Donald Judd (1928-1994) is best known for his abstract, three-dimensional ‘stacks’, ‘boxes’ and single ‘specific objects’ such as Untitled (DSS 42), his 1963 work in galvanised iron, aluminium and wood that sold at Christie’s for a record $14,165,000 in 2013.
Yet the artist’s output also includes a striking body of graphic work, created across four decades and expressing the same fascination with repetition, line, shape and colour.
Born in Missouri in 1928, Judd made his first print in 1951 at the Art Students League of New York, while he was studying philosophy at Columbia University. Though he is now known for his hard-lined geometric forms, his early experiments were figurative, as this self-published lithograph reveals — even if the artist’s focus on line and shape is already apparent in details such as the floor tiles.
From the mid-1950s to 1961, Judd moved progressively from figurative to abstract imagery and shifted his attention from experiments in lithography, etching, aquatint and screen-printing to the woodcut. His early woodcuts from the 1950s share the curved and flowing lines characteristic of his paintings in the late 1960s.
While Judd was exploring the woodcut, he was also studying and working as an art critic. In 1965 he produced his seminal essay, Specific Objects, rejecting European artistic values of illusion and represented space in favour of an all-new American exploration of colour, space and material.
Judd believed that art should not represent anything; it should simply exist. In line with this thinking, his prints began to take on a more angular style.
By 1960 Judd was also working with his father, Roy C. Judd, a woodwork enthusiast who started carving the blocks and printing his son’s graphic work, as well as fabricating a number of Judd’s early relief paintings and three-dimensional objects.
Roy’s mastery of technique allowed his son to take a step back from the making process and to focus on ideas. As Donald’s son Flavin later wrote, ‘These were the decisive years. He had moved to a new way of thinking: he would divide and use space instead of imposing something upon it.’
The parallelogram became Judd’s key preoccupation in the 1960s, explored in a series of 26 prints in which the artist investigated different angles and relationships between lines.
While some works in the series had originally been wall-mounted objects that Judd later decided to ink and print (essentially creating two-dimensional manifestations of three-dimensional sculptures), others began as prints, created by his father to Judd’s designs. Once they’d been printed, the woodblocks also became objects.
The 1960s and 1970s are also defined by Judd’s dedication to cadmium red. As he explored space and materials, Judd believed that colour should clarify rather than distract from form, and cadmium red had the ability to absorb light and highlight hard edges. As the artist explained, ‘Red seems to be the only colour that really makes an object sharp and defines its contours and angles.’
Around 1986, Judd turned his attention to the variations on a solid rectangular form exemplified in his contribution to the portfolio ‘For Joseph Beuys’. These mature works demonstrate Judd’s interest in framing and dividing the flat surface of a sheet of paper, and are notable for their uncompromising celebration of colour.
From here, Judd went on to create numerous series of prints that explored positive and negative space through repeated images, as in the woodcut series ‘Untitled’ from 1988 (below).
In 1990 Judd made his first experiments using differently coloured blocks in a single print, varying the rectangular form by dividing it into halves and thirds. The bold colours and rigorous geometry of the prints are modified only by variations in the wood grain of the printing block, or the texture of the paper. The polychrome nature of this series is reflected in Judd’s increasing use of colour in his later three-dimensional work.
Between 1967 and 1992, Judd created eight different sets of works in editions ranging from three to 200. His first editioned multiple, published in 1967 as part of a portfolio of works by 10 Pop artists represented by Leo Castelli, was made of folded stainless steel, exemplifying Judd’s early interest in industrialised, machine-made materials.
His later editions reflect the same polychrome approach as his woodcuts and three-dimensional objects. In 1991 Judd created an edition of 12 objects in anodised extruded aluminium, involving an electrochemical process that combined colour and material into one.
‘Anodised aluminium is a little better to me,’ he explained, ‘because at least a little layer of it is colour in the material.’
Donald Judd passed away in 1994 following a battle with cancer, but his work and preoccupation with material, space and colour live on at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, and at the Judd Foundation in the artist’s former residences in both Marfa and New York.
For an artist who disliked temporary exhibitions, believing that they degraded art through incompetency or incomprehension, that’s as it should be.