PRINT March 1997

Objection Overruled

THIS IS HOW artist and critic Donald Judd at first wished his work to be seen: as pure form without reference. As “object art,” not sculpture, which to him smelled of Cubism condensed. As divorced from use as a solid could be. Not even art critics were allowed to use his pieces—the pieces should use them (and they did).

So what happened? The unavoidable: pure form wound up luring its opposite. How close can an object get to a bookcase, a table, or a desk and still deny it? Too close for comfort. No truly practical design really looks like a Judd: his work was too profligate with ambient space, too resistant to attenuation, beveling, adjustment. Yet each and every piece, because it had to be conceived and constructed basically as all usable things do, ultimately signaled design. The artist himself appeared to know this. How close could he come to furniture? Quite close: editions (multiples, “runs”) were offered and sold to be used. Brancusi made benches, Sol LeWitt a bed. So?

The complex of spaces at Marfa, Texas, exemplifies, better than any single room or apartment, the encompassing ambition of object art when it is adjusted to refer to nonuse and to be useful at the same time. This table’s a table; these library bookshelves are indeed bookshelves. Of this there is no doubt, because the concrete object art’s literally outside. Odd that Judd should have chosen Native American rugs to people these spaces: their abstract forms are laden with local data and spiritual association. The molcajete or Mexican mortar on the table looks purely shaped: but it’s a common kitchen tool that cries “location, location.” Maybe their employment is not so odd, though, in a project that memorializes the attraction of all art objects to use and of all useful objects to art.