PRINT Summer 1970

Fining it Down: Don Judd at Castelli

ONE’S CRITICAL OPINIONS ABOUT recent American sculpture are almost entirely divorced from issues of pleasure and likeability although some of the artists are more immediately sensuous in their appeals than others. Whatever it is that makes the work of this group who are important seem important, it is clearly a function of an unswerving commitment to difficulty—at least insofar as Judd and Andre are concerned. The others—Morris, Sonnier, Serra—for all that is intractable in their work, waver by moments on the margin of an affable pictorialism, and it is this fact alone which may make Judd and Andre, to the exclusion of all other American sculpture of which I am aware, the dominant figures of the later ’60s. They saw the period’s hardest problem most clearly—how to deal with, in fact, how to protect, the solidity, the tangibility of the “recognizable” formal vocabulary of Cubism and Constructivism while reforming and renewing the spectator’s sense of relationship to this legacy. To do so they were obliged to eschew all that was topical, disarming and petty although Judd’s continued feeling for lyrical color, matières nobles, and tinted plastics, especially evident in the recent reissuings of earlier work, may be the single element in his production which still threatens to subvert the otherwise magnificently therapeutic ambitions I have attributed to his trying enterprise.

The present installations, one at the Warehouse, one at the Castelli Gallery proper, are exceptionally difficult. It would be tempting, for example, to insist that the reissuing of earlier sculpture relates to Judd’s fascination with an elemental primacy of material. To do so would link him falsely with, say, Robert Morris whose pictorial display of the substantive properties of materials has become marked in the period 1968–1970. And yet, how different is Judd from Morris. The latter is involved in process, accident, nature, and even, one might say, in a narrative focus, each episode of his mammoth accumulations being permitted to have its own moment. Not so with the Judds. The reissuings seem to me to be much more concerned with refinement—I mean refinement as a kind of self-testing—in the same way that a Brancusi polished brass is more refined than the same subject carved in wood or stone. One could point to the late Mlle. Poganys, the Torso of a Young Boy or the Blond Negress for apposite comparisons. The employment of polished brass in each instance emphasized a svelteness, an elegance and a pictorialism which the others, for all their strength and genius, lacked.

The problem of the use of polished brass, not only in the recent reissuings of older pieces but in the major new works themselves, is particularly acute and suggestive because, if anything, it still deals with the long memory of colorism in Judd’s work. Among the most complex problems caused by the use of polished brass is the apparent absence of solidity—the sense of liquidity—it induces. I expect that Judd’s fascination with this substance is based on the pictorial excitement that such a material causes in forms that are otherwise so solid seeming, so sculptural. There are views, for example, of the polished. brass box, in which the recessed top is simply denied, appears flush with the sides. There are other views in which the sides appear translucent rather than reflective, as if one saw the floor through the side rather than reflected off it. Such illusions permit a massive form to exist in two spheres of being, in pictorial space as well as in sculptural space. Paradoxically, this pictorial illusionism may serve, at length, to intensify the sense of the solidity of the work.

This quixotic experience is even further exaggerated by the pictorial complexity of the major piece in the Castelli Gallery proper, which lacks even fewer devices to make its raison d’être clear. If the most peculiar passage of the untitled brass box is its recessed upper surface and inner rim, then its corresponding passage in the galvanized metal piece is manifested in the elements having been pulled in from the gallery wall. What I am trying to get at is that there is a kind of relationship between works and that the rim of the brass piece is a variant expression of the passage between the actual wall of the gallery and the actual wall of the galvanized metal. It may be an almost hermetic statement to the effect that the artist is not merely interested in the subdivision of a surface, of a wall and, by extension, as there are three walls in question, the subdivision of an environment, but in something infinitely more delicate—the desire to find the least sculptural method and at the same time the most highly pictorial one which would effect this otherwise easily achieved end, which would have been to have run the galvanized metal flush against the plaster surface to begin with. If this is so, then perhaps what Judd is up to is to combine both pictorial and sculptural experience into a single instant—itself hardly remarkable since the whole decade of the ’60s is marked by this aspiration—but to do so while employing the least amount of given material possible.

In this respect, Judd has been particularly coercive of the spectator, forcing him into altered relationships with an elemental, at moments brutalist, formal vocabulary. Andre may attack the problem of surface and quiddity, Serra that of process, juncture and reconstructibility, but Judd is more oblique in his intentions. He engages the spectator without in fact permitting the participation to spend itself. Open ended boxes, for example, are placed too low to crawl through while polished surfaces and glossy plastic linings also thwart the sensate body appeals they are making. Similarly, blunt and environmental situations, like the present galvanized wainscoting along the walls of the Castelli Gallery, not to speak of the earlier racked partitioned shelves or the stacked pieces, also frustrate participation while it dampens all environmental experience as might be glanced or reflected off the surfaces. The snow crystal surface of the galvanized metal still speaks of the attraction Judd feels for lyrical color. After all, he began as a painter. It also points again to the often casual and coloristic surfaces of geometrically based minimal sensibility—something I have already attempted to point out in the surfaces of Ryman’s earlier painting.

The device of attraction/frustration—readers of philosophy will point to Merleau-Ponty as essential in this connection—seems to me to be motivated by a deep need to protect and reinvent the integrity of the Cubist and Constructivist vernacular at the moment when the great tradition of the Cubist monolith is most particularly assailed by the decorative appeals of technological inter-media. What Judd, and Andre too, block with their intransigeant barricades, is the notion that dreary Rauschenberg-Cage kid stuff should pass for high art. I think that ultimately Judd and Andre are going to fail in this ambition—if it is their ambition—but in their failure, should it come to this, they will have created the most important work of the late ’60s.

Robert Pincus-Witten