Judd on Politics, Judd on Phenomena

By Kohn, Adrian | Art Journal, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Judd on Politics, Judd on Phenomena


Kohn, Adrian, Art Journal


Judd on Politics, Judd on Phenomena Donald Judd. Complete Writings, 1959-1975. Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design Press, 2005. 240 pp., 300 b/w ills. $55 paper.

Donald Judd's five hundred exhibition reviews, collected in the recently republished Complete Writings, 1959-1975, make up the sort of "messy" art history he endorsed (151). Some of Judd's preferences contradict today's incipient canon of mid-twentiethcentury art. He insisted that Al Jensen "is great[,] one of the best painters in the United States" (85) and also complimented works by Sally Hazelet Drummond, Ôyvind Fahlstrom, Edward Higgins, George Ortman, and others who don't show up in the postwar survey texts. In the course of sixteen years Judd sometimes changed his mind. His opinion of work by John Chamberlain (10, 46) and Roy Lichtenstein (48, ioo) improved, while his appreciation of Jasper Johns's ( 14, 89) and Robert Rauschenberg's (42, 106) art deteriorated. Judd's Complete Writings, 1959-1975 offers the reader many other trajectories for reconstructing how a major artist and critic saw art and the world. One thread, Judd's politics, has already provoked much polemical commentary. Another, Judd's concept of phenomena, remains almost unknown.

Political anarchism undergirds Judd's later writings. He championed voluntary cooperation among individuals, as well as local control against vast bodies like corporations and federal governments, which he believed oppressive by nature. Unlike his cautious statement in "The Artist and Politics: A Symposium" from five years earlier, Judd made rash and incendiary claims in his 1975 article "Imperialism, Nationalism and Regionalism":

Since it takes a couple of hundred years to make true patriots and since India and China will have to fight it out with Russia and the United States and then a couple of new amalgamations and then since India and China will have to fight, it's easy to see that nationalism will last a thousand years. And, as with the European religious wars, it will be hard to understand what it was all about. It will just have happened and millions, maybe billions will be dead (220).'

Sardonic playfulness and rhetorical posturing hinder serious evaluation. The superficial fact that India, China, Russia, and the United States are sovereign nations does not preordain war. Judd's dire predictions ignore the intricacies of diplomacy, foreign policy, and world history. In his defense, however, perpetual violence between global superpowers may have seemed inevitable six months after the fall of Saigon and amid the continuing cold war. The personal context of Judd's antigovernment stance is also intriguing (and not intended as a cheap shot) : his was a privileged anarchism, afforded by de Menil philanthropy, his own financial success, and, perhaps most of all, a thirty-fourthousand-acre ranch in desolate West Texas. Judd had the means necessary to withdraw from society.

Unconvincing to those not already sympathetic, Judd's anarchist positions nevertheless remain an art-historical fact. Some scholars' veiled or outright accusations of bellicose art criticism, reactionary politics, and misogyny do not adequately account for how Judd exercised his beliefs.2 He contributed articles, posters, and prints to groups like Artists Against the Expressway, Citizens for Local Democracy, the Lower Manhattan Township newspaper, and the War Resisters League (202-07, 2?7'~9)·3 He sat on the school board in Marfa, Texas. Activism does not trump the former charges, of course, but historians should consider all facets of Judd's art making and citizenship before passing judgment. Judd argued as much when, tellingly confrontational, he complained in "Imperialism, Nationalism and Regionalism" that

a lot of people, elsewhere and in New York, are being very careless and ignorant in their accusations. ... I don't like being lectured by doctrinaire artists, who are fortifying their work with politics, about situations I've lived with all my life and learned about angrily detail by detail (221-22).

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