PRINT Summer 2004

Josiah McElheny

IT IS STRIKING TO ME THAT DONALD JUDD’S WORK IS DISCUSSED almost entirely without reference to “the hand.” Although it is usually said that his works were industrially produced, there is very little talk about how these objects actually came into being. They were not simply made to order from a factory but were fabricated in collaboration with a very small, specialized group of metalworkers and woodworkers in modest workshops. His structures have only the appearance of being untouched by human hands. They may register as industrially produced objects for most people because of the way labor, morality, and modernism intersect in our society. But it is precisely the way his art connects with society that makes it meaningful to me.

What constitutes the industrial? Today some objects are produced completely by machines. Most industry, however, consists of a complicated collaboration between machinery, automated or not, and people with accumulated knowledge and experience. Judd’s “specific objects” were the joint result of a concept and the complications of its execution. The staff at Bernstein Brothers, with whom Judd worked early on, do not get much credit for their collaborative role in the process, and this adds to our forgetfulness about how his art was made. This is important because in traditional artworks the labor (or even the lack thereof) is readily apparent and very much part of our understanding of a work. But in much of Judd’s work the amount of labor is often invisible. This reminds us that modernism, to paraphrase Joe Scanlan and Neal Jackson, often seems to require even the removal of the evidence of removing the evidence of making something.

“My view,” Judd said, “is that the factory is really my studio.” With this statement Judd may have intended to clarify that he was working with the stuff of the world, not the fanciful tools of paint and brush. Yet the comment is somewhat misleading, because most people think of a factory as an assembly line or as many machines stamping out objects. The reality, however, is that Judd’s work was made in a setting much closer to the average person’s picture of a wood shop in a garage than to the factory where Charlie Chaplin worked in Modern Times. Whether one speaks of Bernstein Brothers or later collaborators like Peter Ballantine or Rob Weiner, Judd’s works resulted from an intersection between the initial concept and an extensive knowledge and experience of working with particular materials. An incredible amount of labor and care was taken to create Judd’s works, from handling materials as they came into the shop to assembly, polishing, and shipping. If his works had truly been made on an assembly line, they would actually be much more rustic, cheap, or tricky in how they would have had to hide the prob- lems and flaws of production itself.

Much of the standard perception of Judd might be traced back to Adolf Loos and his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” a defining text in the development of modernism. Judd inherited some of Loos’s legacy, including the idea that materials should speak for themselves. But Loos’s philosophy also contained a major error: the belief that the removal of ornament and its replacement with unadorned materials in a highly finished, “perfect” state would result in the reduction of labor. This idea has contributed to the perception that Judd’s apparently simple objects required little labor to make. However, ornament often requires less rather than more labor. It has traditionally served not only to express style but also importantly to hide flaws, mistakes, and joints. To make a perfect surface is much more laborious at every level, from processing the raw material, to finishing, to methods of construction and eventual transport.

Both Loos and Judd wanted to show materials themselves in all their glory as emblems of moral honesty and rightness. But Judd carried this philosophy one step further. He wanted his works to reveal their methods of construction, but he was not willing to let that detract from the integrity of his surfaces and materials. His solution was to show off the methods of joinery, making them a part of the design. For example, he would screw things together, a seemingly straightforward technique, but in practice the tolerance of the drilled holes had to be measured in fractions of a millimeter because the material itself was so elegantly thin. This required a level of skill, care, and perfection surpassing even that of Loos, who allowed himself to use reveals, simple moldings, and other tricks of the trade to conceal the difficulties of construction. In light of Judd’s obsessive articulation of detail and surface, we can begin to recognize how his work might be considered more handmade than “industrial,” and even how it might appear closer to the baroque than to the “minimal.”

The materials with which Judd worked are often described as “standard” or “industrial” in order to differentiate them from more traditional ones. Yet Judd himself always maintained that this was not the case and that his materials were as personal, specific, and expressive as any. There is no such thing as a “standard” industrial material. All of the materials produced by industry are in some way responsive to fashion and the desires of society at a particular moment. The materials with which Judd worked were available in a finite palette determined by large market forces, so his works were necessarily linked to certain fashions outside the world of art. This is both an opportunity and a problem for art because it blurs the boundaries between art and life. Materials like Rohm and Haas Plexiglas or finishes such as Galvanox, for example, were produced in their particular forms and colors for only a limited period, and their appearance dates Judd’s work and connects it to a time when the materials were used widely, before becoming a part of history. It might seem strange to suggest that Judd’s art has an almost Pop connection to fashion, but to a certain extent it’s unavoidable. Even today, the effect of his work changes constantly in relation to contemporary commercial culture: Now the plywood pieces look especially good, while the galvanized-metal ones seem less sexy. Perhaps in twenty years this will be reversed.

Not only do Judd’s materials link his work to the world beyond art, but his forms also echo those of architecture, packaging, design, etc. Judd took the right angles, smooth surfaces, continuous materials, and lack of classical proportion from the world around us and deployed these elements within the confines of art. When he first began to do this, it was radical to believe that the prosaic, everyday forms of modern society could have a capacity for artistic meaning. One cannot say that he depicted these forms as artists in the past might have. Rather, he simply, literally embodied them and put them on display for us to look at and think about.

We live in a culture of display. Display functions as our way of communicating the results of our own introspection. Display is also our way of indicating importance. I believe that when Clement Greenberg dismissed Judd’s work as a simple reflection of moma’s half-commercial, half-museum “Good Design” shows of the ’50s, he was actually complimenting the artist. Judd’s work implicitly suggested the importance of the secular, material world that he negotiated daily. And it continues to do so powerfully today.

Josiah McElheny is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work will be included in Le Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse, curated by Jean-Marc Bustamante, this fall. His text here is adapted from a lecture delivered at Dia:Chelsea last November.