PRINT February 2000



IN ARPIL 1966, the Jewish Museum in New York presented what turned out to be the major show of that year. It was called “Primary Structures,” which was yet another term for “minimalism.” Donald Judd, whose work was in the show, was appalled by the title, and was allowed to publish his disclaimer in the catalogue. Here are a few quotations from his remarks:

I object to several popular ideas. I don’t think anyone’s work is reductive. The most the term can mean is that new work doesn’t have what the old work had. . . . New work is just as complex and developed as old work. Its color and structure and its quality aren’t more simple than before; the work isn’t narrow or somehow meaningful only as form. . . . “Minimal” and “ABC” are recent reductions of “reductive.”

A year earlier, in his fundamental essay “Specific Objects,” Judd also tried to explain that what he called “the new work” was in no way minimal, reductive, “anti-art,” “ABC art,” or any of the other words and phrases (e.g., “Primary Structures”) invented to suggest extreme simplicity:1

Simple form and one or two colors are considered less by old standards. If changes in art are compared backwards, there always seems to be a reduction, since only old attributes are counted and these are always fewer. But obviously new things are more, such as Oldenburg’s techniques and materials. Oldenburg needs three dimensions in order to simulate and enlarge a real object and to equate it and an emotive form. If a hamburger were painted it would retain something of the traditional anthropomorphism.2

But if it was not the quality of reductiveness that distinguished the new work, what did? Judd listed in several places the qualities he thought were characteristic. What they included were: a non-European look; three dimensions; unmodulated color; new materials; “singleness”; and—a typical Judd locution—“the best work is unlike in appearance.” When we examine what each of these criteria meant to Judd, we discover that his critical position has often been seriously misconstrued.

Here is Judd, in 1963, reviewing work by Hyde Solomon and Angelo Ippolito, two pretty typical “10th Street” painters of the time:

Angelo Ippolito’s Abstract Expressionist paintings are decidedly toned down by a . . . sense of art acquired from the European past. The color is beautiful and harmonious and the brushwork sensitive. Solomon’s deficiencies are much the same.

Like every other serious artist of his generation (and the one preceding), Judd consistently argued the problem of whether there could, or should, be a distinctively “American” art, but, as his love for Malevich, Klee, Klein, and other European artists makes clear, he was not simply an American chauvinist. Most of the time, it appears that his use of the expression “European look” is shorthand for exhausted, transparent, unusable, corny. But above all, I believe that for Judd “European art” meant an objectionable implied philosophical order. In praising Barnett Newman, Judd wrote that his work

is concomitant with chance and one person’s knowledge; the work doesn’t suggest a great scheme of knowledge; it doesn’t claim more than anyone can know; it doesn’t imply a social order.

Perhaps the fullest explication of Judd’s objections to “European art” appears at the beginning of his essay on Oldenburg, written in 1966 on the occasion of that artist’s exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm:

The real sense [of anthropomorphism] is one of the main aspects of old European art. Any of the remnants of this are a liability. . . . The real or usual anthropomorphism is the appearance of human feelings in things that are inanimate or not human, usually as if those feelings are the essential nature of the thing described. Oldenburg’s pieces have nothing to do with the objects they’re like. . . . The pieces have only the emotion read into objects. . . . Anyone particularly interested in objects in the past, Chardin, Cézanne or later Morandi, believed that the things themselves had a reality that could be understood and shown. This belief came from rationalistic philosophy and through that from religion.


A small amount and the best abstract painting—it shouldn’t be called abstract—isn’t anthropomorphic in any way. It has none of the attitudes and characteristics of traditional European art. Some three-dimensional work isn’t anthropomorphic or abstract. Oldenburg’s work is, then, some of the little that is very good and free of unbelievable interpretation.

Judd’s examples are, as always, carefully chosen. In all of them, the objects—bottles in Morandi—are wrapped in mystery, hidden meanings, suggestive philosophical depths, and often do, in fact, seem human in their pathos. They seem sad, lonely, tragic, sometimes look like families, couples, even lovers, all things that bottles, fruit, and landscapes are not and humans are—in short, anthropomorphic, and Judd simply hated it. His hostility to “European” art made him, I believe, especially receptive to many of the “Pop” artists (he disliked the term, feeling its artists had much less in common than the term implied). His favorite of these was Oldenburg, because not only did Oldenburg combine a distinctively non-European subject matter with non-European materials, but his art also exemplified an ideal of non-European scale and non-European color. He also, surprisingly, thought very highly of Lichtenstein. (Indeed, it is my impression even today that it is not clear to many people interested in the period that among, for example, Morris, Rothko, Lichtenstein, and Sam Francis, the artist Judd preferred by far was Lichtenstein.) Oddly enough, Judd’s earliest reviews stressed, of all things, Lichtenstein’s composition (something I still don’t understand), and also applauded his appropriation of mechanical techniques:

Lichtenstein’s paintings are some of the most interesting done in recent years. His representation of a comic panel . . . was a thoroughly surprising development. It changed the whole problem of subject-matter in art, which had consisted of the alternatives of either traditional representation or abstraction. Lichtenstein’s work is decidedly neither.

Judd also appreciated Rosenquist and some of the lesser Pop artists though strangely he showed almost no interest in Warhol, the idol, of course, of the current generation (one senses in his reviews of Warhol a certain wariness).

Finally, and this will become clearer below, Judd seemed to identify European art with an emphasis on painting, or what he simply called “the rectangle.” He seemed to feel that the European tradition was so weighted in favor of painting that it made it almost impossible to imagine that painting might, for the time being, have room left in it in which art could continue to develop.

Judd’s feeling that much of the best new work was three-dimensional was based on his conviction that painting, after achieving a rough equivalence between what was “in” the rectangle and the rectangle itself, simply had no place else to go. The most succinct statement of his position is in his thoughtful and appreciative evaluation of Kenneth Noland:

Noland is obviously one of the best painters anywhere . . . but his paintings are somewhat less strong than the several kinds of three-dimensional work. 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. If it does it will end up like lithography and etching. 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. More essentially it seems impossible to further unite the rectangle and the lines, circles or whatever are on it. The image within the rectangle is obviously a relic of pictured objects in their space. This arrangement had been progressively reduced for decades. It has to go entirely.

It is also significant that the work of the painters he most appreciated—Newman, Klein, and especially early Frank Stella—all seemed to him to be approaching the condition of objects rather than paintings, as if the best painters were being forced by the logic of their own development into three dimensions. Judd makes his case for three-dimensionality most aggressively in “Specific Objects”:

Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors—which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present. A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.3

Judd’s conviction that the best new work would be in three dimensions is related to several of his other criteria: large scale (which he took to be fundamental to American art since Pollock), unmodulated color, and new materials.

In one of the more amusing anecdotes about Judd’s career as an art critic, the Complete Writings reproduces the two letters that summarize his history as a critic for Art International. The first, dated January 1965, welcomes him to the staff. The second, dated late April 1965, fires him. The reason given is Judd’s writing style. James Fitzsimmons, the (excellent) editor, provides a sample of the kind of writing he finds unacceptable: “Most of the work shown is painting. There’s some sculpture. John Smith shows a painting. It’s red. It’s fine.”

Fitzsimmons could hardly be blamed for not understanding how much was packed into that “It’s red. It’s fine.” That didn’t become explicit in Judd’s criticism until the great 1974 essay on Malevich. There, Judd deemed Malevich the first to insist, in 1915, that “color and texture in painting are ends in themselves.” Judd thought that the “main development” in painting was toward independent color, freed from its links to depiction, to its life within the bounds of line. He deeply admired, for example, Klein’s blue paintings, which he called “narrow and intense” (“narrow,” I would imagine, in their singleness of color, “intense” in the effect of that singleness). “There’s a lot of force to the desire for independent color and form,” remarks Judd.

Other aspects of Judd’s interest in “bright color” are related to his ideas about new materials and the colors inherent in them. The two artists whom Judd could not praise enough for their insight into “inherent” color are John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin. Of Chamberlain’s work, which at the time consisted of constructions of crushed automobile bodies, Judd wrote:

Chamberlain is the only sculptor really using color, the full range, not just metallic shades; his color is as particular, complex and structural as any good painter’s. In part it involves the hard, sweet, pastel enamels, frequently roses and ceruleans, of Detroit’s imitation elegance for the poor—coupled, Rooseveltianly, with reds and blues.

Flavin, working with fluorescent light tubes, almost automatically, to Judd’s thinking, makes more interesting color:

Since the tubes are sources of light their colours seem given and unchangeable, and since as light the colours are much more visible than are material colours, their differences are conspicuous. Two juxtaposed painted whites are subtle; two juxtaposed white tubes are pretty obvious.

The values “conspicuous” and “obvious” (both preferred over “subtle”) are basic to Judd’s aesthetic. Indeed, he sees them as equivalent to what he often means by “American” art and what he means by “European” art. That is, American art is large, blunt, audacious; European art is small, fussy, intricate, and full of nuances.

Judd’s elevation of the importance of new materials particularly impressed Richard Serra (the admiration was mutual). Commenting in Artforum on Judd’s death in 1994, Serra wrote:

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 . . . and yet . . . when I walked into the Dwan Gallery and saw a series of blunt, hot-dipped galvanized-iron boxes cantilevered off the wall in a way that pushed the space and displaced the room, I had to admire his courage, his rudeness, his audacity.

Serra has stated that his early lead piece House of Cards was an explicit homage to Judd. In its virtual isolation of all qualities other than the material itself, House of Cards is an excellent example of one of Judd’s highest values, what he called “singleness.”4

The kernel of the idea of singleness, I am sure, derives from the deep impression left on Judd by Malevich’s statement that “color and texture are ends in themselves.” It became a part of Judd’s aesthetic to seek work that isolated (and thus gave the fullest, most powerful expression to) a single element, such as color, or texture, or the qualities of a new material. Judd tries in several places to explicate the importance of singleness, sometimes more clearly than other criteria but never with absolute clarity. In “Specific Objects” he writes:

It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful. They are not diluted by an inherited format, variations of a form, mild contrasts and connecting parts and areas. European art had to represent a space and its contents as well as have sufficient unity and aesthetic interest. . . . In the new work, the shape, image, color and surface are single and not partial and scattered. There aren’t any neutral or moderate areas or parts, any connections or transitional areas . . .

The use of three dimensions makes it possible to use all sorts of materials and colors. Most of the work involves new materials, either recent inventions or things not used before in art. Little was done until lately with the wide range of industrial products. . . . Dan Flavin . . . has appropriated the results of industrial production. Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, Plexi-glas, red and common brass, and so forth. They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific.

Some of the artists Judd writes of as having achieved singleness primarily through the use of new materials are Oldenburg, Klein, Stella, and Chamberlain. Another example is provided by Judd’s surprising review of Morris’s 1964 show at the Green Gallery. Earlier that year Judd had been completely perplexed by Morris’s work. Reviewing some of his pieces in a group show in March, Judd wrote:

[Morris’s pieces] are all painted light gray, are large and are only rectangular. . . . They are next to nothing; you wonder why anyone would build something only barely present. There isn’t anything to look at. Rauschenberg said of one of his white paintings, “If you don’t take it seriously, there is nothing to take.” Morris’ pieces exist after all, as meager as they are. Things that exist exist, and everything is on their side. They’re here, which is pretty puzzling.

Judd went on to call the pieces “the most forceful and the barest” rejection of the “hierarchical values” of Western art so far, but added, “I need more to think about and look at.” Just a few months later, writing about the Green Gallery show, his take on Morris was significantly different. Morris displayed an array of plywood forms, “all shaped geometrically and painted Merkin Pilgrim gray, which is light. The shapes are strong and conspicuous and the color is inconspicuous.” One was a slab suspended about 1.5 meters off the floor; a second piece comprised a right angle with one end on the floor and the other touching the wall; yet another was a large triangular shape fitted into a corner. What Judd liked about the show was its specificity, by which he meant the isolation of the single element of space:

First, many aspects often thought essential to art are missing, such as imagery and composition. . . . The pieces are fairly ordinary geometric shapes and a very ordinary color. . . . Morris’s pieces are minimal visually, but they’re powerful spatially. It’s an unusual asymmetry. The Cloud [the hanging slab] occupies the space above and below it. . . . The triangle fills a corner of the room, blocking it. The angle encloses the space within it, next to the wall. The occupancy of space, the access to or denial of it, is very specific.

Whatever else one might feel, this strikes me as perhaps the most original understanding of those early pieces by Morris I have ever read or heard.

The oddly worded phrase appears in a statement written for “Sensibilities of the Sixties,” an article by Barbara Rose and Irving Sandler that appeared in the January/February 1967 issue of Art in America:

I think there are some very general aspects and attitudes common to most of the best artists. These are mostly obvious: the large scale and its particular nature; bright color; use of new materials; three dimensions, in many cases; and especially the difference in the particular aspects of the work (the best work is unlike in appearance).

“Unlike in appearance” seems simply to be an odd way of saying that the best works will not look alike, or that the best works should not be expected to resemble one another. It is also a warning that work by artist B, which seems to “belong with” the work of the good artist A, is not itself necessarily good, and that it is simply lazy criticism to admire B because one admires A. And it seems also a warning that, as we have seen again and again, works that seem to resemble one another, or to belong together, are seen in time to have much, much less in common than it at first appeared (i.e., Newman and Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning, and—without doubt most egregiously to Judd—Morris and Judd).5

But it is in the plainest sense of the phrase that Judd lifts himself completely above the better critics of his time. The intuition that the best work of the time did not have to have a similar “look” or even a “family resemblance,” or, for that matter, need not be motivated by a shared view of the state of affairs in art, made it possible for him to genuinely see the best in Klein and Rosenquist, in Oldenburg and Newman, in Lucas Samaras and Serra. No major critic of the ’60s, from Fried to Rubin to Bannard and Tillim, could manage so broad an approach, could understand the whole with the depth and clarity that Judd could. (I’ve not included Clement Greenberg in this group because his greatness lies in his understanding of the ’40s and ’50s. Of the ’60s he knew nothing, and his writing about the period is mostly an odd kind of blustering.) It was Judd’s credo that there were no schools, movements, “decades” (e.g., the ’80s), or academies. “I don’t like the terms avant garde and academy,” he wrote. “The range is from good to bad artists. . . . Each time something new is done everyone expects the followers to grow up and make a school. Good work doesn’t start in a school, and there will never be enough of it alike to make one.” This led him to write criticism as if the job of the critic were twofold: to distinguish the “dos” and “don’ts” that motivate the choices of good artists at any given time, and, if possible, to explain how so, without pitting one group of artists against another. It is for this reason that Judd’s writing, it seems to me now, is the best guide available to the art of his time. And it strikes me as profoundly ironic that the only critic who could appreciate Roy Lichtenstein as deeply as Frank Stella or Richard Serra should be thought of to this day as the spokesman of a narrow, nonexistent “movement” called minimalism.


1. “Specific Objects” and Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” represent the polar extremes of art criticism in the ’60s, much as Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 “The American Action Painters” and Clement Greenberg’s 1955 “‘American-Type’ Painting” did for the ’50s. Judd’s extreme disapproval of Fried’s criticism, and to a lesser extent Sidney Tillim’s, made it impossible for me as editor of Artforum at the time to get Judd to publish in the magazine. Each time we met I would raise the issue and each time would be subjected to a harangue about how terrible the magazine was. I strongly wanted a counterbalance to Michael’s overwhelming brilliance, and I thought that having Robert Smithson writing regularly might coax Judd into contributing. But it turned out he hated Smithson too!

2. This paragraph will do as well as any other to discuss briefly the strangeness of Judd’s prose. One has the impression that he wrote in perpetual fear of the cliché, and also with a determination to force the reader to read everything twice. Such phrases as “considered less” (rather than, say, “considered lacking”), “compared backwards” (rather than “compared chronologically”), “new things are more,” seem designed to force a kind of doubletake, a puzzled consideration that ends with “Oh, now I get it.” It’s a system unique to Judd, and it guarantees a careful reading. (Judd’s English, I have discovered, is almost incomprehensible to foreigners who read “ordinary” English fluently. Maybe he didn’t want any “Europeans” reading his stuff.)

3. Judd’s ideas about three-dimensionality, both here and elsewhere, provide a rough context for understanding Stella’s later development. It was as if, in approaching something like “absolute” flatness, he discovered depth again, but this time real depth, actual three-dimensional depth. But then, to his own surprise and deep interest, as the constructions of the ’80s evolved they seemed to incorporate all the things Judd detested in “old” two-dimensional painting. It was as if all the “problems of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors,” had been moved from two to three dimensions. This development must have horrified Judd, who later took several swipes at Stella’s constructions. “It’s easy to see that Chamberlain invented Stella’s reliefs. A new idea is quickly debased,” he wrote in a posthumously published essay in which he also complained that many artists of the ’60s lost themselves “or they didn’t know what to do, as Stella doesn’t” (Artforum, Summer ’94). That was thirty years after he’d called Stella the best painter in the country, and in that time Judd changed a lot more than Stella. To put it mildly, an earlier characteristic crankiness had turned into what seemed an almost unrelenting rage, seriously compromising the clarity of mind found in his writing before 1975. The posthumous essay mentioned above is a pretty good example.

4. Richard Serra, Frank Stella, and Robert Smithson are, to my mind, the only artists of the ’60s who managed to produce high art while maintaining a middle course through the magnetic field of the Judd-Fried tension. Judd turned his back on Smithson and the later Stella, and Fried, after about 1969, also lost interest in Stella (needless to say, he never had the slightest interest in either Smithson or Serra). So there we have it: The two finest critical minds of the time found no value in the three greatest artists of the last half of the century. (Judd, of course, continued to admire Serra until his death. Still, the record doesn’t inspire confidence in the profession of art criticism.)

5. Judd went ballistic when the New York Times (not me) headlined a review I’d written “In the Shadow of Robert Morris.” Morris had organized the show, but Judd resented the idea that the artists in any way derived from him or his criticism. I’d guess that nothing infuriated Judd more than the constant coupling of his name with Morris’s. Morris had come out of a completely different milieu—dance, theater, performance—none of which concerned Judd in the least. Worse, respectable people who should have known better felt that somehow Morris, in his writings, “spoke for” Judd, and vice versa. (Relatively recently, a student approached me for help in writing an essay on “Morrison Judd.” Judd was already dead, but turned, with gritted teeth, in his grave.)