PRINT Summer 1977

Donald Judd: Past Theory

SEEING DONALD JUDD’S 15 RECENT plywood sculptures reminded me of another critic’s having once called Judd’s work “anthropomorphic” because it was hollow. That remark assumed that “anthropomorphic” can have only a pejorative use in talk about sculpture. The best sense I can now give the remark is this: that a sculpture’s clear division of outside from inside somehow confirms a misleading image we have of how our knowledge and ignorance of each other relate. The message in the “anthropomorphic” criticism was, I think, at least partly that we should eschew hollowness in esthetic terms if we are ethically serious about eschewing the idea of human beings as hollow. I mention this point of view because I think Judd’s plywood pieces themselves discredit it in a striking way. For collectively, rather than singly, there is something affirmatively anthropomorphic about these pieces. Taken together, they evoke in material terms a metaphysical condition of human beings, the condition of being at once as similar and as different as possible.

All 15 pieces are of the same dimensions, five feet square by three feet high. They were installed so that the first six you encountered on entering established an assumption that each of the 15 is structurally unique. At a glance, and from a distance, several of the pieces are hard to distinguish formally, while others are immediately different. It is as if some distinguished themselves, while you had to distinguish others by deliberate inspection. The group comprises a sort of family of structural variations, yet there is nothing to suggest that 15 is their necessary number. Even a casual look, however, discovers extremes of similarity and difference.

Two pieces that were adjacent in the recent installation bear an extreme resemblance. Each appears to consist of an open cube within an open cube. But attention reveals that in one case the inner and outer cubes have a common bottom at floor level, while, in the other, the bottom of the inner cube is four inches above that of the outer. Comparing these two pieces makes you aware of the comparison of objects as a comparison of perceptions, that is, as a matter of personal judgment. (You also realize that each object helps you see the other, though neither is an instruction in seeing the other.) This observation, in turn, leads you to reconsider those pieces that seem to distinguish themselves with no effort on your part. You discover that the clarity with which some of the works differ from each other really expresses your own judgment as to the obviousness, or the objectivity, of the differences you notice. And with the notion of objectivity you project a judgment as to what must appear to everyone as so, forgetting that it is a judgment at all unless some practical confusion makes it conspicuous as such.

Judd’s sculptures show us a liability of the commerce with abstractions that the modern world and our form of social life require of us. They allow us to discover, even to sense, that we are liable not to know whether our attention is focused on an abstraction or on concrete realities. (This liability is wholly practical: vast industries exist to promote for profit the confusion between concrete realities and ideas of the real—industries such as advertising, entertainment, and cosmetics. The modern state itself stands for the abstraction of all social relations from their immediate human terms.)

By their identical dimensions, their consistent material, and even by the unifying effect of their lumber smell, Judd’s sculptures tempt you to see them categorically at first. If you had some of his earlier work in mind, you might see these new pieces as translations into a new material of some sculptural formats he had used before. But when you grant these particular objects more attention, you see that the plywood is not a way of generalizing them, as steel or aluminum could be, but a way of deepening their differences. Let go the assumption that the grain of each panel is incidental information, and you see that the very faces of each sculpture are as elaborately different as handprints. You see also how the assumption as to what information is significant stands in the way of the perception of concrete realities. Although adjacent sides of a piece may have identical dimensions, they differ with a detail that defies visual memory and, so, defies close comparison. The grain is a structural, not a decorative, aspect of the material and of the work. Unlike some of Judd’s earlier work, these plywood pieces cannot be taken to confirm the phenomenological notion that the perception of one side of a regular object implies the perception of its unseen sides.

Judd’s new work makes it clear that no perception implies another without an interpretive convention mediating them, without an abstraction linking them. In the plywood pieces you see that no side represents the perception of another side, unless you assume that the identity of each side is only a matter of its dimensions and its being called “plywood.” These sculptures are as different as one has the attention to see. Indeed, they suggest that the capacity to see concretely is a matter of how free attention is from the way of unconscious patterning by abstractions. The freedom of attention in this respect is not just a matter of individual compulsion or serenity, but of the exigencies of practical life as well. To be brief, the freedom to see concretely is a social freedom, though under present conditions it is a freedom best known to the victims of social injustice, who know they have nothing to lose by telling truths that everyday social relations repress. Every aspect of that social condition that we call “the state” exhorts us to see, and to treat, each other categorically, because there can be no social convention for knowing the individual. Yet to know anyone well is to be in a position to understand that no individual, even oneself, is a guide to the knowing of another. Inevitably we generalize ways of apprehending each other. The difficulty, under economic and political conditions that generalize us, is to know when a habit of generalization governs what we see.

Judd’s plywood sculptures are amenable to generalized view only to let us experience the shift of attention from a generalized to a concrete view of them, and to feel a pleasure in that. They can be called anthropomorphic because they materially evoke the human condition of individuality, a condition which has become so problematic to us that we hardly know how to think about it. Judd’s new pieces set up material circumstances that can become a way of thinking about the individual as the concrete reality of which the “subject” of philosophy and social science is an unacknowledged abstraction. They associate the relaxed vision needed to see reality concretely, with a tolerance of the human condition of individuality—of being one among many who are both as similar and as different as possible. The idea is not that Judd has projected human qualities onto objects, but that the relation among the objects he has assembled parallels a relation among ourselves that we find difficult to acknowledge.

The elaborate specificity of Judd’s objects renders certain ways of talking about them empty or irrelevant. This is one way in which they make you feel the shift of your attention from a generalized sense of them to a concretely focused view. To see Judd’s sculptures for what they are, your attention has to be committed to the present, particular reality that they offer. Only then do you see them as objects that recommend a use of attention appropriate to grasping human reality, or appropriate to grasping reality as human action, including your own.

All one’s feelings about individual pieces are likely to be qualified by feelings about other pieces. The formal refinement and economy of some of them makes me see others as forced variations. Untitled No. 6, for instance, is a piece whose top surface sits four inches above its sides. Through the four-inch gap, you easily see the inner pedestal supporting the “floating” panel. From a distance (and in photographs) this device doesn’t show, so the sculpture looks like a magical or mental object whose presence is required by some scheme of variations known only to Judd. Then looking at it closely is literally disillusioning. You see it only once as an idealized, gravity-free object phantom. The function of the inelegant internal prop is then actually to banish the very sense of idealization or mental prototype that the work initially invokes.

Judd’s new work is more insistent than ever upon a point he made some years ago: “Even if you can plan the thing completely ahead of time, you still don’t know what it looks like until it’s right there.” Despite the sense it makes, Untitled No. 6 has a certain didactic aspect that seems to detract from its sensuous qualities. The simplest unit piece, an open box with no internal format, also seems to be there partly to satisfy a sense of completeness or rigor in the ensemble. But this is more like the statement of a premise, although you might also treat it as a sort of exercise in not seeing the open object as a container, since several other pieces structurally disavow their emptiness.

Since the form of many pieces requires you to look down into them, you soon find that the point at which you first grasp the work formally depends in part upon your own eye level. The most dramatic piece of the group—in the sense that it has the greatest complexity with the fewest elements—is Untitled No. BM. Here it is as if the top plane of the box had slipped down inside, for it slopes from the top corner on one side of the box to the bottom corner opposite. The other two corners of the plane meet opposite corners of the walls of the box at a third, and two thirds, their height, respectively. Looking down the slope, the tipped plane seems to go below floor level, giving a vertiginous feeling even after its structure has been read. In this piece, in Untitled No. PC, and in several others, the “internal” element has the double aspect of a structure integral to the object as a whole and yet an incident local to a place defined by the object. This double aspect repeats the dialectic of similarity and difference, of generality and concreteness that is the thrust, if not the theme, of the work. I favor those pieces—like the two just cited—in which structure successfully contradicts or thwarts its own intimation of feeling. The recent plywood sculptures are Judd’s most resourceful and satisfying work so far. They might still be called “Minimal” in the sense that they keep parts and procedures to a minimum, but they no longer need theory.

Kenneth Baker