Monday, August 5, 2013

Looking at Donald Judd

An elaborate comparison in order to get to our main topic. When you are learning ancient Greek, you are given reading passages from the classics as early as possible in your course of study. This is exciting - reading this or that famous thing in the original.

As a rule, they don't start you out with Aeschylus. Aeschylus wrote in a very difficult Greek. How difficult? Here's a passage from The Frogs, by Aristophanes, where the ghosts of Euripides and Aeschylus shit-talk each other's writing in front of Dionysus:

...then he uses a dozen huge words, as big as an ox, complete with crests and awesome eyebrows, horrible, dreadful things! Intimidating words which the audience has never seen before!

Oh my God!


But not one single word was clear.

Dionysus (to Aeschylus):
Would you stop grinding your teeth?

Scamanders, or trenches, or shield-adorning bronze-beaten griffon-eagles and horse-cliffed phrases, that nobody could understand!

Yes, by Zeus! And I stayed up all night once, wondering what sort of bird the yellow hipporooster was.

You stupid dolt! It was an emblem, carved on the ships! A figurehead!

This play took first prize at the Lenaia in 405 B.C. One thing we learn from The Frogs is that even the ancient Greeks couldn't understand the ancient Greek of Aeschylus. So when you're learning ancient Greek, they steer you well clear of him. Instead, they give you the New Testament and Plato. The New Testament is written in Koiné, a kind of streamlined, simplified Greek spoken throughout the various Greek empires - Greek for non-Greeks - and Plato seems merely to have liked plain speaking.


Donald Judd, in many ways, strikes me as the Plato of a kind of art which I would call instantiated formalism. More on that in a minute. But on Judd as, stylistically, more a Plato than an Aeschylus: he doesn't use words for parts of ships you never heard of. You don't need a dictionary to figure out what he's saying. You can understand him just by looking at his work.

Until fairly recently, I knew Judd by name only. A friend asked me what I thought of him, and I had to beg a little time, since I couldn't picture a single work. By sheer good luck, I shortly afterward ran into a piece of his work at the Art Institute in Chicago:

I did not have long to stop and look at this piece, but a kernel of understanding became clear immediately. I had already googled Judd, coming across pieces like this:

I assumed that Judd was a conceptual artist, because my main point of reference for conceptual art is Sol LeWitt, and Sol LeWitt is also concerned with intense scrutiny of the rectilinear form:

Sol LeWitt, Geometric Structure 2-2, Painted Wood

Coming upon the Judd in person, what became clear immediately was that despite the superficial resemblance between his work and LeWitt's, they are not in the same genus at all. Judd's work is beautifully executed. By my lights, this beauty is an insult to the conceptualist program. Conceptualism asserts the primacy of the idea - the art concept. The actual physical embodiment of the art concept is either deprioritized, or entirely irrelevant. This hierarchy of values results in a problem in the execution of conceptual art. If it is too badly executed, the matter which represents the concept will distract from the concept. But if it is too well executed, the same distraction arises. The execution of conceptual art must be neither beautiful nor hideous. I have always thought LeWitt somehow got it exactly right: the execution of his work is merely adequate. A little dingy, a little dull. Smudged perhaps, or indifferent; but for all that, the straight lines are straight, and the angles are precise:

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #681 C

I believe that humdrum execution is the very thing for conceptualism. Who notices a doorknob, or a banister, or a file cabinet? Humdrum execution makes of the material a suitably transparent vessel for the idea.

If this material aesthetics of conceptual art is valid, then from top to bottom, Judd transgresses it. He is so intent on beauty of execution that one doubts he is working with reference to conceptualist doctrine at all.

Some of you, who are acquainted with modern art history and criticism, are no doubt laughing, because you already know the punchline. But this is an account of what one can figure out with hardly any training at all; and I hope that in light of this, the path and outcome of the investigation will be interesting for you as well.

If, then, you reject Judd as a conceptualist, then what is he? We start with what is obvious - that his materials are carefully selected and lovingly assembled into the works:

There is a spare simplicity of execution here, a unified integrity of approach to material, form, and environment, which makes these objects striking and beautiful.

And yet they do have this in common with LeWitt-style conceptualism: unlike almost any painting, from a Rembrandt to a Pollock, they can be completely described with an economical set of words and numbers. In the case above, for instance, one object could be described using its x, y, and z dimensions, thickness of wall, and type of concrete - 5 data points.

So we have objects which partake of two key properties: beauty of execution specific to the particular object+installation at hand, and rigor of formal definition of the object to be constructed.

When I got around to actually researching Judd a bit, it turned out these were indeed explicit issues for him.

On the one hand, he was a noisy evangelist of the fundamental importance of materials and setting to the work. In this sense, his thoughts have a lot in common with Frank Lloyd Wright's theology of matter and landscape, and Buckminster Fuller's obsession with industrial materials: aluminum, glass, concrete, steel.

And on the other hand, he ruminated at length on the design of his work, tending to frame it in terms of simple integer ratios (e.g., allowing the ratio 3:2 to determine that if this edge is 3 units long, then that edge will be 2 units long). In this sense too he was not so far from Wright and Fuller. Except, of course, being an artist, his work turns inward in its function, generally serving no obvious end beyond induction in the viewer of celebration of the work's existence (and various related meditative states).

These poles of the work are why I would call Judd's work instantiated formalism. He eliminates enough detail to foreground elemental formal properties like length, color, and shape. It is formalist work. And yet it is anti-conceptual: the particular body in which the idea is found is essential to the work. The work represents an instantiated set of properties. It is refined until it is itself and no other.*

His work is often described as minimalist. While it is minimalist, I would argue that this property is an accidental byproduct of his abiding concerns, and not his starting point or goal.

Apart from having something to say to my friend who asked me about Judd, what was the point of this exercise?

For me it reflected a few principles:

1. I believe that for most artwork, you should not have to be a specialist in order to figure out important things about it - that you should be able to throw your humanity and intelligence at the problem, and get results. But to verify this principle, you actually have to do it, once in a while. So this sort of inquiry is a kind of continuing exercise for me.

2. For me, some of the most interesting artwork is enigmatic riddlework. No less in Judd than in Giorgione, we sense that our first glance at the work does not tell us all there is. The more we look, the more the work unfolds itself to us. And yet no matter how much we look, and how much it unfolds, we do not get to the end of it. One of the great strengths of art is that it can engineer our encounter with the mystery of things. But we have to show up and participate to receive this boon.

3. Judd is very largely outside of my native territory. I am glad to spend much of my time at home, but I also feel a need to go out to distant countries and see what people are doing there. It reminds me there are lots of ways to do things, and expands what I can imagine doing in my own work.

*Any philosophers reading this will recognize that I am being a little wiggly with the definition of instantiation here.


  1. I would have called Judd a minimalist, though he reportedly hated the term. Last winter I visited Dia Beacon, a wonderful museum with a lot of works by Judd and his "minimalist" contemporaries. I was struck by how different the artists' statements about their work were from the kind of thing you're likely to see nowadays. They were the last generation of art-world leaders who dared openly avow a spiritual purpose to their work.

    1. You know, Steve Wright used to claim to me that the pop artists were reacting to the overbearing self-seriousness of the abex generation and their highlighted spiritualism - I guess Judd is part of the same earlier cohort? At any rate, I'll be glad to openly avow a spiritual purpose to my work, but I might not be the kind of artist we're talking about. I'll say this much: I'm grateful that you're still reading this blog, Fred, and I always enjoy your thoughts. I also need to visit Dia Beacon sometime.

  2. Yeah, maybe the minimalists are the heirs to the abexers and the postmodernists are heirs to the pop artists. And yes, Dia Beacon is worth the trip. The works that still resonate in my memory from there are the Sol LeWitt and Richard Serra pieces. Storm King is also up that way and a worthwhile outing, especially for Andy Goldsworthy and Maya Lin. And your blog is always a good read - ideas worth thinking about.