Specific Objections: Yve-Alain Bois on Donald Judd in London and Minimalism in New York and Los Angeles

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I AM NOT SURE DONALD JUDD WOULD HAVE LAUGHED--HIS CLOSE CIRCLE might know better, but he never struck me in deed or word as having much of a sense of humor. Yet John Waters's poster Visit Marfa, 2003, like all his other satirical endeavors, is pitch-perfect in its irreverent and bittersweet take on what could only have been the sculptor's worst nightmare: Minimalism as mass tourism and entertainment.


"Take the Whole Family to Marfa, Texas," exhorts the broadside, beneath a Li'l Abner-style middle-class family, grinning like they've just won a vacation to Disney World. A bubble on the poster advertises "The Jonestown of Minimalism," mocking the tenacious cliche of the movement's "spirituality" by likening it to a senseless sect. The target is an apt one, considering that the quasi-religious interpretation of Minimalism proposed by New Age zealots such as James Turrell is forever on the rise, despite its staunch rejection by most Minimal artists, Judd foremost among them. The appeal to "Win a Date with John Chamberlain" evokes the old charge of machismo, while "Eat Food All the Same Color" recalls the complaint of dullness. "See Donald Judd's Bed" farcically skewers the devolution of Minimalism's aesthetic program of objectivity and impersonality into a fawning cult of personality (ads for Elvis's Graceland immediately come to mind). On this score, Judd's own megalomania deserves blame: His incremental buying up of Marfa, as well as vast pieces of Texas--combined with his not-so-tongue-in-cheek wish that his domain might one day secede from the US--has more in common with the lore of banana republics and tax-haven principalities than with the political anarchism he claimed as his inspiration. The spoof is very droll indeed, but the target too easy. Yet "See Judd's Bed" reads in another, even more damning direction. It refers not simply to the famous figure who slept on said piece of furniture but to the one who made it--implying that Minimalism, with Judd at the helm, has become merely good design. With its busy and vulgar typography, the poster itself is the exact opposite of the supremely elegant streamlining that long characterized Judd's production, not just in design, but in every medium and genre.


In its unhallowed brazenness Waters's Visit Marfa calls for a reconsideration of Judd's enterprise and, by extension, Minimalism as a whole. Its multiple assaults could be addressed, even rebuked one by one. Still, the allusion to Judd's bed should not be overlooked, particularly in light of the recent "Minimalist-art tour" of Manhattan offered by the Guggenheim's curators. The list of attractions, recounted in the New York Times, is in no way exhaustive. Happy tourists hopped from a restaurant designed by Richard Meier in TriBeCa to the Flavinesque window display of the Apple Store in SoHo, but they could just as well have glanced at the even more Flavinesque window of the Helmut Lang boutique a block away, and rather than visiting the Jil Sander store uptown, they might have patronized Calvin Klein on Madison Avenue, replete with excellent examples of Judd's furniture. The question is, in short: Has Minimalism merely turned decor? Have Minimalist sculptors become, as Barnett Newman would have said, just new "Bauhaus screwdriver designers"? The answer is yes, but only in part, and I am not certain that Judd was the foremost agent of this devolution, even if he did design furniture. Flavin's exhibitionist staging of his wedding in the rotunda of the Guggenheim during his own exhibition there is much more to the point. Indeed, as Lucy Lippard reminds us in her 1968 essay "10 Structurists in 20 Paragraphs," Flavin himself spoke of Minimalism as a longing for a "common sense of keenly realized decoration."

Let us say, first, that this scenario is inevitable. Meyer Schapiro long ago remarked on fashion's co-optation of modern art in the immediate aftermath of the 1913 Armory Show. …


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