PRINT November 1976


Seeing Through the Boxes

Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975 (Halifax, Nova Scotia: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975), 229 pages.

Donald Judd, a catalogue of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and a catalogue raisonné, essay by Roberta Smith (Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada for the Corporation of the National Museums of Canada, 1975), 320 pages.

THESE TWO BOOKS (A COMPLETE catalogue and the complete writings) are, in effect, a semicompact way of increasing the importance of an oeuvre with immense amounts of supporting material reclaimed from a highly defined milieu. They both wrap up and codify a certain state of mind which represents a prevailing ideology of 1960s American art.

One difficulty with the catalogue is that one cannot name a work by Judd; he does not give them titles. (Untitled doesn’t help.) There is no way of distinguishing one work from another without lengthy description. Judd himself uses a common device for identifying his works, but it has serious drawbacks. Instead of description, he says “the one that Stella owns,” or “the piece in Robert Rowan’s collection,” or “the big box shown at the Metropolitan,” or perhaps “Leo Castelli had it in his tenth anniversary show.”

There are two disadvantages to these “descriptions”: they are imprecise (it is still necessary to give long-winded descriptions if you want to speak in depth), and probably worse, they feed right into the hands of the works’ owners. Nondescription and pedigree are hard to align with each other. It may not have been Judd’s intent to cater to this situation, for he has said, “Art is not defined by the purchaser” (Writings, pg. 217). Nevertheless, I have seen little to indicate that he has resolved the conflicts.

The catalogue raisonné (from the large Judd retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada last year) attempts to alleviate this state of affairs, but unfortunately the substitute proposed is just as difficult, and much more awkward. For an amber plexiglass and stainless steel box, we are given the identifying number “DDS 128.” (Roberta Smith refers to works by their DDSes in her essay; DDS stands for the initials of the three people who compiled the catalogue.) This solves virtually none of the problems, however, for DDS 128 has the “same form” as DDSes 134, 144, 145, 155, 158, and 291. Besides not being a very handy way of discriminating these specific objects from one another, one would have to carry around this rather heavy book (it’s nearly two inches thick) for reference, as it is unlikely that in the near future a “DDS such and such” is going to mean anything.

The catalogue lists the complete provenance of each of the more than 1,000 “objects,” so, in any case, we again have ownership to fall back on (provided the current owners resist the temptation to sell). It was with some relief that I hit upon one or two objects whose “whereabouts” are “unknown.” For instance, two DDS 72s somehow got away from this sleuthlike documentation. Lacunae of this sort make me thankful that the chance irregularities of the real world create doctoral topics for future art historians. But then, as Harold Rosenberg has said, “Today we know who did what.”

In case the reader is wondering why I am devoting so much time to this problem of naming, reference and ownership, I think it is important to ask what function such an enterprise, so exacting, exhaustive, and (nearly) complete, has to do with the world the work comes from. When a book takes on the proportions and style of an encyclopedia or Bible, I cannot help but react with a certain distaste, especially when the figurehead which the book means to canonize has little more than 10 years of mature work behind him. It is most difficult to keep one’s perspective when the main valorizing essay must devote space to such things as “Art is the most important thing in [Judd’s] life,” or (in complete seriousness):

Judd’s skepticism about order is basically affirmative. It applies to his view of contemporary art, to his opinion of governments, to his preference for unblended over blended scotch. (Catalogue, pg. 11)

This is no longer in the realm of the merely irrelevant, but in the universe of the groupie, the flatterer, the stooge. There is more than a thin line between making an artist seem more “human” (the writer’s ploy when celebrating Picasso) and elevating personal habits to the status of profundities. This happens to be a carryover from the admirers of Duchamp, whom Judd, incidentally, never tires of protesting against. Judd’s coherent development and unending devotion to boxlike forms certainly establishes an artistic personality by itself; the question is, what kind of personality would become possessed of such forms, what does it mean outside of his own personal psychology and the patterns of art world taste?

There is, in Ms. Smith’s essay, such a reverence for the art myths developed by Judd, that whole paragraphs read like the most banal restatements of decade-old arguments, uttered with a solemnity unbecoming to the content:

Traditional composition means a balancing of major and minor parts, one against the other, into a hierarchical structure. Parts are not equal and they are not clear. The arrangement reflects a larger idea of order and an acceptance of a scheme which is exterior to the work of art. It is, like illusionistic space, a reference to something else, which dilutes the immediate experience of art. Furthermore, the acceptance of such a scheme means the work is not personal, it does not represent the ideas of one individual. Finally, older composition is simply past, and foreign in that respect—one more lack of immediacy. (Catalogue, pp. 11-12)

How long has it been since anyone seriously believed this? Besides being an unintentional parody of everything Judd has had to say on the subject, I cannot think of any art that I admire which even remotely qualifies for what Smith is describing as “old” and “traditional.” Does she really believe that reference dilutes experience? And does she really think that true individuality was unavailable to artists until Judd cleared the way? Judd’s own work has become increasingly illusionistic, ever more composed, with rhomboidal shapes and odd perspectives, with even more tricky Flavin-like color reflectivities—and this should establish once and for all the idealistic, unattainable, cul-de-sac nature of the illogical view presented above.

Simply, what her essay is about is Judd’s unique, individual achievement as separate from the rest of the world—roping him off from the art past before Pollock, from his lesser contemporaries, and especially from the outside world. And the type of discussion we read is a reflection of how the work wants to be read. What is needed is a view other than the insider’s view of the world Judd inhabits.

What can we remember of the ’60s? Judd’s Complete Writings is a good place to start.

Noland is obviously one of the best painters anywhere. (pg. 93)

It’s obvious that Noland is one of the best painters. (pg. 166)

By now Kenneth Noland’s salience isn’t debatable; he’s one of the best painters. (pg. 172)

I think Noland is the only first-rate artist involved. (pg. 197)

The above quotations sound like Darby Bannard, but they’re Don Judd. It’s not just the evaluation of Noland, but the tone of voice, the particular choice of words, which makes for an unmistakable concordance.

Art, dance, music, and literature have to be considered as autonomous activities and not as decoration upon political and social purposes. (pg. 222)1

This is not a defense by Greenberg for the separation of art and politics or art and literature or art from other social activities. It is Judd in battle with those who might call his work “imperialist.”

The main job of the staff of a museum is to make judgments about the quality of the various artists’ work and to defend those judgments. The true proportion of quality . . . has to be maintained. (pg. 223)

Again, this could be Michael Fried on why we must keep all that theatrical Minimal art out of the museums. The last sentence has Judd joining the Greenbergers (his phrase) in his defense of the rigid esthetic standards museums should uphold, standards which admit Judd’s own work and stamp it “quality.” The similarities of attitude are striking, in that they agree as to what constitutes “great art.” Their individual and local antagonisms should not be allowed to obscure their larger mutual sympathies.

In this respect, Judd has been more than influenced by formalist/modernist criticism—he has thoroughly internalized it. Both kinds of criticism reduce painting or sculpture to one quality which must be maintained above all: Greenberg insists on flatness, Judd insists on specificity. (Both, for instance, settle for less.) Both believe in the autonomy of the esthetic object, in its alienation from everything but the environment of art, that it must be seen in a separate, alienated space, removed from the viewer, removed from the world.

Of the repeating cubes, Smith writes: “They maintain a surprising aesthetic separateness”; she calls their indifference (to the wall) “dramatic”; she considers how a viewer’s revulsion to touch a Judd box is a triumph of “how Judd’s work establishes distance—almost keeps us at bay—and affirms its artificial, aesthetic purpose” (Catalogue, pg. 26). Indeed, this distance is part of the structure and meaning—part of the psychology—of Judd’s work, but I fail to see how it is a positive quality.

What annoys Judd and the formalists is any attitude which would allow nonart (life) to creep into art—they hate “anti-art,” and are quick to point fingers whenever they seek to find it. Dada is the main target. Here is how Judd’s notions about this changed from rather liberal to downright dogmatic:

Many aspects often thought essential to art are missing, such as imagery and composition. This is also true of the work of Flavin and Stella, for example; their work is obviously not like prior art. But theirs is plainly aesthetic in intention. Morris’ work nearly appears not to be art; perhaps he doesn’t want it to be thought art at first, though of course it is finally. (1965)

I prefer art that isn’t associated with anything and am tired of the various kinds of dada, and don’t think, for example, that the work of Johns and Rauschenberg is so momentous.

Bob Morris’ Dada interests are very alien to me . . . (1969)

With the two “sides” agreeing so well on the immediate past (Pollock, Newman, Still, David Smith, Noland are great; Johns is only clever; anything Dada, surreal, literary or anthropomorphic is out) it is not surprising that they would share a similar view of the art institutions which must validate these hierarchical evaluations. This is how Judd sees his relationship to established history and the institutions of art history:

Q: Do you want your work in a museum?
A: Yes, anywhere. (
Writings, pg. 195)

One does not internalize values for no reason.2

Like Greenberg, Judd sees the monetary problem as one of the problems facing a (young) artist. Although Judd reveals a puritanical streak when he alludes to Andrew Wyeth’s (monetary) success, and takes Greenberg to task for bringing up the low prices Noland and Olitski fetch on the market (Judd calls it “despicable”), he still wants us to know that one basic thing which is bugging him: how much did it cost (me, them)? His Complaints (Part 2) is an inventory of monetary bitchiness. A review of an early Eva Hesse show mentions little of the work, and (un?)self-consciously goes on about the money problems young artists have, how the young really struggle to get along during their period of artistic experimentation. Judd has positive proof that he was poor; he wrote criticism for purely “mercenary” reasons (Writings, pg. vii). (Why we should attend to a book filled with mercenary reviews by a writer obviously contemptuous of his position is a question I will thankfully evade.)

This is not only an example of how artists must prostitute themselves with “unworthy” activity (remember, the most important thing in Judd’s life is art, not writing), but it also shows how Judd perceived the critic’s role. He mentions critics being underpaid, but it reads as though he’s mad because he didn’t get paid enough. In light of his statement “Visual art must be the only . . . undefended activity left in the United States” (Writings, pg. 207), he might ponder for a moment the state of the activity of criticism while asking why these activities must be “defended” at all.

If one were to believe Brydon Smith and Roberta Smith, Judd’s writing should be a paradigm of maturity (to say nothing of empathy for artists). I would tend to side with James Fitzsimmons, who sounds the only real critical note in either book, when, on a rejection slip (yes, Judd has included a rejection slip), he accuses Judd of garrulous, formless, basic Hemingway-type writing (pg. 171). Since Judd has seen fit to expose all, one can readily see how right Fitzsimmons was. One small example from an Art International review will show that, even with an artist who cannot be said to pose any meaningful threat to him, Judd shows an indifference to critical thinking, to the work at hand, as well as to basic organization. Let it stand for pages of similar reviews.

Pissaro is very good at times and dull at others . . . Several of the paintings have been damaged by extensive varnish, for example, La Côte du Chou à Pontoise, 1882, which resembles Renoir’s paintings some . . . Another good painting and a very different one is La Chemin de Fer de Dieppe, Eragny, 1886, which is sparse and influenced by Seurat. The railway is small. The painting is only fields and sky. (pg. 180)

Judd’s review of a Ronald Bladen show is likewise revealing. The review is reprinted with a photograph of a Bladen sculpture—a single, cantilevered box on a wall. “The boldness, size, simplicity and novelty, all general aspects, while interesting, are ultimately not enough” (pg. 75). If, then, none of these is enough, what is?

The answer is powerfulness.

Painting has to be as powerful as any kind of art; it can’t claim a special identity, an existence for its own sake as a medium. Painting now is not quite sufficient, although only in terms of plain power. It lacks the specificity and power of actual materials, actual color, and actual space (my italics). (pg. 93)

The words Philip Leider used to describe the work of the best artists of the ’60s have to do with images of power, often of actual physical force. In “Literalism and Abstraction” (Artforum, April 1970) Leider calls the paintings of Frank Stella—with a certain relish—“cold, smartaleck, humorless, methodical, insufferably arrogant,” and “like a slap in the face.” He defines the demeanor of American culture by the psychology of its high art: “coiled, tense, arrogant, lean, ungenerous, unsensuous.” He underlines the word “harshness” and insists on the “pictorial violence” of the irregular polygons. The suggestively aggressive tone used throughout the article in praise of Stella, Andre and Judd has a recherché quality. Are we discussing art or war? The words are “ferocious,” “bluntness,” “insulting,” “powerful,” and in one paragraph:

By 1966, Stella had been under the gun for five years. The paintings are the most explicitly violent Stella has ever made. Forms interpenetrate as if by naked force; spiked sharp edges abound, colors verge on the hysterical (my italics).3

Is it just coincidence, or is this a description of the political mood in the United States during the last part of the decade? It is in this context that Leider says of Pollock, the ultimate source of all art after 1958: "When you feel [the paintings] getting too arty for you, give them a whack or two” (my italics).

This brute force, this image of physical violence, is what is known as the “American” part of American art, as well as representing the repressive character of American domestic and international policy.

Judd reveals this in his writing, where he is just as convinced as his “enemies” of the primacy of American art, the absolute necessity for abstraction, the idea that art must be nonreferential, that it must be powerful, that all that matters is “quality” and “specificity”—read the uniqueness and special existence of the art object apart from the world. It is especially relevant that Judd becomes upset with the idea that American art and its international primacy has something to do with American economic and political power. This is in keeping with the division of art and the world. It is with this in mind that we can view Judd’s ethnocentric statement about art in America being international art and the best thing that could happen is for art everywhere to be like American art.

American art is the best art, and any art could be great if it was like American art—those are the assumptions. The possibility that artists in other countries wouldn’t want to make art the way it’s made in the United States—that such an art might be meaningless to them—is not considered. Judd’s dodge is to rename American art “international,” and explain the dominance of art from the United States in this way: “A few artists simply decided to do first-rate work” (Writings, pg. 220).

Judd reviles nationalism while glorifying the spurious internationalism of the United States. His statement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam (pp. 218–19 and reprinted from a Denver newspaper) is ambiguous in this respect: what was the war in Vietnam if not a national liberation struggle? Was it that he was simply against U.S. involvement and not for the Vietnamese? Judd considers that “only religion is more primitive than nationalism”—is this his view of the struggles in Africa and the Middle East? It is easy for the beneficiaries of U.S. economic power and political influence to ask small colonized countries to stop being so “primitive” and give up nationalism. By being international they will, in effect, become American.

Judd cannot admit that there is such a thing as American art, although he is quick to notice signs of “Europeanism.” His immediate ambition in the early ’60s was to do away with all those “European” influences. If he can imagine a “European art,” why can’t he imagine an “American art”?

In fact, Judd has been influenced by the most European minds of the ’60s, notably Robbe-Grillet (especially his “to see objects, actions, words and events which are described, without attempting to give them more or less meaning”). The reason Judd vehemently opposes the “European” influence is that all that “idealism,” transcendence and “Cartesianism” is unbecoming to a powerful, blunt, pragmatic, new-intellectual, just-doing-my-job American artist like himself—and perhaps like-minded colleagues. The difference between the Abstract Expressionist and the artist of the ’60s is that the latter wanted to become normalized and neutralized, and not be some crazy outcast, wildly slinging paint around. The new artist wants money and prestige, a job in the social bureaucracy as an artist. Andre “naturally” places metal squares next to one another, Judd hangs boxes on the wall in a “practical manner.” The artist wants to be considered “normal.”

Finally, Judd’s art is about “what he knows,” that is, it never ventures outside its own context. It is clear what this has meant for art: a turning from the realm of experience which used to engage and involve the viewer in an act of discovery. Art is a dumb exercise operating out of a contextless knowledge, where differing opacities of plexiglass and the valencies of metals are offered as “meaningful” explorations of “real space.” What is it that must be kept unknown? What is it that must be banished from anything having to do with art? What is the artist afraid of discovering, or uncovering in his work?

I’m not part of any of those [non-Western] cultures nor any religion, unless I’m part of the industrialized middle class, which seems to be too empty to be a culture, but is one of course, a lousy one. (Writings, p. 222)

For once, the cynical evaluation which illuminates his social and cultural heritage is right on the mark. The emptiness which typifies Judd’s hollow shell finds its source in the “lousy industrialized middle-class culture.” It reflects his class origins but easily negotiates with a supposedly “classless,” tunnel-vision art history. Emptiness here is dualistic. On one hand, it has a meaning within a class analysis, and on the other, it functions in the art world to repudiate the reality of class. These two meanings create a tension which becomes a dynamic in Judd’s sculpture. “Of course, finally, I only believe in my own work” (p. 181). Which means that in order to transcend his class and empty culture, Judd must believe in and want to be embraced by the timeless, classless ideal of the art world, a world which will secure a place for his “practical” boxes and stacks inside the unreal, esthetic sanctuary of the museum.

Jeff Perrone



1. But compare this: “Any political statement, either by declaration or incorporation into a context, can be art” (Writings, pg. 208). This is a one-shot deal in favor of Hans Haacke, and there is considerable ambiguity in the use of the word “can.”

2. When Judd is in a bad mood, perhaps when a museum has not turned out to be the apolitical determiner of quality that it should be, he lashes out: “Museums are charities that are monuments to the rich” (Writings, pg. 89). One would then wonder why he would want to be included in one.

3. Curiously, Leider revels in the positive virtues of coldness, smartaleckness and humorlessness by attacking some “negative” qualities in Johns. i.e. cleverness, irony and paradox.