PRINT May 1966

Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd

FOR SOME TIME DONALD JUDD has been a major spokesman for works of art which seek, as their highest attainment, total identity as objects. Last year in praise of a fellow-sculptor’s work, Judd wrote: “Rather than inducing idealization and generalization and being allusive, it excludes. The work asserts its own existence, form and power. It becomes an object in its own right.” Thus object-art would seem to proscribe both allusion and illusion: any reference to experiences or ideas beyond the work’s brute physical presence is excluded, as is my manipulation (through the prescribed observation of that presence) of apparent as opposed to literal space. With this presumptive reduction of art from the realm of illusion—and through illusionism, of meaning—to the sphere of transparently real objects, the art with which Judd is associated is characterized as intentionally blank and empty: “Obviously a negative art of denial and renunciation . . .”1

Approaching Judd’s latest work from within this frame of reference, one is totally unprepared for the extraordinary beauty of the sculptures themselves, a beauty and authority which is nowhere described or accounted for in the polemics of object art and which leads one to feel all the more acutely the in adequacy of the theoretical line, its failure to measure up (at least in Judd’s case) to the power of the sculptural statement.

In a recent article dealing with the phenomenon of object-art, Barbara Rose emphatically recognized the positive qualities, as opposed to the apparent blankness and denial, of this art, and suggested that these could be located in a mystical experience: “. . . the blankness, the emptiness and vacuum of content is as easily construed as an occasion for spiritual contemplation as it is a nihilistic denial of the world.”2 One cannot here examine this notion as it applies to other sculptors mentioned by Miss Rose, but at least in the case of Judd’s work, which both compels and gratifies immediate sensuous confrontation, the suggestion that his sculpture is the occasion for an experience which completely transcends the physical object, does not seem tenable. Nor does it seem that a description of Judd’s art as meaning something only in so far as it embodies a negation of meaning (“. . . the simple denial of content can in itself constitute the content of such a work”)3 arrives at the richness and plenitude of the works which are somehow not shorn and dumb, but, rather, insistently meaningful. “It is easy to strip language and actions of all meaning and to make them seem absurd, if only one looks at them from far enough away . . . But that other miracle, the fact that in an absurd world, language and behavior do have meaning for those who speak and act, remains to be understood.”4

To get at meaning in Donald Judd’s recent work necessarily involves brute description of the objects themselves, but significantly such a description cannot simply rest at an inventory of characteristics, even though many of the sculptors persuaded by object-art maintain that such an inventory does indeed describe all that the works contain. Miss Rose reports that the artists she deals with ask that their sculpture be taken as “nothing more than the total of the series of assertions that it is this or that shape and takes up so much space and is painted such a color and made of such a material.” But it would seem that in Judd’s case the strength of the sculptures derives from the fact that grasping the works by means of a list of their physical properties, no matter how complete, is both possible and impossible. They both insist upon and deny the adequacy of such a definition of themselves, because they are not developed from “assertions” about materials or shapes, assertions, that is, which are given a priori and convert the objects into examples of a theorem or a more general case, but are obviously meant as objects of perception, objects that are to be grasped in the experience of looking at them. As such they suggest certain compelling issues.

One of the most beautiful of the sculptures in Judd’s recent Castelli Gallery show was a wall-hung work (now in the Whitney Museum’s collection) which is made of a long (approximately 20 feet) brushed aluminum bar, from which, at varying intervals, hangs a series of shorter bars enameled a deep, translucent violet. Or so it appears from the front. The assumption that the apparently more dense metallic bar relates to the startlingly sensuous, almost voluptuous lower bars as a support from which they are suspended, is an architectural one, a notion taken from one’s previous encounters with constructed objects and applied to this case. This reading is however denied from the side view of the object which reveals that the aluminum bar is hollow (and open at both ends) while the purple boxes below it, which had appeared luminous and relatively weightless, are in fact enclosed, and furthermore function as the supports for the continuous aluminum member. It is they that are attached to the wall and into which the square profile of the aluminum bar fits (flush with their top and front sides) completing their own L-shaped profile to form an eight by eight-inch box in section. A view raking along the facade of the sculpture, then, reveals one’s initial reading as being in some way an illusion; the earlier sense of the purple bars’ impalpability and luminosity is reversed and a clearer perception of the work can be obtained; but it is still one that is startlingly adumbrated and misleading. For now one sees the work in extension, that is, looking along its length one sees it in perspective. That one is tempted to read it as in perspective follows from the familiar repetitive rhythms of the verticals of the violet boxes which are reminiscent of the colonnades of classical architecture or of the occurrence at equal intervals of the vertical supporting members of any modular structure. Once again, then, Judd’s work makes a reference to architecture, or to a situation one knows from previous experience—knowledge gained prior to the confrontation with the object. In this way, it seems to me, Judd brings a reference to a prior experience to bear on the present perception of the work. Or, to put it another way, the work itself exploits and at the same time confounds previous knowledge to project its own meaning. In Renaissance architecture the even spacing of the colonnade is used to establish harmonious relationships as seen in perspective. The Renaissance mind seized on the realization that the same theorems of plane geometry unite proportion and perspective, and therefore assumed that a series of subjective viewpoints of a building (say, the sequence seen as one travels down the colonnaded nave of Brunelleschi’s “San Lorenzo”) would not invalidate an awareness of absolute measurement.5 It was thus an optical space of measurable quantities that was involved in the Renaissance rationalization of space through perspective.

As was noted before, Judd’s sculpture, unless it is seen directly from the front, which is difficult because of its extreme length, demands to be seen in perspective. Yet the work confounds that perspective reading which will guarantee a sense of absolute measurement through proportion, because of the obviously unequal lengths of the violet bars and the unequal distances which separate them. The work cannot be seen rationally, in terms of a given sense of geometrical laws or theorems evolved prior to the experience of the object. Instead, the sculpture can be sensed only in terms of its present coming into being as an object given “in the imperious unity, the presence, the insurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real.”6 In those terms the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty describes perception which “does not give me truths like geometry, but presences.” The “lived perspective” of which Merleau-Ponty speaks is very different from the rational perspective of geometrical laws. “What prohibits me from treating my perception as an intellectual act is that an intellectual act would grasp the object either as possible or as necessary. But in perception it is ‘real,’ it is given as the infinite sum of an indefinite series of perspectival views in each of which the object is given but in none of which is it given exhaustively.”7

It was noted at the beginning of this discussion that Judd’s own criticism would seem to accept only that art which eschews both allusion and illusion. Yet his sculpture derives its power from a heightening of illusion—although not of pictorial illusion but of lived illusion. In the case described above the work plays off the illusory quality of the thing itself as it presents itself to vision alone—which it does persuasively from a front view, in seeming to be a series of flat, luminous shapes, and from a raking view, in the optical disappearance created by its orthogonal recession as against the sensation of being able to grasp it and therefore to know it through touch. The sculpture becomes then, an irritant for, and a heightening of, the awareness in the viewer that he approaches objects to make meaning of them, that when he grasps real structures he does so as meaningful, whole presences.

In constructing what is undoubtedly the most serious and fruitful description of the development of modern (as opposed to simply contemporary) art, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried have insisted on the importance of that aspect of the artist’s endeavor which involves a critical confrontation with the most vital work of the recent past. Judd’s present sculpture can be situated, in this sense, in a critical relationship to the work with which David Smith was involved just before his death in 1965. This is of course not to say that the works contain some kind of veiled allusion to Smith or are only meaningful as seen in relation to his work; they are on the contrary entirely meaningful on their own terms. Judd seems rather to have sensed in Smith certain sculptural possibilities which were as yet unrealized.

In Smith’s late “Cubi” pieces, especially Cubi XXIV and Cubi XXVIII, the works consist of large stainless steel cylinders and beams, which make up enormous rectangular “frames.” Some of these frames are empty; others contain rectilinear volumes which are set with one broad side parallel to the viewer’s plane of vision and are rendered further weightless and immaterial by the finish on the steel: a kind of calligraphic sanding of the metal so that the surfaces appear as a flickering, evanescent denial of the mass that supports them. The works wed a purely optical sensation of openness (the view through the frame) that is the presumed subject of the work with an increased sense of the palpability and substance of the frame. Smith in this way embraced the modality of illusionism within pictorial space from painting, and used this to powerful sculptural advantage. Yet, to Judd, Smith’s suspension of planes within the frame, one balanced off against the other, or even the composition of the frame itself of almost arbitrarily combined geometrical segments must have seemed to rob the work of necessary lucidity. Smith’s worrying of relationships between parts must have appeared to have clouded over the experience of the object with a kind of artiness which to Judd’s eyes, at least, was irrelevant. In his work of the past few years, as in the pieces in this show, Judd arrives at sculptural forms which do not depend on the balance and adjustment of one part to another for their meaning.

That this departure from traditional modes of composition is also true of the work of Kenneth Noland has been demonstrated by Michael Fried in his various essays on that painter.8 In Noland’s case composition is discarded for what Mr. Fried has called “deductive structure”: the derivation of boundaries within the pictorial field from the one absolute boundary given by the physical fact of the picture itself—its framing edge. The importance of Noland’s decision to let the shape of the support serve as the major determinant of the divisions within the painting rests in part on its avoidance of an explicit affirmation of the flatness of the canvas, which would dilute the experience of the color by rendering it tactile (or merely the attribute of sculptural entities) rather than a sheerly visual or optical medium. Mr. Fried points to the large works of Barnett Newman from the early 1950’s as establishing a precedent for a wholly optical statement conjoined with, or dependent upon, deductive structure.

In Noland’s most recent exhibition at the Andre Emmerich Gallery, a type of painting emerged which seemed to me to come from decisions by the painter which in part question the import of his earlier work. This type, found in Across Center, a four-foot high, 20-foot long canvas divided into four horizontal, evenly painted bands, has far greater affinities with Newman than anything else Noland has done until now. In Across Center color becomes more exclusively the basis of the experience than it had been in the diamond-shaped chevron paintings of the past year or so, for in those paintings the bounding shape itself had a limiting and closing effect on the color. Moving to a 20-foot long expanse of color points to a desire to combat the limits imposed by the shape itself and to promote an experience of the painting, either face-on, in fragment (from a vantage point far enough away to see the painting frontally and whole, the intensity of the colors would be somewhat reduced) or at an angle and therefore in perspective—a sensation promoted by the horizontal bands which seem to increase the work’s apparent diminution in size at the far end of one’s vision. The sensation thus produced, that one cannot know absolutely the nature of the shape of the painting, that one’s view is always adumbrated, that the work in its entirety is highly illusive, throws one more surely and more persuasively onto an immediate experience with color alone.

It is interesting that both Noland and Judd have arrived at formats which involve the viewer in an experience which is on the one hand more illusive than that of either a normal easel painting or an easily cohesive sculptural form, and on the other more immediate than both. But more important, from within this context of an increased sensuosity neither artist will desert meaning.

Rosalind Krauss



1. Barbara Rose, “ABC Art,” Art in America, LIII (October–November 1965).

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Merleau-Ponty, “Metaphysics and the Novel,” Sense and Nonsense, 1964.

5. Wittkower, “Brunelleschi and Proportion in Perspective,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XVI, 275. In this connection Panofsky writes: “. . . from the point of view of the Renaissance, mathematical perspective was not only a guarantee of correctness but also, and perhaps even more so, a guarantee of aesthetic perfection.”

6. Merleau-Ponty, “Cezanne’s Doubt,” op. cit.

7. Merleau-Ponty, “The Primacy of Perception,” 1964.

8. See “Three American Painters,” Fogg Museum, 1965, and “Nolan and Caro,” Lugano Review, 3, 1965.