Every Shiny Object Wants an Infant Who Will Love It

By Shiff, Richard | Art Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Every Shiny Object Wants an Infant Who Will Love It


Shiff, Richard, Art Journal


In Marfa, Texas, during the 1980s, Donald Judd installed one hundred boxlike objects, each with the same exterior dimensions ? forty-one inches high, with a base of fifty-one by seventy-two inches. Structural features of these objects, vary, so that each is unique. For example, a unit might be divided by an interior vertical plane or by an interior horizontal, and the division might occur in full or in part. Judd positioned die one hundred units within two reconditioned artillery sheds, long rectangular structures fitted with glazing to either side. The volume of each unit, when viewed in isolation, relates readily to human scale. It's easy to imagine your body inserted into any of the more open variations of the basic form. With less intrusiveness, you might peer into these boxlike objects, especially in cases where Judd chose not to close offa side or the top. It wouldn't be voyeurism, for these objects beckon; rjhey invite. You respond, approaching with respectful attention, as if knowing that the objects know you're there,

The material is mill aluminum, which has a shine. This attractive surface gloss or luster, somewhat muted, appears not only as shine but also as sheen. The reflected light becomes now an aggressive beam projecting, now a passive vapor rising. Such varied reflection is an inducement to keep looking. Within Judd's environment of aluminum objects, you may feel yourself shifting from observing materia] planes to observing immaterial light, or even shifting from one sense of illumination to another. Then you shift back again, experiencing any number of pairs of effects in tension.

Distinction, Distraction

Critical analysis depends on familiar categorical oppositions of this very kind: material, immaterial; solid, void; closed, open; fixed object, ambient light; the formed, the unformed. For die analytical writer, Judd's art will evoke many of these abstract distinctions and the oppositional terminology of their pai red -off qualities. The scene in Marfa, however, encourages active viewers to tolerate contradictions of convergence: solids evaporate in the light; the light in turn solidifies. The pairing is either degenerating in entropy or transcending itself in sublimity, depending on your attitude. Rhetorically, to phrase the sensory effect in this manner ? the solid form becomes light, the light becomes a solid: ? is to invoke chiasmic oxymoron. This provides the shell of an explanation, yet it's an empty one that explains nothing, at best deferring the problem. Although clever, the language remains inadequate to the feeling of Judd's forms and their environmental illumination.. Surely, we already knew that this would be so. Language is always inadequate to sensory feeling and to emotions as well, even if we descend to expletive as a last resort. The experience of Judd's art makes this all the more evident to those loath to accept it. We are aware of die inadequacy, and we resist admitting it. Acknowledgment would undermine assertive argument and our professions of critical acumen, if not critical certainty. We bristle at realizing that our description and analysis go nowhere.

As I've stated, each of Judd's one hundred mill aluminum objects has structural uniqueness. But the distinctions we perceive are more than structural. As the abundant light within the artillery sheds changes during the day, it plays off the metallic planes with endless variation, not only because the source of ihumination is moving (and so may be the viewer) but also because Judd's constructions face this light with a diverse array of directional surfaces. Exterior planes intersecting at right angles relate to the light in mutual opposition and dramatic contrast. Numerous other features may be present in any of the one hundred variations of the structure: open interior partitions, closed interior volumes, recessed planes, double parallel planes, diagonal planes, and even canted diagonals (planes rotated around a primary diagonal axis). …

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