Donald Judd Writings
Edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray
Co-published by Judd Foundation and David
Zwirner Books, $39.95
In her introductory comments as co-editor to this 2016 volume, Caitlin Murray, archivist and director of Marfa programs for the Judd Foundation, states an aspiration of providing “a measure of Judd’s thinking.” This is no minor task, given the scope of his life’s work. Four previous books assembled compilations of his writing (1975, 1986, 1989, and 1991 — the 1991 book “Ecrits” was published only in French, and, like the 1986 book, included no imagery). A symposium at Chinati in May 2008 addressed his unique manner of expression and his quiet but direct conveyance of meaning. Judd died February 12, 1994, at the age of 65 and left a staggering legacy of criticism, artworks, architectural work, furniture, statements, and related ideas to consider. Twenty-three years later, the real assimilation of these thoughts (not to mention his influence on the town of Marfa, Texas) has yet to occur. The Chinati Foundation / La Fundación Chinati, which he created in 1986, still is in deep contemplation of a way to proceed given these principles which challenge convention in fundamental ways. Passing time has made Judd’s sensibility even more profound and relevant.
The new “Writings” is softbound and roughly the size of a brick. It includes 156 pages of color and black-and-white images and drawings, as well as images of written sheets by Judd. These are treated as an addendum — visual footnotes separated from the text body for graphic reasons, but making immediate reference while reading a little more difficult. As opposed to earlier collections of Judd’s writings, this book includes casual notes of a sentence or short paragraph in dated chronology with the other more formal or published writings. And it only includes a select portion of the reviews and material in the 1975 “Complete Writings,” which was republished in a new edition in early 2016. Thus it is not complete in the literal sense and does not claim to be. However, this curated selection gives the new book a more comprehensive and full view of his thought. There is little distinction between the casual and formal writings in texture. None, in tone.
Donald Judd was born in 1928 in Missouri and studied philosophy at Columbia; then art history under the renowned Meyer Schapiro, as did artist Ad Reinhardt, who was older than Judd. Judd claimed not to have been particularly influenced by Reinhardt. There are similarities, however — perhaps due to Schapiro — including regard for the work of Soviet artists poorly addressed in American art history. Both artists made deep social criticisms and worried about the state of culture and art in serious and biting continuous commentary. Barnett Newman would prove more influential to Judd.
Judd wrote art reviews from 1959, when he was hired by Hilton Kramer at Arts Magazine (Kramer was also a student of Meyer Schapiro) at a rate of $6 for 300 words. His reviews danced between obsidian-sharp distinctions and a unique sense of pictorial mechanics predicated on the “plain beauty of a well-made thing.” Hollow or weak work met with faint praise. “Art is intrinsically about quality.” A work of art, as with any act in life, should have ‘credibility’ and ‘integrity,’ and his reviews were brutal toward work by others which lacked these qualities or were oblivious to their own roots in history, history of thought and place. He wrote reviews until early 1965, after his December 1963 solo exhibit at the Green Gallery established his own body of work. Space and color were of profound concern in his life.
Judd’s seminal text “Specific Objects” was written in 1964, published in 1965 in Arts Yearbook 8, and established a new ‘category’ (he was completely untrusting of such categories and, in fact, of the idea of art history in general) of art work — “three dimensional” — but ‘between’ painting and sculpture. Judd’s desire to “avoid presumptions” in his work led him to reject earlier traditions in both disciplines as loaded with undesired conventions and meanings he believed had long expired. These included many aspects of composition, but especially the relation of parts to the whole. “The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.” Judd shared Bertrand Russell’s view that “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence; it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.” To invoke religion — a “destructive illusion” — in art was another “expired” presumption to Judd.
His interviews, particularly joint interviews with Frank Stella in the 1960s, outlined these beliefs and established a kind of manifesto for this new work. Stella’s statement of the period — “What you see is what you see” — is frequently quoted in reference to this empirical, experiential reading of art which both held as true.
Judd was soft-spoken in person, almost whispering, and his conversational tone is evident in the early reviews. Interestingly, of course, reading dozens of such reviews tells you more cumulatively about Judd and his values than it might of any particular artist or tendency.
The net result is not unlike a parsed/cloud image of the world of art at that moment.
With respect to architecture, specifically, Judd’s default beliefs included never building on untouched, virgin land; symmetrical composition unless a proven need otherwise; and the avoidance of any form of decoration or unneeded parts. Pragmatism and extreme clarity should prevail. At the “Art and Architecture” conference hosted by Chinati in 1996, speaker Frank Gehry opened his talk saying, “Don hated my work.” This was true. His work with existing structures in New York City, Marfa, and in Europe was careful and generally involved excision of extraneous elements. In his conversion at Eichholtern, he created wood strip ceilings that reiterate wood flooring below in several structures. A single ‘A’-lamp in a room was enough. Many rooms include a mattress on the floor to accommodate Judd’s work habits.
His sense of place, and a resultant work in a place, reflected his topographical and historical reading of the site/situation. Think for example of his circular concrete works, which simply play the slope of the site against a ‘true’ level horizontal. Or his alignment of the concrete works at Chinati to an axis of true north/south. These are ethical acts of local/global, circumstantial/cardinal juxtaposition.
Judd believed that his work was the first to address the floor plane following Rodin’s 1889 “Burghers of Calais,” which removed the pedestal as an idea in sculpture. The work of Carl Andre and others frequently involves this in related terms as well. Both Andre and Judd have upcoming major retrospectives due in the next two years.
Speaking at the Kimbell in 1993 about the work of Louis Kahn, Judd said that the museum was the best in recent architectural history but that “Mies was a better architect.” The vaults, however, clearly influenced the design of his own unbuilt concrete gallery structures to be located southwest of the Chinati arena. His lack of real understanding of material properties, or his disregard for them, and consequent detailing for weathering and water infiltration as the basis of form in architecture (not the abstract form of art) are the exact difficulties that the preservation and the restoration of his work are facing now.
In much the same way that his meticulous detailing of his pieces was not fetish for craft or assembly but rather a way to remove the detail from notice — to cut its prominence in the whole — his use of language did not draw attention to the word itself but to the idea. The late Austrian architect Raimund Abraham frequently said that an architect needed only a pencil and a piece of paper, and these were Judd’s working tools. A pencil and a legal pad. He did not know how to type, and his early reviews and published statements were typed by Roberta Smith (now art critic for The New York Times) or by assistant Dudley Del Balso.
In 1968, Judd bought 101 Spring Street, a five-story cast-iron building in Soho designed by Nicholas Whyte — and recently restored by ARO with a $23 million budget — and he restored and lived in the industrial spaces. In 1971 he moved to Marfa and began to assemble various properties for home, studio, and display. And generally to stop acts of ignorance and destruction by existing owners. He accumulated ranch property and kept one building on Highland Avenue as a “ranch office.” On the desk were notated maps of his various land interests.
The Judd Foundation — not the same entity as the Chinati Foundation — is headed by Don’s two children, his son Flavin and his daughter Rainer. (Judd’s 1964 marriage to their mother Julie Finch, a dancer, ended in divorce in 1976.) The new “Writings” is a joint effort of Flavin and Rainer, with Caitlin Murray and the Zwirner Gallery, to create an accessible and comprehensive anthology of a large number of the important texts in his life. A catalogue raisonné of his work is underway currently but is not complete.
Donald Judd’s vast comprehension of the history of art, of diverse civilizations and political structures, and of the state of art and architecture in contemporary thought makes these writings of considerable eloquence and insight.
“There is no neutral space, since space is made, indifferently or intentionally, and since meaning is made, ignorantly or knowledgeably.” – Donald Judd
W. Mark Gunderson, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.