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Donald Judd: The Early Work, 1956-1968

I remarked to someone the other day that this exhibition was, in a sense, inevitable. Inevitable, that is, as a curatorial project.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1955, Oil on canvas, 47.4 x 69 cm ... Collection of Rainer Judd ... Photo Credit: Nic Tenwiggenhorn, Dusseldorf, 2002

I remarked to someone the other day that this exhibition was, in a sense, inevitable. Inevitable, that is, as a curatorial project. Inevitable because Donald Judd was an artist who, claiming to have moved beyond, or outside, or perhaps between the categories of painting and sculpture by the early 1960s, would never look back. It makes sense, therefore, to look at this disavowal in relation to its principal object-painting-within the context of Judd’s own production, and this is what curator Thomas Kellein has done. (Judd didn’t disavow sculpture so much as dismiss it, since he was convinced that it was not as advanced as painting.) Ultimately, though, the project of historicizing Judd’s move into three dimensions seems important and necessary right now not only for understanding Judd’s own body of work, but also for thinking about its impact on contemporary art practices. Inevitable, then, because there’s a historical logic not just in the premise but in the occasion of this exhibition.

An underlying, if unstated, principle of this exhibition’s organization is Judd’s trajectory from painting to three-dimensional work or what he would call ‘specific objects,’ a term he used to designate the work of a wide array of artists of the ’60s. Because previous exhibitions that incorporated Judd’s early work — most notably the 1975 exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa — included only a handful of the large-scale paintings produced between 1960 and 1962, it is likely these exhibitions left the impression that Judd’s objects bore little or no relation to easel painting. The early paintings have undoubtedly been regarded as juvenilia, a notion that is supported by Judd’s later dismissal of them as ‘half-baked abstractions’ as well as his characterization of his first one-person exhibition at the Panoras Gallery in 1957 as ‘stupid.'(1) However, the curator of the current exhibition included early paintings and drawings that, the Menil website tells us, ‘Judd himself identified, shortly before his untimely death… as key to his development.'(2) The relationship between these very different kinds of work is the question raised by the exhibition.

The main thing the exhibition makes clear is that Judd’s discovery of three dimensions as ‘a space to move into,’ as he would later put it, was not entirely epiphanic — even though the works’ installation might seem to imply this. As Judd related in an interview with John Coplans in 1971, there was certainly something revelatory about his initial foray into ‘actual’ space, but the transition was in fact a gradual process (and graduated, since it involved several stages). Recounting the story of how he realized his first fully three-dimensional work, Judd said, ‘I did the pipe relief and kept it on the floor. It was a big thing when sitting on the floor. I left it on the floor, and that didn’t seem to bother it much. It was meant to go on the wall, but it looked all right on the floor… A piece that was completely three-dimensional was a big event for me.'(3) He described this transition as a shift from ‘low relief to high relief and then to free-standing works,’ leaving out any reference to painting at all.(4) His omission of painting is understandable in light of the fact that by 1962, when this event occurred, Judd had long since abandoned easel painting and had recently ceased his investigation of what might be described as painting-reliefs to focus on relief itself, but it was the move from painting to relief that started this chain reaction.

In the Menil installation the chronological and theoretical divide between Judd’s pre-1960 easel paintings and his post-1960 reliefs and objects is underscored by their spatial separation. The ten oil paintings and four charcoal drawings dating from 1950 to 1958 seem practically quarantined in a small gallery that is separated from the large rooms containing his later work and it is clear that the appropriateness of the gallery space to the work it contained was an important consideration in this installation. This compartmentalization not only serves to dramatize the shifts in scale and medium that Judd’s work underwent around the turn of the decade, but it also recapitulates the 1960 cut-off established by the Ottawa exhibition, suggesting a sudden rupture or break leading up to the three-dimensional work. This both was and was not the case, a point made subtly by the inclusion of several woodcuts that hang in the hallway outside the galleries containing the larger works.

Donald Judd, Untitled, c. 1960 ... Woodcut in red and blue (group of 4) Judd Foundation, Marfa, Texas

Looking carefully at the early paintings, there are a number of observations one might make, including the fact that Judd had started using what would become his signature color, cadmium red, as early as 1950. This is less interesting, though, than the preoccupation with structure and space that is manifest in the compositions. The awkwardness of these early paintings is not simply a factor of Judd’s facility or lack thereof, but, as one early reviewer put it, ‘He seems to be struggling with problems. The interest in his paintings lies in the problems’ nature.'(5) And the nature of those problems had to do with getting three-dimensional forms onto a two-dimensional surface. Yet, while any number of artists had confronted this problem before him, Judd, it seems, was more worried about the objects’ autonomy than that of the medium, which was the central concern of formalist art critics like Michael Fried and Clement Greenberg at the time.

As Judd moved from the naturalism of his paintings of the mid-’50s to later abstractions, his interest in objectivity became paramount, and it’s no surprise that some of the later paintings are in fact the weakest. The interlocking shapes that he ended up with by the late ’50s want to be three-dimensional objects and structures in real space; arrayed across the flat surface, they don’t occupy that space easily — in fact, the problem is precisely that they cannot occupy it as entities but only as representation. Regardless whether he was dealing with the more explicit spatial illusionism of landscapes and interiors or the shallower space of Cubist composition, Judd found that he could not escape either figure/ground relationships or a relational balancing of forms that inevitably involved the subordination of the whole to its parts, both of which were becoming increasingly problematic for him. The somewhat more subdued palette and closer values of the reds, blues, browns, and greens of these latest paintings, along with their increasing geometricism, appear to indicate a move toward a sort of all-over composition, which, had Judd been determined to continue this kind of painting, might eventually have led him to the grid or the monochrome. Instead, a shift occurred when he stopped trying to depict structures — bridges, architectural spaces, structured landscapes (i.e. gardens) — and began to consider paintings themselves as structures. This initially involved strategies that Picasso and Braque had employed a half century before in their own transition from analytic to synthetic Cubism: the mixture of sand (and wax in Judd’s case) with their paint and the use of collage.

It would be easy to miss Judd’s somewhat idiosyncratic collages in this exhibition; these works were placed, appropriately, in the space between the galleries. Like Jackson Pollock in several paintings of the late ’40s, Judd experimented with cutting holes in some of his woodcuts, but not, as Fried argues in Pollock’s case, in an effort to reintroduce figuration once he had successfully eliminated the figure/ground relationship, but rather to acknowledge the materiality of the components of that relationship.(6) In two woodcuts dated 1960 Judd cut holes in the very thin tissue paper on which they were printed and, in one of them, taped the cut-out pieces to other parts of the composition with masking tape. Significantly, Judd only cut out portions of the thick lines that described vaguely organic linear shapes, which made the absence of these sections more conspicuous because it disrupted the lines’ progression. Taping these pieces to other parts of the paper emphasized the materiality of both the ink and the support, calling attention to the conventionality of pictorial illusionism by simultaneously dislocating and literalizing the figure/ground relationship.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1965, Galvanized iron.... Seven parts, each 23 x 101.6 x 76.2 cm. Moderna Museet, Stockholm

Judd’s abandonment of easel painting roughly coincided with the beginning of a six-year stint as a full-time art critic. Although this renunciation was clearly a result of his frustration with painting’s limitations, the neologism that he would use to describe the new work that was neither painting nor sculpture — specific objects — did not apply exclusively to his own work (a point that gets lost at times in the exhibition catalogue). That is, he understood his own concern with specificity and wholeness within the context of a similar approach to space and materials that he had observed in the work of other artists, even though their work might not otherwise have appeared to have much in common with his. While Judd would not give up painting altogether for another three years or so, his attempts to avoid illusionism and still work in two dimensions took a variety of forms following his experiments with the woodcuts. And, just as his paintings of the ’50s attest to a kind of agonistic struggle, so too the paintings and reliefs of the early ’60s reveal a similar searching quality. Eventually, he became convinced that painting, bound by its conventionality, did not have the capacity for directness and specificity that he began to recognize as a property of the support itself, or, as he put it, “The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.”(7)

In the exhibition, the first group of paintings of the early ’60s culminates in a 1961 work titled Relief. This is a hybrid form consisting of a highly impastoed black monochrome oil painting on masonite in the center of which a relatively deep, tin baking pan is set with its rim flush with the surface of the painting so that the work projects about four inches from the wall. Piercing the two-dimensional surface and occupying actual space, the baking pan forces the issue of real objects and space within the painting since neither is illusionistic. And yet, the title betrays an awareness that the space involved was no longer that of painting.

Another way of thinking through the problem came in the form of another type of relief, of which Judd made about five different versions, whose absence from the exhibition seems particularly conspicuous. This form combined the two-dimensional surface of painting (although it was only completely flat in the first version) with a kind of cornice, usually of galvanized iron, which projected from both the top and bottom. Rather than literally receding into pictorial space like the baking pan, these works instead projected insistently into the space of the gallery. Judd’s engagement here was with the three-dimensional structure of the support rather than its surface. And it was precisely at this time that Fried, by contrast, was beginning to stress modernist painting’s need to acknowledge the literalness of the support in order to reaffirm its conventionality and transcend its materiality. Which brings us back to the moment of Judd’s anecdote about leaving the pipe relief on the floor and his move into actual space and the specific, or direct, use of materials.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1963 Light cadmium red oil on wood ... 49.5 x 77.5 x 115.6 cm ... The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, purchased 1974

The rest, as they say, is history. And there’s plenty more to say about the works that followed. However, I think the importance of this particular exhibition is that it provides a rare opportunity to glimpse the pre-history of this artist’s variously interpreted legacy. While I’ve only sketched this development in broad terms, Kellein has made thoughtful and careful choices in putting together a group of works that allows for its significant amplification.(8) The Menil installation also gives the work the space it requires, and it’s fair to say that there are very few spaces (other than Marfa) that might show this work — particularly the later pieces — to better advantage. The remainder of the exhibition might be said to demonstrate a range of specificities that would preoccupy Judd for the rest of his career: horizontal and vertical formats; reflective and matte surfaces; floor and wall pieces; serial composition and mathematical progressions; open and closed volumes; applied and unapplied color; and, finally, opacity and transparency. Seeing the works assembled in the last room is especially enlightening because, although familiar, their significance in the context of this exhibition is a result of their marked contrast with the early paintings. Not only is their structural clarity and direct use of space apparent — the use of colored Plexiglas allows us to see precisely how these works were constructed and the floor acts as one face of the boxes — but there is no evidence here of a struggle. That doesn’t mean Judd had exhausted all the possibilities of specificity, only that he had succeeded in opening up a space for himself and others to work — and it’s perhaps the possibilities for our understanding of that legacy that the exhibition opens up.

1. Quoted in Roberta Smith, ‘Donald Judd,’ in Brydon Smith, Donald Judd (Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada, 1975): 7, 10.

2. ‘Donald Judd: Early Work 1955-1968,’ The Menil Collection,. 9 March 2003.

3. Quoted in John Coplans, ‘An Interview with Don Judd,’ Artforum 9 (June 1971): 41. While the tone of this statement is typically flat-footed, it nonetheless gives the lie to Clement Greenberg’s complaint that minimal art was ‘too much a feat of ideation… something deduced instead of felt and discovered.’ See Clement Greenberg, ‘Recentness of Sculpture,’ American Sculpture of the Sixties (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967): 25.

4. Ibid.

5. Lawrence Campbell, ‘Judd and Raisin,’ Art News 55 (Sept. 1956): 17.

6. See Michael Fried, ‘Introduction,’ Three American Painters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1965): 17-19.

7. Donald Judd, ‘Specific Objects,’ Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax, Canada: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975): 181-2.

8. The one or two exceptions I’ve mentioned seem negligible given the scope of this exhibition. It’s somewhat disappointing, however, to be confronted with a number of refabricated works — if only because it changes the historical nature of the exhibition to a certain extent. My thanks to Alison Greene for her insights on this subject.

Mary Leclère is a critic-in-residence in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and a Phd candidate in art history at the University of Virginia.

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