Compromise was hardly American artist Donald Judd's middle name.
He saw one side of a question and stuck to it. If he had had a
middle name, it would probably have been "clarity."
Everything about Judd's work and his writings on art evinces
clarity. It is this quality that makes the current exhibition of
Judd's work at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford so stimulating.
It is refreshing to become reacquainted with an artist who is so
definite. "specific objects" was his label for his sculptures. But
he did not just prefer the specific and the objective, he was in
love with them; and his work has that kind of intensity.
I recall in the 1960s someone telling me that Judd's art was
"Romantic." Puzzling. I have finally decided this is nonsense, his
idealism being so pragmatic and his imagination being strictly
subject to the literalness of what can be seen. And yet ...
Now, in Oxford, someone tells me Judd is "Baroque." Fascinating
-- but surely nonsense too. Judd was insistent on the idea of
"wholeness" as opposed to a buildup of parts. He disliked
illusionism. He was the least deliberately theatrical of artists.
He excised emotive elements from his work. The structure of his
work is calmly devoid of crescendo or climax. How could such an
artist be "Baroque"? And yet ...
If his work falls into any tradition, it must be the
"Classical." He is a descendent of Alberti, not Bernini. His modern
mentors seem more likely to be Mies van der Rohe and Gerrit
Rietveld (he owned furniture by both) than Emil Nolde or Willem De
Kooning. And yet ...
In Oxford the exhibition of Judd's sculpture, prints, furniture,
and drawings for architecture is exceptionally popular, suggesting
that Judd's work speaks to people as tellingly in the 1990s as it
did when first seen in the '60s. It is unpretentious as well as
uncompromising. It is also superbly made: Such things are in
stabilizing contrast to today's multistyled, "who-cares" art mix.
Judd's work is closer to sculpture than painting only because it
is in three dimensions.
His often boxlike structures developed, by his own logic, out of
painting. He did not exterminate, but restated in different terms
and materials (plywood, anodized aluminum, galvanized iron,
concrete, brass, copper, plexiglas, enamel) certain essences of
painting: characteristics of surface, emphasis on edges and lines,
focus on shapes rather than masses (which he treats as basically
empty), and on color, translucency, shadow, and reflectivity.
Unlike his friend (American sculptor) Dan Flavin, he does not
incorporate real light in his works -- but surrounding light
falling onto, bouncing off, percolating through, and directly
penetrating his works. It is not simply unavoidable, but a crucial,
even opulently sensuous part of them.
On the other hand, Judd's specific objects are anti-painting in
the sense that he began to make them once he had concluded that
painting was inescapably involved with illusion. The only way to
escape from the illusory nature of painting was simply to do
something different. …