Apparently, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Modern, was not prepared to let the name of Donald Judd (1928-1994) silently fade from our memories - did he not do his utmost to make the man famous in the first place? Ten years after his death - sixteen years after the last substantial exhibition - he presents a big retrospective of the work of the artist who has 'changed the course of modern sculpture''. The exhibition travels to Düsseldorf (19/06 to 05/09/04) and Basel (02/10 to 09/01/05). Heavy artillery, that makes us ask what has to be canonised here at all cost.
Who is this master and what everlasting works did he leave to posterity?
'Il faut être un homme vivant et un artiste posthume'
Jean Cocteau, Le rappel à l’ordre.
From 1947 to 1953 - in the heydays of the very 'abstract expressionism' that soon will be promoted as the panacea of the Free World with a little help from the CIA* - Donald Judd studied at Art Students League in New York, the College of William and Mary and the Columbia University. Meanwhile, he is already fully active as an art critic and a painter. Already in 1957, he has his first show in the Panoramas Gallery - although from the paintings exhibited there no trace is to be found in what is announced as the 'first full retrospective'. But things are not going well with the Action Painting in New York. Andy Warhol comes to replace Jackson Pollock. Accordingly, the expressionistic gestures on Judd's canvasses are replaced with a baking tin (1961). 'Illusionism' is said to be banned in favour of the real two-dimensional surface or the equally real three-dimensional space.
Donald Judd's stride from 'painting' to 'sculpture' is to be understood in the broader perspective of the more general anti-mimetic trend, here in the disguise of anti-illusionism. Already with his ready-mades, Marcel Duchamp had replaced painting - bluntly dismissed as mere illusionism - with real three-dimensional objects. Such dadaistic gesture has been renewed in 1960 by the Nouveaux Réalistes of Pierre Restany and in 1967 by the Arte Povera of Germano Celant (see also Kounellis**). With Donald Judd, however, we are dealing neither with real cars like those of Arman, nor with real horses like those of Kounellis**. The reason is that Donald Judd rather joins another anti-mimetic trend: the new geometric abstraction ('hard edge') of painters like Barnet Newmann, Ad Reinhardt en Frank Stella, who wanted to break with the 'abstract expressionism' from the school around Pollock and De Kooning. While Andy Warhol followed the example of Duchamp, they walk in the footsteps of the old geometric abstraction. And here we find an equally strong radicalism: even the last traces of 'illusionism', such as the overlap in Mondrian's pictures, are eliminated: on the flat plane of the canvas equally flat surfaces are bluntly juxtaposed. After such reduction of the 'illusionistic' canvas to a two-dimensional plane, only the reduction of the sculpture to a mere non-illusionistic object in real space is left - providing the geometrically painted surface with a real third dimension in the vein of Rietveld who made three-dimensional architectural versions of Mondrian or of Lissitzky who made three-dimensional versions of his own paintings.
Donald Judd takes the stride outside the canvas with his 'stack sculptures'. While Carl André laid bricks on a row in 1964, Donald Judd aligned boxes on a wall from 1966 onward (an 'abstract' echo of Warhol's Brillo boxes of 1964?). He repeats this theme in ever changing colours, sizes and materials.
What is presented as a revolutionary stride in the development of sculpture, makes the artist, who nearly started painting, famous at once. Already in 1968 a retrospective (!) is dedicated to his work in the Whitney Museum of American Art. and via a big show of minimalists in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1971 Donald is featured in the Venice Biennale in 1980 and the Dokumenta in Kassel in 1982. However much he is celebrated in the galleries and the museums, Donald Judd wants to have his works exhibited properly in an appropriate museum of his own already during his life-time. In 1972 he moves to Marfa in Texas where in 1986 a renovated complex is opened to exhibit his works and that of other artists such as Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg en Dan Flavin.
Let us have a closer look at his work.
Donald Judd uses the simplest compository principles.
That applies in the first place to the elements he uses: a cube is constructed according to one single principle: all the sides are placed at right angles. More simple still would have been a sphere, but that threatened perhaps to remind Donald Judd of Brancusi's still organic heads reduced to the shape of an egg.
And it applies also for the combination of the elements. Donald Judd's most cherished principle is the addition in one dimension into a row or in two dimensions into a chequered pattern. A more mechanistic composition is not conceivable. Everything that could remind of the already more organic progression, let alone of the golden section, is banned.
Meanwhile, the confrontation of Donald Judd's box with Brancusi's egg makes it clear how little Brancusi's 'sculpture' partakes of an egg and, conversely, how much it partakes of a head! When, as with Donald Judd, geometrising ends up in pure geometry, the dialectic between organic and geometric, typical of every more subtle kind of mimesis, is suspended altogether and collapses into a monolithic reality. And in the installation of such rigid geometric reality, a nearly concealed anti-mimetic impulse is at work. With Donald Judd, the geometric is not only the real - the very opposite of art - but also the an-organic, the soulless - the very opposite of the human. In that sense Donald Judd's cube is the pure negation of the primeval sculpture: the human body - in sharp contrast to Brancusi's egg that is precisely its quintessence!
A similar anti-mimetic impulse is at work in the choice of the materials. The same rejection of 'abstract expressionism' and action painting that made Andy Warhol resort to the silk-screen, makes Donald Judd resort to plywood, galvanised iron, stainless steel, plexiglass and enamelled or anodized aluminium. In doing so, he joins the preference of Constructivism, de Stijl and Bauhaus for machine-made materials devoid of every trace of the human hand. After the example of the conceptualists, Donald Judd even lets his work execute through specialized craftsmen (see: Weiner***) .
What you see is what you see
Just like Mondrian, Donald Judd holds that in traditional art 'the necessities of representation inhibited the use of colour': Colour cannot be pure when shadows have to suggest rounding. And just like Mondrian, Donald Judd concludes that the painter should concentrate on pure colour. He also refers to Frank Stella: 'What you see is what you see'.
No doubt, Donald Judd has brought colour back to where it has always been at home: in the domain of the ready-made colours of nature - from the green of the grass to the blue of the sky, not to mention the coloured patterns on flowers and animals - or the domain of the man-made colours with which man has from way back embellished his furniture, his carpets, and the inner and outer walls of his houses.
And no doubt, colour 'works' in that domain of nature and man-made objects - the world of design. But it is not because someone makes colour 'speak' - produce whatever effect - that he is making art. Colour only comes to belong to the domain of art when it goes the opposite direction as the one that Mondrian or Donald Judd had it walk: when the red that we see is no longer the red of paint on a carrier, but the blush on the cheek of a girl that is conjured up on a canvas. Despite Frank Stella: when 'you do not see what you see...'
And that cannot but draw our attention to the rather poor quality of Donald Judd's theorising. The red of a blush does not differ in principle from the red of a painted blush. What distinguishes a real blush from a painted one is not some characteristic of colour, but of the surface that reflects the colour: is it the skin of a cheek, then we are dealing with reality; is it paint on a canvas, then we are dealing with art (mimesis). It is a question of the transition from blood in skin to paint on canvas, hence, and not of the purification of colour by removing shadow.
And that catches the eye all the more, when we realise that the colour of real painted objects is not at all pure, unless the object is lighted with a constant artificial light from all sides, or when it is lighting itself, like Dan Flavin's neon tubes. That Donald Judd's rejection of shadows thus turns out to be a merely inappropriate way of rejecting mimesis as such, becomes fully apparent when we realise that the effect of many of his works depends precisely on the very presence of shadows and reflections of the colour of one surface on the other that he was so fiercely rejecting in 'illusionistic painting'!.
And Donald Judd's anti-mimetic fervour comes to its apogee in his treatment of space. Donald Judd prides himself on the fact that in his 'stack sculptures' the empty space between the boxes is an integral part of the sculpture as a whole. That is not new at all, at least not in architecture, where columns, obeliscs, towers and the like are not so much there as an end in themselves, but rather as a means of structuring and articulating the surrounding space.
Also sculptures - above all sculptures from the time when people knew how to dispose them in space - are primarily meant as beacons in architectural space. Think of the Karlsbrücke in Prague, where the sculptures are in first instance a kind of columns articulating the whole, just like the arches. And that holds equally true of Bernini's colonnade on Saint Peter's square in Rome. As soon as we concentrate on a single sculpture, however, the real space wherein it is erected disappears, and imaginary space unfolds, where the sculpture is no longer the equivalent of a column, but begins to conjure up imaginary beings. The comparison with the instruments of the orchestra imposes itself: as long as they are tuning, they are part of a real soundscape, but as soon as they begin to play, musical space unfolds in the dimension of the imaginary.****
New, hence, is not Donald Judd's structuring of space - therein, fare more apt architects have preceded him already for centuries, if not millennia. New is that, under the guise of a revolution in sculpture, he reduces sculpture to a mere pedestal and proceeds to sell us such real thing for a sculpture - although the same Donald Judd conversely asserts that he has made a 'revolutionary stride' by liberating sculpture from the pedestal. 'It is impossible for people to understand that placement on the floor and the absence of a pedestal were inventions. I invented them' (cat. p. 148).
Unlike sculptors, hence, Donald Judd does not transform his material into an imaginary being. He merely transforms the real world, just like architects. Or to be more precise: like an interior designer. For, because Donald Judd continues to understand himself as an artist, he does not so much transform the open space as rather the interior of a museum. We do not deny that Donald Judd's 'free (fine) interior design' has its merits. It suffices to refer to highlights as the Marfa. But Judd's work cannot but fade in comparison with the feats of the anonymous architects who built the gothic cathedrals, who rather than disguise their creations as sculpture, knew all too well their due place - and that of sculpture - or stained glass - as well.
That is why, even when we do not challenge Donald Judd's qualities as a free (fine) designer, we deny him a position in the history of sculpture - or in the history of art in general. Donald Judd has nothing in common with Rodin or Brancusi, but everything with figures like Mies van de Rohe. He does not belong in the history of art, but in the history of architecture or interior design - or the history of 'free' or 'fine' design in general, hand in hand with his true colleagues: designers like Panamarenko and Goldsworthy.
Aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds
Although Donald Judd is a Columbia graduate, it suffices to read a text like 'Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in particular' to become aware of the lamentable quality of his philosophising, even when it features in the prestigious catalogue of Tate Modern. We already discussed how insufficient his theory of colour is. But Judd's texts brim over with inaccuracies. Thus, he refuses to call his creations 'sculptures', because sculpture 'means carving to me' (cat. p. 61) As if the way in which something is made determines whether it is a sculpture or not. Hand-made objects like the heads of Brancusi, as well 'industrial' creations like Naum Gabo's marvellous 'Constructive Head No. 2' are genuine sculptures, not by virtue of the way in which they are made, but by virtue of the fact that they represent something, unlike Judd's boxes (see: Mimesis and Abstraction). Instead of speaking such plain language, Donald Judd, in his famous 'Specific Objects' (1965) prefers to introduce a new kind or art that is neither painting nor sculpture. The 'label' 'specific object' that Donald Judd wants to introduce instead of 'painting' or 'sculpture' is merely a rather clumsy attempt to mask that he is no longer making paintings or sculptures indeed - no longer art as such - but mere real objects. In other words: that he is no longer an artist but has become a 'free' or 'fine' designer.
That does not prevent Donald Judd from continuing to pose as an artist - and many others to feature him as such. Worse still: figures like Rudy Fuchs emphatically put him in line with masters like Van Eyck and Raphael as if to convince themselves that their protégé is really an artist, and not a mere designer. How else to explain that there is no mention of Sluter, Michelangelo or Bernini - would that perhaps have hindered the raising of Donald Judd on an artistic pedestal in a museum of fine arts?
The Britannica is wrong, hence, when it describes Donald Judd as an 'American minimalist sculptor' - 'minimalist free (of 'fine') designer' would have been far more accurate. And completely wrong goes Serota when he asserts in his foreword to the catalogue of the Tate exhibition that 'Donald Judd has changed the course of modern sculpture'...
© Stefan Beyst, July 2004
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* See Frances Stonor Saunders,' Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War', Granta Books, London .
** See 'Kounellis: the metamorphoses of Apollo'
*** See 'Lawrence Weiner: and flesh became word'
**** See:'Musical space and its inhabitants'.
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Background to this text: stefan beyst: theory on art
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