PRINT Summer 2004

Specific Objections: Three Exhibitions

I AM NOT SURE DONALD JUDD WOULD HAVE LAUGHED—HIS CLOSE CIRCLE might know better, but he never struck me in deed or word as having much of a sense of humor. Yet John Waters’s poster Visit Marfa, 2003, like all his other satirical endeavors, is pitch-perfect in its irreverent and bittersweet take on what could only have been the sculptor’s worst nightmare: Minimalism as mass tourism and entertainment.

“Take the Whole Family to Marfa, Texas,” exhorts the broadside, beneath a Li’l Abner–style middle-class family, grinning like they’ve just won a vacation to Disney World. A bubble on the poster advertises “The Jonestown of Minimalism,” mocking the tenacious cliché of the movement’s “spirituality” by likening it to a senseless sect. The target is an apt one, considering that the quasi-religious interpretation of Minimalism proposed by New Age zealots such as James Turrell is forever on the rise, despite its staunch rejection by most Minimal artists, Judd foremost among them. The appeal to “Win a Date with John Chamberlain” evokes the old charge of machismo, while “Eat Food All the Same Color” recalls the complaint of dullness. “See Donald Judd’s Bed” farcically skewers the devolution of Minimalism’s aesthetic program of objectivity and impersonality into a fawning cult of personality (ads for Elvis’s Graceland immediately come to mind). On this score, Judd’s own megalomania deserves blame: His incremental buying up of Marfa, as well as vast pieces of Texas—combined with his not-so-tongue-in-cheek wish that his domain might one day secede from the US—has more in common with the lore of banana republics and tax-haven principalities than with the political anarchism he claimed as his inspiration. The spoof is very droll indeed, but the target too easy. Yet “See Judd’s Bed” reads in another, even more damning direction. It refers not simply to the famous figure who slept on said piece of furniture but to the one who made it—implying that Minimalism, with Judd at the helm, has become merely good design. With its busy and vulgar typography, the poster itself is the exact opposite of the supremely elegant streamlining that long characterized Judd’s production, not just in design, but in every medium and genre.

In its unhallowed brazenness Waters’s Visit Marfa calls for a reconsideration of Judd’s enterprise and, by extension, Minimalism as a whole. Its multiple assaults could be addressed, even rebuked one by one. Still, the allusion to Judd’s bed should not be overlooked, particularly in light of the recent “Minimalist-art tour” of Manhattan offered by the Guggenheim’s curators. The list of attractions, recounted in the New York Times, is in no way exhaustive. Happy tourists hopped from a restaurant designed by Richard Meier in TriBeCa to the Flavinesque window display of the Apple Store in SoHo, but they could just as well have glanced at the even more Flavinesque window of the Helmut Lang boutique a block away, and rather than visiting the Jil Sander store uptown, they might have patronized Calvin Klein on Madison Avenue, replete with excellent examples of Judd’s furniture. The question is, in short: Has Minimalism merely turned decor? Have Minimalist sculptors become, as Barnett Newman would have said, just new “Bauhaus screwdriver designers”? The answer is yes, but only in part, and I am not certain that Judd was the foremost agent of this devolution, even if he did design furniture. Flavin’s exhibitionist staging of his wedding in the rotunda of the Guggenheim during his own exhibition there is much more to the point. Indeed, as Lucy Lippard reminds us in her 1968 essay “10 Structurists in 20 Paragraphs,” Flavin himself spoke of Minimalism as a longing for a “common sense of keenly realized decoration.”

Let us say, first, that this scenario is inevitable. Meyer Schapiro long ago remarked on fashion’s co-optation of modern art in the immediate aftermath of the 1913 Armory Show. Since then, the market forces at play—and not simply those of the culture industry—have grown exponentially. Second, being able to design good furniture does not mean that your art becomes mere design. Judd was adamant on this point, establishing a clear distinction between the two practices even if he admitted that both his furniture and his sculptures, particularly when in plywood, had a similar look. (On this score he was perfectly right: Although Mondrian’s art was long thought of as design, no one in his or her right mind would return to this misconception on account of the similarity between his late canvases and the latticed tables and shelves he built in his studio.) Third, it is hardly a tragedy that current design appropriates certain features of Minimalism, even if this appropriation is a complete misprision. I do not mind at all that architects look at Minimal art if this leads them to dispense with their ridiculous froufrous. Fourth, Minimal art is especially hard to install, which is what led Judd to architecture in the first place. For all its ponderous piety, his Marfa fiefdom does offer us a precise document of what he meant by marrying architectural and sculptural space, and it remains stunning. Judd was perfectly correct in thinking that the best way to ensure that his works would forever be seen in a proper setting was to provide it himself.

The difficulty I just mentioned makes the phenomenal success of Nicholas Serota’s installation of the Judd retrospective at Tate Modern all the more surprising. The place is one of the most inimical to art that I know (along with the Guggenheim, but more on that later), with harsh light, pompous proportions, and ridiculously high ceilings in its galleries and oppressive gloom in its common areas. Yet the Judd exhibition not only looked superb, it also uplifted Herzog & de Meuron’s spectacular fiasco to the point that several moronically conspicuous details—such as air vents—suddenly looked well positioned and even interesting. The a contrario proof was furnished by the disastrous installation of the Brancusi exhibition next door, which was dominated by gigantic white saucers serving as bases to the artist’s carefully crafted ones and returned the architecture to its original glibness.

On the whole, the show was beautifully paced and offered a magisterial overview of the diversity of Judd’s art without feeling jammed. Though it was by no means small, given the huge size of some of the pieces, it was highly selective, counting just under forty works. My only regret was that but two small rooms were devoted to the early works, with only two paintings and three low reliefs of that crucial period from 1962 to 1963, during which time Judd switched at top speed from two to three dimensions. Another small grudge: One was prevented from turning around the first fully enclosed volume in the exhibition, since, perhaps being fragile, it was securely perched on a platform. The first work in which Judd glued Plexiglas (purple) on wood (painted light cadmium red), the sculpture is one of very few that call to mind Russian Constructivism, particularly in its use of the diagonal (to which Judd would return some twenty years later) and in its didacticism (evident in the way Judd turned a square box into a two-step staircase of inverted triangles via the simple gesture of a diagonal cut). I would have liked to circumnavigate it in order to make sure that the Russian heritage I seemed to be detecting was a red herring due to the trick of its frontal placement.

Small grudge, I said. From then on, with one exception, everything was arranged to perfection, with particularly fine attention devoted to symmetrical axes and vistas from afar. For example, from the preceding room one could see the opaque ends of the famous stainless-steel and amber Plexiglas Untitled, 1966. But only on approaching it did one encounter the transparent sides, revealing the tensed steel wires that hold the piece together. The same effect occurred with a glorious Untitled topless copper box of 1972. One noticed its inner glow from a distance, yet only after hovering over it was the spectator rewarded with the revelation of the cadmium red enamel, which covered the bottom of the interior. The sense of discovery generated by the installation of these two works perfectly highlighted the tension between Judd’s interest in making manifest his modes of assembly and in evoking, at the same time, a picturesque sense of surprise. One exception to the otherwise impeccable installation was the crowding of four (out of a series of twelve) anodized-aluminum boxes of 1989 into a gallery so small that one could never fully experience them in their totality and bask in the luscious reflections that their variously painted dividers cast on their satiny inner surfaces. The room felt like a thoroughfare, and it is the only space in which I saw no one linger for long.

It would be dishonest for me to say that I learned a lot from the show. Except, that is, for the quite cheerful realization—given what one has come to expect from curators of contemporary art—that one does not have to be Judd to install Judd properly. One simply has to be sensitive to his work. But my appreciation for the artist’s constantly counterintuitive use of materials and colors never ceased to grow, from his red-orange Day-Glo sand paintings and reliefs of 1962 to his stack of open wall boxes that concluded the exhibition. In the plywood units of this last work, the “bottom” of the box facing us on the wall is covered with colored Plexiglas, one of Judd’s favorite materials. Unlike many early works, it did not demonstrate a glassy sheen, nor did its transparency condense light violently at the edges of its thin surface, but instead it subtly modulated the lackluster bluntness of the plywood. I have always been enormously attracted to Judd’s take on materials, for me the quintessence of his poetry, but this aspect of his work was particularly well emphasized by Serota’s choices: There was enough variety in format, size, and shape to make you aware of Judd’s multifariousness, despite his reputation for having a very limited formal vocabulary, yet there was also enough repetition (three signature Stacks, for example) to appreciate his endless play between difference and identity.

Perhaps the two best works included in the catalogue were not in the show, leading one to imagine that their loan was cancelled at the last minute by the Guggenheim Museum, where they were concurrently installed in the hastily assembled (and sophomorically titled) “Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated): Art from 1951 to the Present.” There was little redeeming about this show, which is why, I believe, the two Judds stood out: a six-unit horizontal wall piece made of brass and pink-red Plexiglas, and a vertical ten-unit copper stack, both in mint condition. Their condition was so good, in fact, that, remembering Judd’s diatribe against Panza’s remakes of his work, I wondered for a moment whether they were not simply brand-new. The answer is no, but rather that since being acquired from Panza, they’ve been attended to with utmost zeal by the Guggenheim’s conservator Eleanora E. Nagy, who has become one of the leading authorities on this matter—Judd’s sculpture, especially in polished metal, being just as fragile as Brancusi’s. (Were I in charge of the Judd estate, I would hire away this expert on the spot and dispatch her to advise every public collection with such works in its care.) The other work that stood out in the Guggenheim’s hodgepodge was Robert Irwin’s eerie Soft Wall, 1973, a kind of black Reinhardt in space—except that it’s all white. Although I have seen other works of its kind shown in better conditions elsewhere, you are supposed to experience it as follows: You are plunged into a room suffused with intense light, and it is only slowly that your vision adjusts; you move toward the large wall facing you, and at some vertiginous moment you realize it is actually nothing more than a semitransparent nylon screen partially obscuring the rest of the room behind it.

It is not by chance, perhaps, that the two rare moments of my visit to the Guggenheim that were not plain stupid, enraging, or simply tedious, occurred in some of the larger orthogonal galleries. True, installing any art along the spiral ramp is nearly always a losing proposition, but the space looked even more inane than ever, with paintings preposterously aligned parallel to the sloped floor rather than to the vertical supports that separate the various niches (ergo: you have to cock your head to look at a Brice Marden or a Robert Ryman). As for sculpture’s installation, it’s as if the curators were trying to convey the message that Wright’s architecture is utterly useless and should be given over to skateboarders while another museum is built elsewhere in its place. Alas, I’m afraid, their big boss’s candidate, Frank Gehry, won’t do the trick.

While the Guggenheim’s show was as bad as one could expect from the failing institution, the story is different with LA MOCA’S “A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958–1968,” an ambitious retrospective account of Minimalism, which was prepared with great care. I wish I could be ecstatic, for obviously curator Ann Goldstein devoted great energy to this enterprise. Her effort is clear, especially with regard to the impressive loans and the many surprises she concocted—but only to those happy few who already know pretty much what it’s all about. Regrettably, the show offers not the tiniest bit of scenario. No chronology, no typology, no label explanations whatsoever, resulting in an exasperating feeling of pure randomness for anyone not already in the loop. I should make clear that I am not in favor of endless wall texts, and nothing distresses me more than to observe spectators religiously listening to the banalities of audio guides instead of looking at what’s in front of them. But a minimum of guidance is usually required for museumgoers to feel welcome rather than excluded—especially for a subject as utterly complex, in its apparent simplicity, as Mimimal art. Even if I were to concede that the ideal format of an exhibition conceived as art history without words was possible in this case, which I am not ready to do, one would still need a story to tell in order to have even the remotest chance of succeeding.

The exhibition consists of an enfilade of rooms, each devoted to one or two artists, thrice three, once four. The groupings often make sense—for the cognoscenti, that is—which is even more frustrating. Why not give the visitor some clue? If such-and-such a grouping of artworks is not based on anything visual, as is often the case, how is someone to surmise that its justification resides in some specific yet hidden event or contextual occurrence? The first room of the show is filled with four 1959 black Stellas plus one of 1958 and a sampling of Carl Andre’s work spanning a decade. Fair enough, scrumptious even, especially for anyone who has salivated on imagining the intense discussions the two artists must have had during the brief year, 1959, in which they shared a studio. Indeed, everyone agrees that this marks the birthdate of Minimalism, or at least the planting of its seed. But what of those poor souls not apprised of such specialized knowledge? The next room switches to the West Coast and to John McCracken’s and Craig Kauffman’s surreal Finish Fetish. The Kauffmans are somewhat disappointing, less sexy than they are reputed to be, and a bit vain in their preciosity. Most of the McCrackens, however, are impressive, especially the large Red Slab in Two Parts, 1966, which immediately brought to my mind the ominous slab disturbing the life of our prehistoric ancestors at the beginning of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. There again, the East Coast/West Coast dichotomy would have been an engaging way to begin the narrative (even if James Meyer’s excellent catalogue essay shows this “bicoastalization,” as he calls it, to be somewhat of a stereotype in need of being dialecticized). But then, why not go all the way? Why show Larry Bell and Irwin almost at the other end of the exhibition, next to Anne Truitt, of all people?

I could go on and on: Having Marden’s mesmerizing beeswax paintings and the wonderfully understated canvases of Ralph Humphrey, no doubt a great inspiration to Marden in terms of color, next to the fussy multipart shaped canvases of David Novros and the pseudomathematical flukes of Paul Mogensen is absurd until you discover while combing the catalogue (which is not user-friendly either) that they all exhibited at Bykert Gallery in New York. The juxtaposition of the hideously decorative pastel-painted, canvas-covered beams by Judy Chicago with a series of Robert Smithson’s jejune early geometric objects (in poor physical shape) seems grotesque until you learn that such works were side by side at the famous “Primary Structures” show of 1966. The cohabitation of two rare galvanized-steel works by Chamberlain from 1967 and the well-known 1966 wall piece made by Judd in the same material seems at first a brilliant curatorial decision (one of the rare cases in which a point is made visually), since both works are all about surfaces and both condemn any idealist notion of interiority. Yet one suddenly wonders what Oldenburg’s superkitsch Leopard chair, 1963, is doing in the same room, until, that is, one remembers that works by both Oldenburg and Chamberlain reigned high in Judd’s pantheon of “Specific Objects.”

Another room assembles small yet bombastic sculptures by Douglas Huebler; parodic shaped canvases sprayed à la Olitski by Lawrence Weiner in 1968 (each in a color chosen by a prospective buyer who also determined their notched indentations); and amazing early Michael Ashers, including the slightly convex sheet of pink Plexiglas from 1966 with almost TV-like rounded corners. Its glowing edges mysteriously separate it optically from the wall, leaving it illusionistically suspended in midair. I take it that the jarring quality of these juxtapositions is supposed to carry the curator’s message, but no one will get that putative point unless one is told what those three artists have in common: Very soon after making the works in this room, they would sever their youthful ties with Minimalism and propose some of the most radical and effective critiques of the movement to become pioneers of Conceptual art, especially of the brand now called Institutional Critique. Many more missed opportunities such as these abound in the exhibition. Indeed, I would not insist on them at length, if the show’s flaws were due to mere carelessness or ignorance, as is the case for the Guggenheim medley. But it is doubly saddening here that the curator obviously knows her stuff. She just failed to find a way to get this knowledge across, and as a result, the fruit of her immense historical research is all but lost.

Here I could also mention a few quibbles with the installation, such as crowding a huge room of Rymans and Mangolds with an enormous LeWitt and acknowledging Robert Grosvenor’s vastly underrated suspended works of the mid-’60s with just a few skimpy photographs and a small drawing (why bother?). However, the installation is neither breathtakingly beautiful nor lamentably inept, and as such it does not deserve much comment. My real concern with the show, as should by now be clear, is of a conceptual order: All the necessary material is in stock for a great exhibition, but because Goldstein refused to offer a point of view on it—other than making sure that nobody was forgotten and that each artist got his or her niche—she failed to do the job she had so courageously undertaken and for which she had so superbly prepared.

Goldstein does attempt to offer a rationale in her catalogue essay, which begins with an excerpt of the 1967 article by John Perreault that lends its title to her show. In that text, Perreault asserts that Minimal art is a fad that will pass, “and just as most of the second-rate Pop artists have fallen by the wayside and the really good Pop artists continue to expand and develop their unique sensibilities, so too will all the minor Minimal artists, producing a boring glut of unimaginative, superficial variations on a worn out theme, sink to their just reward, leaving perhaps three or four major artists for the history books and for the younger artists to oppose, contradict, love and hate.” Goldstein states that her exhibition “resists the limited trajectory for Minimalism that was suggested by Perreault.” Fine, you think, this is going to be a revisionist account, rehabilitating the little guys (and girls) and revealing the many strategic manipulations that historically resulted in the canonization of a few big shots. This kind of argument rarely works, as Los Angelenos should well know for having long ago been submitted to a similar treatment of Cubism in Douglas Cooper’s “The Cubist Epoch” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (clearly, the reputations of Gleizes, Metzinger, Le Fauconnier, and La Fresnaye did not benefit substantially from it). But why not give it a try? The show contains all the elements to offer a revisionist story in its greatest detail. For that, however, it would have had to rely on chronology as its organizing principle. Tedious, perhaps, but remarkably efficient and just as easy, when coming after James Meyer’s formidable research in Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (2001). And if the show were to have been a historical, retrospective reckoning, its catalogue should have contained a year-by-year, month-by-month, illustrated account of group and individual shows, critical reviews, and artist’s manifestos, rather than a simple list of exhibitions and an exacting—even masterful—bibliography that will be useful only to graduate students fishing for dissertation topics. (A model for the former genre still remains the Whitney’s catalogue of its 1990 exhibition “The New Sculpture 1965–1975: Between Geometry and Gesture,” a no-brainer to be sure—as one needs not be a genius to compose such an anthology—but by far the best textbook on this period of American art.)

Yet a chronological scenario is not the only possibility. Issues could have provided the guiding principles just as well. Here again Goldstein had secured all the material she would have needed to explore, say, the relation of Minimal to Conceptual art (a topic excellently covered by Anne Rorimer in the catalogue); or the vexing problem of gestalt, which the artists addressed in very conflicting ways, some, such as Morris, even changing their minds in midcourse (first gestalt was in, then it became the thing to kill); or the even more complex problem of anthropomorphism. Most Minimalists disagreed with Michael Fried’s charge that a rampant anthropomorphism characterized their work—but what to make of McCracken’s planks leaning against the wall, for example? Would it not have been useful to think about a typology of Minimalist productions with regard to their adherence to or rejection of this age-old measure of sculptural presence? The relation between painting and sculpture, the use of the grid or industrial material, anti-expressionism and its opposite, the attitude regarding mass culture or the market, the lure of dematerialization, etc. Each of these topics could have been the focus of a mini-section of the exhibition, and the viewer would at least have had some help in sorting out its riches. Instead, one witnessed an almost complete refusal to take a stand, a curatorial withdrawal never clearer than when dealing with works that were specifically conceived as attacks on the Minimalist agenda, however vague and full of contradictions it might have been. Because Hans Haacke’s process works, such as his Condensation Cube, 1963–65, Blue Sail, 1964/65, and Ice Stick, 1966, are located in the middle of the show, it is impossible for anyone to perceive that they represented a major rebuttal of the Minimalists’ dream of an autonomous object, and the same is true for Bruce Nauman’s comic Platform Made Up of the Space Between Two Rectilinear Boxes on the Floor, 1966, or Richard Serra’s Prop pieces.

I’m tired of playing the Cassandra and want to end with a note of humor. For when taking leave of Minimalism, those artists who went on to spearhead Conceptual art knew that laughter always provides the best exit. That said, we didn’t have to wait for Waters to make us chortle: Witness Mel Bochner’s hilarious cast list Minimal Art—The Movie, a 1966 drawing, which figured at MOCA among the artist’s bibelotesque models, humorous themselves in their dinginess and kindergarten math. Sean Connery as Judd? Kirk Douglas as Andre? Fred Astaire as Morris? Frank Sinatra as Leo Castelli? Far from absurd, if you give it some thought. All that’s lacking is a script to set the actors in motion, and that’s precisely what I missed all along.

Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University and a contributing editor of Artforum.