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface" (D. Judd, "Specific Objects," Arts Yearbook 8 (1965), reprinted in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax, 1975, p. 184).
Pulling the viewer into the space not only of its enclosed volumes, but also the colors embedded there, Untitled takes on an animate presence. Its two-toned color scheme, no longer used to depict what Judd terms "literal space [e.g., blue for sky and sea]," color becomes for the artist a thing in itself, an array of sense stimulants captivating the viewer and drawing him/her into an investigation and analysis of experience as such, an occasion to marvel at the arousal of one's ocular and physical sensations. As Untitled persuasively demonstrates, Judd's formal vocabulary of geometrically shaped pre-fabricated, industrialized materials--in contradistinction to the hand-made tradition of European art--allowed him to employ materials in their naturally colored, i.e. specific, states, as is the case here with the use of Plexiglass: "The box with the Plexiglas inside is an attempt to make a definite second surface. The inside is radically different from the outside. While the outside is definite and rigorous, the inside is indefinite. The interior appears to be larger than the exterior. The plastic is very slippery in look" (D. Judd, "Don Judd: An Interview with John Coplans," Artforum, June, 1971, p. 49).
As early as 1963 Judd had turned to Plexiglas as a material of pure color. In Untitled, 1963, the artist experimented with the differences between applied and intrinsic color by hand painting one element of a stepped floor piece, made of plywood, in his favored cadmium red and then covering its risers in opaque purple Plexiglas. This visual opulence led critics at the time to call him a "closet hedonist" (Hilton Kramer) and an "exquisite Minimalist" (Robert Hughes). Lining various materials, whether anodized aluminum, Cor-ten steel, or stainless steel, as in the present work, with a brilliant array of Plexiglas hues, allowed Judd to create pure color in volumetric form.
Untitled, is of special interest not only because of its layering of tones but also because of the particular colors Judd chose to layer-on the left, green over a sheet of black and on the right, a layer of two sheets of red. In 1993, Judd published "Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular." The essay opens with a statement addressing the importance of color in Judd's work: "Material, space and color are the main aspects of visual art," and again, "color, like material, is what art is made from." (D. Judd, "Some Aspects," in Donald Judd: Colorist (Bonn: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2000), p. 79, 114. Here, Judd is clear that for him, color is a physical property as much as a visual one. He did not subscribe to the oft-attested psychological or emotional affects color, although he recalled from his childhood the symbolic meaning of red and black for the Lakota people of the Great Sioux Nation as well as cite the red and black of Attic vase painting, Maya codices, and even the text-based work of Barbara Kruger.
Originally trained as a painter, Judd was thoroughly versed in color theory, he studied the colors of Rogier van der Weyden, Titian, Matisse, and referred to Mondrian's colors as one of the "wonders of the world." His encounter with Rogier Van der Weyden's crucifix diptych panels at the Philadelphia Museum of Art he described as a near "chromatic epiphany," with its rectangular interior planes and external contiguous frames: the brilliant red cloth against the black geometric horizons, symmetrical, yet bipartite, uncannily parallels the present work.
And while Judd also admired the chromatic palettes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman--seeing in Pollock the acknowledgment of paint as discrete material; in Rothko, the weightless volumes created by pure color; and in Newman, the simple clarity of the zip--he also believed that the development of chromatic volumes and values could no longer continue on a flat surface, that painting was "finished": color development had to continue in space. This was the impetus for Judd's series of open stacks lined with Plexiglas, of which Untitled, is a supreme example. The layering of Plexiglas panes creates a frontal insistence, much like painting, as does the simple act of mixing colors. Indeed, Judd spoke of this combination in painterly terms: "In a way, side by side, the red and the black become one color. They become a two-color monochrome. Red and black together are so familiar that they almost form a new unity" (Ibid. p. 113). As Judd frees his color from traditional constraints, both pictorial and sculptural, he redefines it in terms of volume, as an entity in space. For Judd, then, materials and colors articulate space as well as define the viewing experience: meant to defy the emotive qualities of the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters, their reflective finishes, intense coloration, and dazzling materiality nonetheless elicit from the viewer a sense of awe and wonderment as its balance of tension between formal elements sweeps into the field of vision.