Conversation Starter: Mel Bochner on the Republished Writings of Donald Judd
Bochner, Mel, Artforum International
Complete Writings 1959-1975: Gallery Reviews, Book Reviews, Articles, Letters to the Editor, Reports, Statements, Complaints, by Donald Judd.
Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. 229 pages. $55.
WHY DONALD JUDD'S WRITINGS? Why now? The recent republication of his Complete Writings 1959-1975 begs these questions. After all, there is a seriousness to Judd's criticism that, in the money-fueled art world of today, can make it feel vaguely quaint. Divorced from the historical context of the mid-'60s, Judd's involvement in the debates surrounding "specific objects" or "theatricality" might seem like the vestige of some long-forgotten family feud.
However, when one looks around, it becomes immediately evident that the legacy of that quarrelsome period threads its way through much of what is going on today, if only as an attempt to secure historical legitimacy. If something is simple or geometric, it is immediately termed "Minimalist." If it has little or no physical presence, it is dubbed "Conceptual." If it contains some reference to the counterculture, it is tagged "political." Oddly enough, at a time that witnesses an almost blind fetishism of the art of the late '60s and early '70s, there seems to be a general agreement that little remains worth arguing about. The trough is big enough for all the hogs.
But even if the increase in the number of artists and opportunities makes it seem like that there is plenty to go around, something still seems to be missing. One can hear it in all the verbal hand-wringing about the state of contemporary art. Is it only nostalgia for the "good old days," or does so much that is being done now lack either passion or purpose? The old guys (and I guess that means me, too) may have been cranky, but at least we went at it tooth and nail, as if our lives depended on it. Something real was at stake. Recently it was asked in these pages why there was such a proliferation of artists' writings in the '60s. (1) My answer would be that such writing was driven by the desire to secure a place in a public conversation that was new and unprecedented in American art. The conversation I am referring to was, to a certain degree, initiated by Judd's writings.
Art writing in the '50s and early '60s was uniformly bad (and bland) with the exception of the criticism of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Whatever your feelings about the dogmatism of the first or the bluster of the second, there was nothing going on that could be called a conversation. Greenberg himself indicated as much in 1962, in his aptly titled "How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name": "Contemporary art criticism is absurd not only because of its rhetoric, its language, and its solecisms of logic. It is also absurd because of its repetitiousness.... Things that would get expelled from other kinds of writing by laughter multiply and flourish in art writing."
A good many of the reviewers of that time came from literary backgrounds, usually the New York School of poetry, which showed up in their exaggerated claims and overripe metaphors. In art school in the late '50s, we played a game, reading reviews aloud from the latest issue of Art News and trying to guess who the subject was. I can still remember one: "X dumps live chunks of landscape steaming hot into the gallery." (Give up? Helen Frankenthaler.) What changed this situation? Artists started writing. (I'll leave it to someone else to answer the question "What changed it back?") Why let the critics speak for you when you are perfectly capable of speaking for yourself?
Judd began writing reviews in the late '50s, but he came from a completely different background. He was a painter who had studied art history and philosophy at Columbia University, and his writing had an awkwardly learned edge. "I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise," he later said. …