MoMA, New York City
Through January 9, 2021
To see and experience Donald Judd’s work in depth, we in Texas can currently choose from two options: Travel to Marfa, most likely in a longish car drive, or board an airplane, cross state borders, take a short Uber ride to 53rd Street, and see “Judd,” the first major retrospective of Donald Judd’s art at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. The show is curated by Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture. It is the first major exhibition in America since Judd’s Whitney Museum show in 1988, which later travelled to Texas and was shown at the Dallas Museum of Art. Less than a week after my visit, MoMA closed its doors because of COVID-19. Now the museum has reopened, and the Judd exhibition is extended through January 9, 2021, making it possible for many more visitors to go there and experience Judd’s art in person. Given the characteristics of his three-dimensional work, this is the best way to understand Donald Judd’s art.
“Judd” is installed on the 6th floor of the Yoshio Taniguchi expansion of MoMA. After ascending via the long escalator from the 5th floor, the visitor enters an atrium-like space, equipped with Judd’s furniture and a small shop. Among the books offered are the reprinted “Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975,” “Donald Judd Writings” (2016), “Donald Judd Interviews” (2019), and, now, the excellent 304-page MoMA “Judd” catalogue, with essays by various scholars. The covers of these books are in either yellow, red, blue, or a combination of all three colors. When shelved, the books are arranged in Judd-like juxtapositions of primary colors. To the west, visitors are greeted by a yellow and a blue abstract Judd painting, both “Untitled,” from 1960 and 1961, respectively. Next to the elevators is a larger-than-life black-and-white photograph of a young Donald Judd installing artwork at the Leo Castelli gallery in 1966. This space invites you to sit and experience Judd’s furniture while browsing through the literature. The two “88-Inch Desks” (number 27), designed in 1982, are surrounded by eight “Pine Chairs,” of various configurations, also from 1982. A “Single Day Bed” (number 32), from 1978, is also found in this space. The furniture was produced under Judd Foundation guidelines and is available for purchase. The furniture is exquisitely crafted to a very high standard, perhaps made better than what was produced during Judd’s lifetime. The atrium space is appropriate: It feels a bit like an overture to an opera, giving a hint of what is yet to come, and is also a place to return to and contemplate the 70 artworks that represent a span of more than three decades of Donald Judd’s career.
Once the visitors pass the official entrance security, Judd’s artwork appears in chronological order in four generous, rectangular spaces adapted by the curators for the show. I visited the exhibition multiple times, on different days and at different times; I wanted to study various aspects of Judd’s work in smaller portions and experience them in various light conditions.
The first room displays Judd’s relief paintings, done during the period when he began adding common objects to painted surfaces, such as a baking pan or a yellow plastic letter from a commercial sign shown from the back. Here, Judd experimented with the paintings, adding texture and thickness by mixing sand into the paint, in addition to placing found objects into the works. The consequences of these object and material experiments moved his paintings toward three dimensions, a move he later described in his seminal essay “Specific Objects.” “Untitled” (1963) is of particular interest because he incorporated galvanized sheet iron and aluminum on the upper and lower ends of the work that is riveted together in segments and that gently curves out into the room. The center part of this work is made of a sheet of wood with additional horizontal wood strips, all painted cadmium red. The horizontal stripes add depth to the painting, creating various hues of reds through light and shadow. The sides of the work are painted black, except for the ends of the wooden strips, which remain cadmium red. From the side, the artwork resembles the black poche of an architectural section drawing. Interestingly, the first owner of this artwork was Robert A. M. Stern, who, in a 2013 interview with Christie’s Auction House, said: “I liked it because it was very architectural in the sense that it was very … basic: One thing relates to another thing in a very fundamental way.” In an interview with John Coplans for ARTFORUM in 1971, Judd said:
I was surprised, when I made those first two free-standing pieces, to have something set out into the middle of the room. It puzzled me. On one hand, I didn’t quite know what to make of it, and on the other, they suddenly seemed to have an enormous number of possibilities. It looked, at that point, and from then on, that I could do anything. Anyway, I certainly didn’t think I was making sculpture.
In his later book, “Architektur” (1989), Judd would sharply critique the work of many postmodern architects, among which Stern was a notable figure. Architects often find Judd’s work fascinating, perhaps because it reminds them of architecture, as the Stern quote illustrates. By moving from relief paintings to three-dimensional free-standing objects, Judd began claiming the space around the artwork. The placement of the art itself became his responsibility. Not surprisingly, Judd clashed with architects and museum curators regarding museum space when it contained his work. In the first MoMA exhibition space, the visitor can experience Judd’s breakthrough moment when the relief paintings evolved into three-dimensional artwork placed directly on the floor. Three floor pieces, all painted in cadmium red, are on view. Some of these works Judd produced together with his father, Roy Judd, a railroad executive turned woodworker in retirement. This room shows a broad survey of the early floor pieces, with the exception of “Untitled” (1962), an L-shaped, cadmium-red-painted floor piece connected in the center of the two sides with a black painted steel tube. A photo of that work is included in the Temkin catalogue but somehow did not make it into the exhibition.
At the entrance to the second space, a cadmium red floor piece completes Judd’s early red phase. This room is larger than the first, and the visitor can understand the “enormous number of possibilities.” All quintessential Judd shapes can be seen in various configurations and material variations. I was most curious to see “Untitled” (1965), the first so-called stack, which, when not on loan, resides at the Moderna Museet, in Stockholm, Sweden. A stack is a vertical arrangement of multiple rectangular-shaped boxes measuring 9 by 30 by 40 inches, which Judd would assemble in intervals, separated by an equal proportion of space. This particular example is made of galvanized iron and comprises seven units, a rather unusual number for Judd. The odd number can possibly be attributed to the smaller gallery spaces in which Judd first exhibited. For Judd, the stacks were ideally organized floor to ceiling, but some spaces could not accommodate them this way. Most stacks come in 10 units, but interestingly, the stack in MoMA’s permanent collection, “Untitled” (1967), galvanized iron with green lacquered front and sides, is a 12-unit example that would not fit on the 6th floor, hence the display of 10 units there. There is another stack, “Untitled” from 1968 — this time front and sides are in stainless steel, top and bottom are in yellow transparent acrylic sheets — that radiates a glow of yellow onto the white wall. The second room contains most of the quintessential materials Judd applied in his three-dimensional work, except plywood.
The third room is dominated by “Untitled” (1973), a monumental artwork in untreated 1-inch-thick Douglas fir plywood, a progression of originally five parallelepiped boxes measuring 72 by 479 by 72 inches overall. A sixth unit was added for Judd’s seminal 1975 show in Ottawa so the artwork would fill the length of the chosen room. While all of Judd’s work is fragile, this architectural-sized plywood work is particularly delicate. Artwork of this size will undergo some wear when assembled and disassembled. This was around the time when Judd moved to Marfa, began acquiring buildings, and started to install his art permanently. His concern about the placement of art became of increasing importance to him. Marfa at that time was the ideal town for Judd to start permanently installing his own artwork and that of others. At MoMA, opposite to the Ottawa piece is “Untitled” (1976-1977), a series of 21 stainless steel units measuring 4 by 27 by 24 inches, arranged in three rows of seven. Two more floor pieces are there, as well as another 10-unit stack made of copper that radiates an opulent lushness onto the white walls.
The fourth and largest space contains many variations in form and materials that Judd used in his three-dimensional artworks. Upon entering, there are four anodized aluminum boxes, “Untitled” (1989), measuring 39-3/8 by 78-3/4 by 78-3/4 inches. Three of them have acrylic sheets of different colors on the bottom of the box. As a hiker is attracted to the ridge of a mountain to see what is on the other side, so the viewer is drawn to find out what is at the bottom of the box and where the hues of color originate. Across from the four floor pieces, “Untitled” (1988), a portfolio of 10 woodcuts, each 23-5/8 by 31-1/2 inches, are displayed in two rows of five. The two-dimensional work is somewhat underrepresented in “Judd,” but this is a good example of his geometric explorations in two dimensions. On the other end of the space is “Untitled” (1991), a large floor piece made of enameled aluminum, measuring 59 by 295-1/4 by 65 inches. Here, Judd brings back his signature cadmium red and combines it with other high chroma colors, such as yellow, blue, orange, green, white, and black. A segment of the work with the primary color combination of yellow, red, and blue became the design for the MoMA catalogue jacket. While the show is generously laid out and the viewer can see the works close up, unobstructed by any museum security barriers, the last space feels a bit constrained to me, but this might be simply because, here, many different types of Judd’s three-dimensional pieces are shown.
Depending how one is counting, there is a fifth room where two Judd benches, “Wintergarden Benches” (number 16), from 1980, are placed and intended for the viewer to use. During his lifetime, Judd did not want his furniture to be shown in the same space as his art, but I am glad that the curators combined the two and allowed visitors to use the benches. “Untitled” (1992), a late Corten piece of six units, each measuring 19-11/16 by 39-3/8 by 19-11/16 inches with colored acrylic sheets arranged in vertical intervals like his stacks, is mounted on the north wall. The space is transitional, leading to the elevator stairs and the beginning of the exhibit. Surprisingly, this space has, because of the skylights, the most natural light in the show. You literally see one Judd artwork in a different light — a stark reminder for those who have seen and experienced Judd’s work in Marfa of how powerful his work is under natural light. Natural light makes the three-dimensional work of Donald Judd sing. It will look different when illuminated from another angle, different again with direct light, and yet different again on a cloudy day. Seeing direct sunlight gliding over the Corten steel was a beautiful moment way back in March, and I remember telling myself that I might come back in the summer when the sun angle changes. Since then, as for many of us, life changed in unimaginable ways, and because of COVID-19, I never made it back. However, as I was leaving the show, I realized what I had really missed in “Judd” — it’s the natural light. Seeing that last Corten steel piece, I got a glimpse of how “Judd” could look at Renzo Piano’s Menil Museum in Houston or at Kahn’s Kimbell museum in Fort Worth.
If you always wanted to have an overview of Judd’s three-dimensional work and see some extraordinary pieces on loan from notable European and Canadian collections, you must not miss “Judd” at the MoMA. If you want to see Donald Judd’s work under natural light — there is no substitute for Marfa.
Urs Peter “Upe” Flueckiger is an architect in Lubbock and a professor of architecture at Texas Tech University.