PRINT Summer 1994

Richard Serra

WHAT I HAVE BEEN EXPERIENCING in the past several weeks is fear, a fear without an object, an empty feeling, a disconnected anxiety which makes me shudder, take a deep breath, sigh involuntarily. I have been trying to understand Judd’s death, trying to deal with my incomprehension of this unexpected loss. A great sculptor has died. As an artist you measure yourself against other artists; as you grow older, you measure yourself against the people you have known who have died.

Some inventions are more important than others, more thoughtful, more conscious, more serious, more resolute, more radical, more influential, more articulate. By the time I arrived in New York, in the late ’60s, Judd’s invention had already transformed the historical context. Judd’s break had been so startling and abrupt that within three years Abstract Expressionism was out, Minimalism was in. Most sculptors of my generation spoke openly of their admiration for Judd’s work. We all acknowledged his importance by either coming up against him, going around him, or using his work in ways he could not have imagined or intended.

Most of us treated him with respectful disrespect. Very early on, Eva Hesse built “Accessions,” a series of boxes made of galvanized steel frames with rubber tubing dangling inside. Eva added subjectivity, obsession, metaphor, psychology, and sexuality to Judd’s exquisitely tooled rarefied container. Nauman sarcastically undermined Judd’s logic in a fiberglass work entitled Platform Made Up of the Space between Two Rectilinear Boxes on the Floor. Heizer took Judd head-on. You want volumes, I’ll give you volumes: Double Negative, two enormous cubic trenches dug out in the Nevada desert. Smithson turned Judd’s specific objects into spray-painted specimen bins filled with rocks from everywhere, labeling them “Nonsites.” Judd’s boxes were pervasive—Warhol was silkscreening Brillo logos on them; Artschwager was making them out of suburban-countertop Formica. I paid reverence with sagging lead plates propped up like a house of cards. Two decades later, Steinbach’s shelves and Gober’s serial sinks continue to tip their hat to Don. As irony would have it, there is probably more than a little Judd in Koons’ industrial products deluxe. Individually and collectively, we all put our head into Judd’s box.

In retrospect, one realizes that his influence was ubiquitous. The forms it took were diverse and often critical. It was never a question of whether you liked Judd’s work or not; you could not get over it. It would not leave you alone. It gnawed on you. It made you drop dearly held beliefs. It was not “obvious” art; it didn’t look like art. Nevertheless, it insisted on being taken seriously. I remember having fierce arguments with Smithson over Judd’s preference for materials—I was taken aback by what I considered to be Don’s fetishizing attitude, his hedonism, by the slickness and glitz of fluorescent Plexiglas, anodized aluminum, stainless steel, polished brass, metallic paints, and honey-lacquered finishes;I was inclined to dismiss all this as sterile, high-tech positivism, I was leery of the content it implied and yet, when I stood in front of a Harley Davidson–red-lacquered, galvanized-iron, bull-nosed progression and uttered “Goddammit” under my breath, I completely embraced his esthetic on his terms; or when I walked into the Dwan Gallery and saw a series of blunt, hot-dipped galvanized-iron boxes cantilevered off the wall that pushed the space and displaced the room, I had to admire his courage, his rudeness, his audacity. His objects were executed to millimeter perfection. Every aspect of their making was revealed and considered down to the detail of the detail. They could be unnerving in their absoluteness, their remoteness.

Judd’s work is to be looked at, first and foremost. The experience is always rooted in perception, always physical, always kinesthetic. I never considered the work to be an end in itself, a mere visual representation of theoretical propositions, intentions, or concepts. Sure it makes visual common sense: one thing after another, a progression, a stack, a whole divided into so many equally interesting specific parts. But that’s not all there is; at least that’s not where I locate the meaning of Judd’s sculpture. His empiricist prescriptions exclude too much, leave too many questions unanswered. I especially admire the big, open steel, concrete, and plywood sculptures. They convey a public space, an expanse, a vastness derived from openness but not contained by a closed solution. Judd was one of the first to deal with the contained interior space and surrounding space simultaneously by emphasizing the continuity from the inside out. I think of Don Judd as an essential American, American as defined by Charles Olson in the first lines of Call Me Ishmael: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.”