“Three dimensions are real space ... that gets rid of the problem of illusionism and literal space, space in and around marks and colours which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art." --Donald Judd
Donald Judd’s 1988 Untitled is an important example of the Minimalist pioneer’s late-career shift toward a more varied, lyrical approach to the cool, impenetrable sculpture that he had pioneered some quarter-century earlier. Continuing his exploration of the rectangular prism, Judd furthers his legendary stack motif by incorporating various configurations of the shape’s interior partitions. Exploring the interplay between space, form, light and color, Judd takes the important step of introducing a logical variability to what was once uniform structure, epitomized by his Stacks of the ‘60s and beyond. Judd, for whom the rectangle functions as the primary foundation upon which his work is built, expands its possibility as an artistic unit, creating the complex and powerful present example. Transitioning from one repeated form to a succession of slightly different ones proved an important step for Judd, who would rely on the strategy for much of his late work, breathing new life into an already accomplished and celebrated career.
Judd laid the groundwork for Untitled with his groundbreaking 1965 essay, Specific Objects, in which he argued against the classification of art objects into reductive categories, chiefly painting and sculpture. For the artist, a work of art ought to function on its own merit, existing in and of itself as an object worthy of attention and scrutiny. From this landmark writing emerged his Stacks: serial rectangular prisms, often made of steel for the horizontal faces and colored Plexiglas for the top and bottom faces. Challenged on their artistic merits at first, Judd’s early work proved the central thesis of Specific Objects, that neither traditional sculpture nor painting could effectively capture the essential relationship between light, space and form, and that only the titular object could. Untitled, though executed decades after Judd described his artistic ideals, accurately embodies them while building on their original premise.
Moving beyond the ten-unit serial Stacks later in his career, Judd nevertheless continued in the vein of his original premise, creating objects that challenged notions of art and its supposed role relative to the viewer. Writing in 1988, Barbara Haskell described the artist’s evolving practice in terms of his self-imposed rules, a concept intended to further the physical independence of a given object: “In attempting to isolate and describe the essential nature of art so that its structure and limits could be determined, Judd had created forms which were simple, declarative and unambiguous. Their specificity of shape, material and color reflected his conclusions about the limited nature of the truth that art legitimately could communicate” (B. Haskell, Donald Judd, New York, 1988. p. 38). Haskell’s assertion that Judd’s work primarily deals with material, color and form is affirmed by Untitled, in which each successive unit litigates and re-litigates these concerns.
An exacting logician, Judd manipulates every aspect of the viewer’s experience with subtle variations in the internal arrangement of each element. The top three units feature a solid aluminum wall over half of the structure’s viewer-facing open front. Advancing and receding in space, the wall reveals varying amounts of the colored panel behind it, casting shadows and siphoning light according to its depth. Another internal wall—this one perpendicular to the wall on which the work hangs—cordons off a quarter of the rectangle, bisecting the segment left uncovered by the aluminum wall. As the viewer’s eye moves from the top unit to the third one, the angle of the walls seems to change, altering the delicate perception of form and color as it does.
The lower three units see that same aluminum wall, sized to cover exactly one half of a given unit’s front-facing opening, moved into the middle of each unit such that exactly one quarter of the unit’s surface is left uncovered on each side. The wall, as in the upper three elements, recedes slightly in the second-lowest box before once again returning to the fore. Judd investigates the ability of delicate visual changes to influence the viewer’s experience. Taken together, the six units appear rhythmic, nearly animated in their syncopated progression. Judd’s mastery of composition is used to full effect here, creating a multi-layered work of art whose delicate movements produce as much visual tension and drama as the overall six unit stack. Whereas most of his work is domineering and often physically imposing, Untitled revels in the minutiae of its internal movement, deriving meaning from the restrained push and pull between one unit and another.
Often celebrated for his simple and effective color choices—especially late in his career—Judd uses a mossy, organic-looking green for the colored segments of this work. Highly reflective, the green bounces off the neighboring walls to create splendid interactions of material, light, and shadow. Drawn to green throughout his career, Judd admired the color for its comparative rarity in the visual arts and architecture. Untitled finds Judd reveling in color, admiring its potential for spatial activation and visual distortion of space and volume. A testimony to Judd as a colorist, this work evidences the artist’s sensitivity not only to physical objects but also color’s ability to enliven them. Here, he uses color to accent the flawless aluminum, contrasting its harsh, cold surface with the alluring softness of the light green Plexiglas.
Above all, Untitled represents a turn toward a sort of minimalist mannerism that occurred late in Judd’s career; using the visual language of minimalism, Judd began to operate with more variety and freedom of form. Approaching post-minimalism, Judd’s objects became more expressive in both form and color as the artist explored the influential parameters he had set for himself and other aspiring Minimalists nearly a quarter century before Untitled’s creation. A stunning example of Judd’s steadfast dedication to his career-long project aimed at unifying the arts and expanding the parameters of sculpture and the plastic arts more broadly, Untitled is among Judd’s great later works. An icon of Minimalism, the sculpture possesses Judd’s sharpest and most effective artistic instincts, combining them into a concise summation of his career up to that point.