Magazine article The Spectator

Spatial Awareness

Magazine article The Spectator

Spatial Awareness

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2

Spatial awareness

Donald Judd

Tate Modem, until 25 April

The American sculptor Donald Judd (1928-94) is hailed by many as one of the heroes of Minimalism - the 1960s art movement which was in reaction to the overt 'personality' of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Minimalism concentrated on impersonal, clear, simplified forms, but Judd himself rejected the label as a description of his work. He preferred to call his sculptures 'Specific Objects', and said that they were 'the simple expression of complex thought'. Certainly Judd was a thoughtful artist.

He studied philosophy and art history at Columbia University before practising as a painter for the first third of his career. During this time (1959-65) he had a greater reputation as an art critic. He later said: 'I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise', and, Obviously art critics should be paid much more'.

The large Judd exhibition at Tate Modern, accompanying the poignant homage to Brancusi in the adjoining galleries, is curated by Nicholas Serota himself, and is the first full retrospective of Judd's sculpture since 1988, timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of his death. It is further marked by the publication of a truly sumptuous catalogue (£40 hbk, £29.99 pbk) - the photographs of the permanent Judd installations in Marfa, west Texas, are stunning - with essays by various experts. All this is a mark of the high esteem in which Judd is held - 'one of the most significant American artists of the postwar period' - and it places a weight of responsibility on the viewer which may be a trifle overwhelming. I don't think Judd would have wanted that - he just wanted people to respond to his objects, to establish a dialogue with them, and be aware of how these forms made and articulated the space within a building. It is this spatial awareness that is central to Judd's art.

The exhibition begins with a few of Judd's paintings, including an Arp-like 'Untitled' in blue, which sadly looks rather better in reproduction than in the flesh. The sinuous white line centrally threaded with black which bisects the picture is less sensuous in reality, and the blue ground is uncomfortably scruffy. By 1962, Judd was beginning to incorporate found objects into his two-dimensional work. Here an aluminium baking pan is set into a textured black upright rectangle several inches deep. A year later, free-standing sculpture emerges; but the juxtaposition between a 1963 floor-piece and the Tate's prominent ventilation grilles does not help this early work. There is something adolescent and self-conscious about these early solutions, though Judd was well into his thirties. It is apparent that he has no real feeling for materials, that his work is ideasdriven, and that the sooner he gives up making it by hand the better.

From the mid-1960s, all of Judd's work was made for him by professional fabricators. It is now that the mature Judd vocabulary of forms and materials is established. The materials are industrial - coloured Plexiglas, aluminium, steel, copper and plywood. Surfaces are often deliberately blank and ineloquent. Projecting units or components are repeated, boxes are constructed, the space of a room is made to speak. Forms are stacked or echoed in progressions. There are long sequences of open and closed shapes. This is an art devoted to volume, interval, space and colour, expressed in the most impersonal way. It is art for an industrial society, concerning itself specifically with man-made order and materials. …

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