From the moment Donald Judd installed his exhibition at the Green Gallery in 1965, he proclaimed a new aesthetic principle that would define his production for the remainder of his life. Leaving behind traditional categories of art making, painting in particular, Judd declared himself a maker of “objects,” what he labeled “specific objects” in a seminal manifesto from that year, their primary characteristics being three-dimensionality, self-containment, and tangibility, in contradistinction to an illusory or referential easel picture or sculpture. In declaring this position, Judd moved his aesthetic program from painted, planar surfaces to actual “shapes” that would proclaim their specific “unity, projection, order, and color” (D. Judd, “Specific Object,” Arts Yearbook 8, New York: Art Digest, 1965, pp. 74-82). The power of this new kind of artwork can be seen to spectacular effect in Untitled from 1985. Fabricated from aluminum, it is a wall-mounted construction consisting of sixteen rectangular modules with open fronts. In this work Judd relies on red to accentuate the work’s linear order. Judd considered red a “tough” color due to its ability to hold space convincingly, “defin[ing] the contours and angles” in such a way that space is filled, not merely outlined” (D. Judd, in J. Coplans, “An Interview with Judd,” Artforum Vol. 9, no. 10, June 1971, p. 45). His bright white alternates with this bold red throughout the lower row, while the upper grouping shifts between subtle tones of maroon and black, creating tonal undulation within a singular form that binds and halts the optically jolting lower progression.
By the late 1960s, Judd had embraced industrially-made objects, which celebrated both its manufactured materials and its repetitive format, establishing a formal complexity that was different in nature from earlier compositional practices where part-by-part formation was founded on the basis of a sympathetic relationship between parts. Here in Untitled, each element or interval is part of an order based on alternation according to Judd’s mathematical calibrations. What is interesting here is that while the mathematical progression undergirds this order, paradoxically, its deeper function serves to unify the work into a single entity. And while color from 1985 articulates space as much as the fabricated construction, form and color become one, become for Judd, a “specific object” (D. Judd, “Specific Object,” op. cit.). While clearly painted as a canvas might be, and existing in three dimensions, as sculpture certainly did, Judd declared that his work was neither painting nor sculpture, but rather an object in the world, one that has the “specificity and power and power of actual materials, actual color, and actual space” (Ibid.).
Beginning in 1984, Judd had taken up the material expression of color by enameling sheets of aluminum based on a commercial color chart. By year’s end, he had propelled himself into a series of multi-colored wall-mounted works that are the glory of the artist’s production to this day. First displayed to extraordinary effect at the Museum Van Abbemusuem, Eindhoven, in 1987, Untitled projects with particular acuity Judd’s evolving attitude: “Color is like material. It is one way or another, but it obdurately exists. Its existence as it is, is the main fact and not what it might mean, which may be nothing. Or rather, color does not connect alone to any of the several states of the mind. ...Color, like material, is what art is made from” (D. Judd, “Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular (1993),” rpt. in Donald Judd: The Mutlicolored Works, ed. M. Stockebrand, New Haven and London, 2014, pp. 277-78). Judd’s color selection for the present work was chosen, as in all his multicolored works, from the RAL chart, the Reichs-Ausschuss für Lieferbedingungen und Gütesicherung (Imperial Commission for Delivery Terms and Quality Assurance) first established in 1925, whereby colors were identified by a four-digit code. Untitled consists of four colors picked from this RAL chart and distributed among the alternating elements Judd used. For all such progressions, Judd strictly followed vertical pairings and lateral alternations of one, two, or three of 30, 60, or 90 centimeters. In Untitled, Judd creates what he called a “disordered ordering,” from the pairing four colors: Weinrot (Wine red, 3005) and Verkersrot (Traffic red, 3020); Verkehrsschwarz (Traffic black, 9017) and Verkersweiss (Traffic white, 9016). These colors progress over the entire length (360 cm) alternating 30 and 60 cm-long elements at the consistent height of all his multicolored aluminum wall works—15 cm and interior depth of 7.5 cm.
Such systematic ordering, isolating colors and pairing them in gridded shapes along a linear progression is a trope of Modernism, found in works from Hans Arp to Piet Mondrian through the first half the twentieth century. By mid-century, we see in Ellsworth Kelly’s Kite II, 1952, the artist isolating color and geometric form, ordering paired elements of black and primary and secondary colors in a horizontal progression and alternating these pairings with white. The eleven-unit progression depends for its rhythmic undulations on the white support—the wall. In its rigorous abstraction and the sense of existing for itself alone, Kelly’s Kite II resonates with what almost seems like Judd’s later transcription into obdurate industrial materials of Kelly’s chromatic, successive geometries. Yet Kelly, like Judd, eschewed what he considered the decorative quality of such achievement, turning instead to the inherent quality of color itself. As Kelly averred, “I wanted to use color… over an entire wall, but I didn’t want it to be decorative” (N. Brunet, “Chronology, 1943-1954,” in Y-A. Bois, J. Cowart, A. Pacquement, Ellworth Kelly: The Years in France: 1948-1954, Paris, 1992, p. 192).
Yet the chromatic grid as Kelly understood it is turned to different uses in Judd’s compelling aesthetic program, one that claimed to free the object from emotional or psychic associations, allowing it to simply be itself, to come into being only because the artist created it so. For Judd, the relationship between object and viewer was a personal one, created from bodily and optical reactions. Even so, what Judd created in Untitled is a chromatic statement of stunning and absorbing power. In turning to color forms, Judd returns in some sense to his beginnings as a painter, to the planar surface as it emerges from the wall in relief form. Taking up the problem of space in art, Judd transformed his industrial metallic production into shafts of chromatic light, which for all their optical charge serve Judd’s more pragmatic goal—to fuse painting and three-dimensional form. Here in Untitled, Judd has achieved this fusion: he has redefined formerly discrete categories, painting and sculpture. Such color forms project from a pictorial surface and “occur[s] in space” in stunningly dynamic “multiplicity” (D. Judd, in P. Taylor, “Interview with Donald Judd, Flash Art International 134, May 1987, p. 37).