PRINT May 1968

Judd at the Whitney

ONE OF THE MOST STRIKING aspects to the exhibition of Donald Judd’s work at the Whitney is the degree to which the visual limitations of his art are seen and felt manifestly to embody intentions, rather than to advert explicity to intentions. This has not been my experience with the work of Robert Morris, Tony Smith, Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt, to mention the names of a few artists who are usually grouped, together with Judd, under the general title of Minimalist artists. It is not only the degree to which Judd’s work visibly defines its own limits which sets him apart from the artists mentioned. What makes him a singularly difficult artist to contend with is the pervasive and almost startling sensuousness with which he conceives surfaces, and presents them—and, more important—the equally unanticipated fact that the quality of his work is distinctly uneven, a fact which the exhibition made very apparent. Perhaps the most striking discrepancy in quality lies in the wall pieces, which seem to me to be altogether distinct from the free-standing works, and also markedly superior to them.

One of the defining characteristics of Judd’s art is that its limits are declared by the inescapable factuality of the works he creates, a factuality which goes so far as to accept and use the walls and floor of a given room, and which accepts and uses the space of that room. This has been said to characterize in a general way one of the accepted and given conditions of Minimalist art. But the particular way in which Judd uses the wall in the wall pieces gives him a kind of latitude, or margin of freedom, which provides a realm of visual plausibility consonant with the factuality of the materials he employs, a realm which not only is unavailable, but is actually felt to be missing in the free-standing pieces.

The six wall pieces that seemed to me to succeed the best, and two others which seemed to succeed partially, have in common a horizontal extension and some form of continuous connecting surface. The wall is crucial to these pieces in that it allows them to embody, with more than just plausibility, certain fixed, visual states. Four of them embody, and exploit, a state of being . . . closed. Two others, which have an extremely attenuated linear shape, embody a state of being both open, or opened out, and closed. These latter I consider to be the finest works in the show. One of them, from 1966, consists of a transverse bar approximately 21 feet long, made from anodized aluminum, beneath which and running contiguous with it are placed at varying intervals a series of ten different lengthed rectangular box-shapes of a deep lacquered purple. If one’s attention is held by the beauty of this piece, as mine unquestionably was, it is held by the continuous span of aluminum—which has a curiously dim and milky reflectivity latent in its surface—a span which is echoed and emphasized by the discontinuousness of the purple surfaces ranked along it. Inasmuch as the purple surfaces are of noticeably varied lengths, one is made compellingly aware of an implied sequence or series, something which in fact is not the case, so that the surfaces and the intervening spaces evade any resolvable visual comprehension. The emptiness of the intervening spaces is as much a part of the whole as are the surfaces themselves; it is a special, graded emptiness which both uses the surface of the wall to structure the piece and which results from the continuousness of the transverse bar and the discontinuousness of the purple surfaces beneath. Seen from afar the piece is a slender silhouette against the wall; on approaching it, one perceives fully the shallow projection of surfaces out from the wall, surfaces which appear simultaneously and integrally to open the slender form and close it, complete it.

Description, in as much as it details the act of perceiving, belies the quality that this work has of being all of a piece—embodying a single, particular state. The result is a degree of visual consistency which Judd achieves nowhere else in the exhibition. Several ultimately very practical reasons converge to explain this. He has managed, for example, to adjust the physical means and the visual effect with extreme precision so that they are exactly co existent, as it were, and the materials are suspended in a state of absolute neutrality. He has also arrived at a particularly cohesive combination of “constants”—horizontality, a connecting surface, color, and some form of graded sequence—constants which in one combination or another form the staples of his art and which in this piece integrally affect the visual whole. The same combination occurs in the series of four wall pieces in which Judd exploits a closed shape. One of them, from 1966, consists of a thick slab like rectangular shape from which project four semi cylindrical “knuckles” of a decreasing width one from the other. The piece is painted a brilliant blue, a blue which has both a thick glossy sheen to it and a translucence which reveals the glinting specks of the dappled surface of galvanized iron from which the piece is made. Color is important to this piece, in that it imparts to the shape a kind of dense visual consistency which makes it appear neither noticeably hollow, nor noticeably solid. One is made aware instead, doubly so, of the closed state of this piece by the way in which the continuous surface cuts back towards the wall in sharp repeated curves, and recesses into shallow rectangular indentations between each knuckle, indentations which mimic the openness of the wall while stressing closure by their projected distance from the wall.

One could perhaps over-stress the importance of the wall as a functioning component in the pieces discussed, but it seems undeniable that the wall, in combination with certain of the constants of Judd’s art is crucial in enabling a given shape to be seen as embodying a particular visual state with what I have described as complete consistency and plausibility. Of course, the use of the wall does not in itself guarantee artistic success in Judd’s work; for instance, in the three sets of vertically stacked boxes Judd has introduced the notion of verticality by means simply of setting the boxes one above the other to the ceiling. But these pieces fail in much the same way as I find the free standing pieces to fail, and they represent for me the tenuous limit beyond which Judd’s art loses its quality of self evident visual consistency and plausibility and becomes something else, something which, because of Judd’s sheer insistence on the sensuous, visual qualities of surface—vivid colors, the finely varied light reflecting qualities of the different industrial materials—hesitates in a condition which is neither fully visual, nor merely propositional. The stacked-box wall pieces, for instance, have some degree of visual coherence simply because the wall lends to each set of boxes one of its most basic functions, that of situating the boxes and to that extent alone the three sets of boxes make their terms visually apparent. This kind of visuality is already a strained one and these particular pieces demand to be looked at with extenuating eyes, as it were, with coarsened perceptions.

The contrast between these latter wall pieces and the free standing works is even more drastic. The absence of the wall in the free-standing pieces, removes, or removes from me, the possibility of their embodying, with any visual distinctness and consistency, particular states. The most obvious reason for this would seem to be that without the basic function of the wall—that of a foil, or a constant of absolute visual neutrality—surfaces can no longer be seen as simply closing a shape, or closing and opening it. Instead, surfaces in free space, to the extent that they are emphatically stressed in Judd’s art, simply borrow that space from a given room and enclose it. And this results in an obtrusive visual contradiction, a contradiction between surfaces which make a space displacing volume but which nevertheless are patently seen to enclose space. That is, the freestanding pieces remain uniformly and irretrievably in an unresolved condition; to the extent that one is forced to see shapes as being made by surfaces and surfaces alone, and to the extent that the shapes are of an almost irreducible simplicity, one is repeatedly made aware of the bulk of each piece, a bulk which is an illusory one and which is given the lie by its own unmistakable hollowness. Nor is this mitigated by the use of transparent Plexiglas which appears in a number of the pieces and in effect toys with the contradiction rather than resolves it. In the bulkier wall pieces—one from 1965, for instance, which consists of a brilliant blue transverse bar beneath which are placed four evenly spaced boxes of galvanized iron—rational considerations of space are partially neutralized by the wall, to the extent that the wall backs and reinforces the continuous horizontality of this piece and confronts us with it. The freestanding counterparts to this piece—the two eight box series—produce a visual effect which is not only dissimilar to that of the wall piece but which is, in an important sense, virtually null. The boxes offer, singly and repeatedly, only their own flimsiness and if they can be said to embody a state at all it is one of a curiously over blown material plainness.

Judd’s work, collectively, aspires to a virtually irreducible material and structural consistency. The manifestness of these aspirations compels the viewer to see and focus on visual qualities which are factual, constrained, delimited, and which convey simply their material beauty. But his response can only be to that kind of beauty and to the degrees of visual consistency and plausibility which he finds there. What I experience from Judd’s work, the qualities that I find there, do not for me constitute major art; and the kind of beauty which I have found in a number of the wall pieces—a beauty I would almost describe as one of crystalline visual states—is of a drastically depleted nature. Yet I also have found myself unable to come near to characterizing this beauty because Judd’s art reveals it uniquely, and because it draws its strength from the willed visual limitations which his art embodies.

Jane Harrison Cone