"Donald Judd: Early Work 1955-1968"; Menil Collection, Houston. (Reviews)

Article excerpt

Donald Judd did not begin to produce mature, wholly distinctive works of art until shortly after his thirty-second birthday, in the summer of 1960. Or so the story is told in the artist's 1975 catalogue raisonne. "Early Work 1955-1968," curated by Thomas Kellein, director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld (which co-organized the show with the Menil), gathers together paintings and drawings executed before the official oeuvre's clock started ticking. Offering itself as a missing prequel to the Judd epic, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue whose cover (in Judd's signature cadmium red) is an exact replica of the 1975 document, only half the size. It's the reisonne's Mini-Me.

Much of the interest here owes to the show's seeming promise to disclose a young Judd as closet painter, cavorting with palette and easel. Many of the works have never been allowed public viewing before or at least have not been shown since the '50s: Judd participated in three New York gallery exhibits between '55 and '57, the last a solo outing the artist himself deemed a "stupid show [of] half-baked abstractions." Actually, some of the paintings are not half bad. (Deep down Judd must have agreed, having never destroyed them and consenting to the present exhibit when it was first proposed in 1992.) The best of the early canvases are just shy of dismissively tentative, their surfaces stitched together by brushwork heavily indebted to Cezanne and Mondrian, with beige or gray-blue grounds at once animated and anchored by thick black horizontal bands-which are themselves crossed and paralleled by swatches of red, green, and white. Judging these paintings on their own is impossible, though. They are contextualize d here, which is to say greatly outnumbered, by many well-known works: the later paintings with found objects embedded in their surfaces from 1961-62, as well as the trademark wall- and floor-bound objects made of wood, metal, and Plexiglas, dating through 1968.

Seen strictly within a teleology of the literal, connections emerge between the '50s oils and charcoal drawings and the mid-'60s Specific Objects. Kellein emphasizes a couple in his catalogue essay. He relates a staircase at the Art Students League that served as a motif for several early drawings to stairs-like or banisteresque elements in the Specific Objects debuted in Judd's first shows at the Green Gallery in 1963. More interesting, the early paintings show circular notches repeatedly cut into abstract forms at their edges--a tendency continued in the many grooves, troughs, and pipe beds rutted into the top of the later sculptures and wall reliefs. Kellein uses such continuities to argue his case--never stated outright but heavily suggested--that Judd's official oeuvre be revised with an earlier start date (meaning that the "stupid" shows, not the ones at Green, would count as Judd's first). But he also hedges: While the exhibition's title designates as "early" everything from to as late as '68 (the year of Judd's big Whitney survey), both the catalogue and the show are organized in two distinct sections, with a sharp break at 1962--that is, between the paintings leading up to the Specific Objects and the Specific Objects proper (which, of course, leave painting in the dust). What ends up fore grounded is the idea of revelatory breakthrough itself. …