‘Wow — that’s Judd!’: How the father of Minimalism came to revisit and embrace colour
This March sees the first US retrospective of Donald Judd in 30 years. MoMA’s curator Ann Temkin and Christie’s specialist Stephen Jones explain how it will reveal aspects of the artist’s practice that may surprise those who think they know it well
In the early 1970s, the American artist Donald Judd (1928-1994) left New York for a one-horse town in the middle of the desert. When asked why he had abandoned the feisty birthplace of Minimalism for Marfa in Texas, he responded, ‘There’s more time to think out here.’
In truth, Judd wanted a place where he could show his art at its spacious best. Over the next 25 years he installed his gleaming aluminium cubes and polished vertical stacks in military hangars and warehouses, where their silver surfaces reflected the sky and the vast arid plains.
This colonising of Marfa enabled Judd to show art on his own terms, free from the confines of the museum and the European traditions that dominated the art world. Out here in the wild, Judd’s structures looked alien, indestructible, and unlike anything else that had come before.
This March sees the opening of Judd at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first retrospective of the artist in over three decades. The curator, Ann Temkin, hopes the show will offer a more nuanced vision of an artist who, she believes, has been obscured and distorted by ‘heroising mythologies’ since his untimely death from cancer in 1994.
Stephen Jones, Christie’s Senior Writer in Post-War and Contemporary Art, agrees: ‘Most people only know Donald Judd through his geometric stacks — mainly because they are the easiest to house and exhibit — but his practice was much more varied than that. It included prints and paintings. I hope the exhibition will prompt people to re-examine him.’
Judd’s official career (as designated by the artist) began on 1 August, 1960, the date he moved his home and studio from uptown Manhattan to the top floor of a four-story 19th-century brick building downtown. At the mercy of this sanctioned date was an entire decade’s worth of abstract painting, the first casualties of the artist’s tightly controlled vision.
View major works by Donald Judd sold at Christie’s
Two years later he renounced painting, explaining that ‘there are several problems that I couldn’t resolve… I didn’t like the flatness, I didn’t like them being against the wall.’ He had spent years studying the masters of European modernism — including Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse — and came to the conclusion that, ‘I didn’t understand them very well’.
From that moment on, the artist devoted his practice to wall-mounted and free-standing objects — but refused to call it sculpture. ‘What in God’s name do you call it then?’ asked the critic Lucy Lippard, to which he responded that he never thought about sculpture — at least, ‘almost never’.
Born in 1928, Judd was, according to Temkin, ‘painfully aware of the historical moment into which he had been cast by circumstance’. He was 20 when Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) showed his first drip painting, and 28 when Pollock died. ‘The sense of responsibility was palpable among a new generation of artists fuelled by the breakthroughs of the New York School,’ Temkin explains.
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Judd was the chief spokesperson for this next generation, one that set out to create a new art that completely rejected imagery and the idea that art was an emotional, existential and spontaneous act.
See below for all upcoming works by Donald Judd
The movement became known as Minimalism and it was deeply American. Its materials were man-made and assembled by machine, while its style was as sparse and ordered as a Quaker meeting.
For many, this new art was alienating and impersonal. There were no titles, no figures, no parts, no metaphors to decipher: it existed for the eye alone. It was art stripped down to its most basic essentials. As Judd’s friend the sculptor Dan Flavin (1933-1996) said, ‘It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else’.
Minimalism was about staying true to its materials, be those bricks or electric light. Judd favoured plexiglas, because it revealed the emptiness of the structure it formed. His famous vertical stacks are as much about the space between the forms as the forms themselves. They are pure and beautiful, and highly sought after at auction.
But there is another side to MoMA’s exhibition, one that reveals a surprising change of direction in the 1980s. One that is often overlooked because it doesn’t fit with the Judd narrative of an all-American art.
Around 1984, Judd moved to Switzerland, where he discovered an aluminium furniture factory that manufactured pure, powdered colour which he used to create rectangular forms in vibrant hues. So unexpected were these objects that one curator recalled his shock on first seeing them: ‘Wow — that’s Judd!’
The MoMA exhibition will feature a number of these late works which suggest that in the last decade of his life, Judd found a way to work with the European traditions that he had so comprehensively rejected in the 1960s.
Through a number of Swiss manufacturers, Judd was able to revisit colourists like Matisse and Mondrian, and embrace their spirit on his own terms. On seeing these works for the first time, the critic Larry Berryman wrote in a 1986 edition of Arts Review, ‘Exuberance is not, or was not, the word that comes to mind in connection with Donald Judd… the foremost minimalist sculptor is also Homo ludens, and his latest work makes this exhilarating playfulness as obvious as his intellect.’
Judd is on at the Museum of Modern Art, New York from 1 March to 11 July 2020