PRINT Summer 2005


Mel Bochner on Donald Judd

WHY DONALD JUDD’S WRITINGS? Why now? The recent republication of his Complete Writings 1959–1975 begs these questions. After all, there is a seriousness to Judd’s criticism that, in the money-fueled art world of today, can make it feel vaguely quaint. Divorced from the historical context of the mid-’60s, Judd’s involvement in the debates surrounding “specific objects” or “theatricality” might seem like the vestige of some long-forgotten family feud.

However, when one looks around, it becomes immediately evident that the legacy of that quarrelsome period threads its way through much of what is going on today, if only as an attempt to secure historical legitimacy. If something is simple or geometric, it is immediately termed “Minimalist.” If it has little or no physical presence, it is dubbed “Conceptual.” If it contains some reference to the counterculture, it is tagged “political.” Oddly enough, at a time that witnesses an almost blind fetishism of the art of the late ’60s and early ’70s, there seems to be a general agreement that little remains worth arguing about. The trough is big enough for all the hogs.

But even if the increase in the number of artists and opportunities makes it seem like that there is plenty to go around, something still seems to be missing. One can hear it in all the verbal hand-wringing about the state of contemporary art. Is it only nostalgia for the “good old days,” or does so much that is being done now lack either passion or purpose? The old guys (and I guess that means me, too) may have been cranky, but at least we went at it tooth and nail, as if our lives depended on it. Something real was at stake. Recently it was asked in these pages why there was such a proliferation of artists’ writings in the ’60s. (1) My answer would be that such writing was driven by the desire to secure a place in a public conversation that was new and unprecedented in American art. The conversation I am referring to was, to a certain degree, initiated by Judd’s writings.

Donald Judd in his Spring Street studio, New York, ca. 1970. Photo: Paul Katz.

Art writing in the ’50s and early ’60s was uniformly bad (and bland) with the exception of the criticism of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Whatever your feelings about the dogmatism of the first or the bluster of the second, there was nothing going on that could be called a conversation. Greenberg himself indicated as much in 1962, in his aptly titled “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name”: “Contemporary art criticism is absurd not only because of its rhetoric, its language, and its solecisms of logic. It is also absurd because of its repetitiousness. . . . Things that would get expelled from other kinds of writing by laughter multiply and flourish in art writing.”

A good many of the reviewers of that time came from literary backgrounds, usually the New York School of poetry, which showed up in their exaggerated claims and overripe metaphors. In art school in the late ’50s, we played a game, reading reviews aloud from the latest issue of Art News and trying to guess who the subject was. I can still remember one: “X dumps live chunks of landscape steaming hot into the gallery.” (Give up? Helen Frankenthaler.) What changed this situation? Artists started writing. (I’ll leave it to someone else to answer the question “What changed it back?”) Why let the critics speak for you when you are perfectly capable of speaking for yourself?

Judd began writing reviews in the late ’50s, but he came from a completely different background. He was a painter who had studied art history and philosophy at Columbia University, and his writing had an awkwardly learned edge. “I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise,” he later said. I don’t believe him. Sure, he had to make a living, but there were a lot of easier and more lucrative part-time jobs. (When I started writing reviews for Arts Magazine in 1965, not long after Judd quit, the going rate was $2.50 per review, which was poor pay even then). I think Judd wrote in order to get out of his studio and into the trenches. Unlike Allan Kaprow or Ad Reinhardt, artists whose sporadic writings were also influential, Judd published monthly reviews for over six years. In that sense he was closer to Truffaut and Godard, who regularly reviewed films in Cahiers du Cinéma in order to create the taste required to appreciate their own as-yet-unmade work.

In the catalogue Donald Judd: Early Work 1955–1968, we can see how long and tortuous his artistic development was. He spent years working his way through the tropes of late-academic modernism. All told, it’s hard to say whether Judd gave up on painting or painting gave up on him. There is a clear trajectory in his work that follows the development of Abstract Expressionism, from its “painterly” through its “post-painterly” phases, then slowly cools down under the combined influences of Barnett Newman, Frank Stella, and Yves Klein. As a working artist facing the challenge of present-tense conditions, Judd was uniquely able to judge how others were dealing with similar problems and sources. What made his reviews exciting to read was that he wrote with the immediacy of a war correspondent. By sending home dispatches from the front lines of contemporary art, he became that most valuable of literary companions: someone worth arguing with.

The first piece of Judd’s to really register with me was a 1963 article on a Guggenheim Museum exhibition titled “Kandinsky in His Citadel.” Judd’s approach was straightforward, descriptive, and rigorous. In contrast to the overheated bombast that then passed for criticism, he wrote in a deceptively casual tone, almost as if he were able to transcribe the conversation going on inside his head. A large part of his uniqueness lay in his voice, in its calm, cool, laconic tone, which came across as totally convinced of the obviousness of his judgments—judgments that were by no means commonly held:

The importance and handselness of Kandinsky’s ideas are clear. These, however, are not the only major changes responsible for the progressive destruction of the old European tradition and the creation of something new. That change has passed beyond all of the elements in Kandinsky’s work, which is probably no longer directly useful to the best contemporary art.

From then on I made a point of reading his reviews. In retrospect, I realize that what one discovered in them was the mind of an artist trying to find his bearings in the dramatic epistemological shifts from Eisenhower and Abstract Expressionism to Kennedy and Pop art. But what was also so compelling was his style: his convoluted syntax, quirky vocabulary, and bare-knuckled prose, plus a grumpy dismissiveness that could verge on contempt: “French New Realism is mainly Arman. The category is just to support him and God knows he needs it.” His positive judgments could be equally terse and begrudging: “Noland is one of the best but not the best.” But when he believed in something you knew it: “Bontecou makes her work so strong and material that it can only assert itself. . . . The work has a primitive, oppressive and unmitigated individuality. It is credible and awesome.”

Judd brought a philosophically inflected approach to his reviewing, as in this remark on John Chamberlain:

Freedom and indeterminacy are antecedent to and larger than order. . . . The order is not one of control or distillation, but of continual choices, often between accidents. An activity proliferates its own distinctions; an order forms within these. The disparity between reality and its order is the most radical and important aspect of Chamberlain’s sculpture.

The wider sociological context of art entered in his prescient 1964 review of Roy Lichtenstein. Anticipating the Conceptualist critique of the late ’60s, he embarked on a riff about the sterile undercurrents of American popular culture:

Lots of people hang up pictures of sunsets, the sea, noble buildings and other supposedly admirable subjects. . . . They are pleasant, bland, and empty. A lot of visible things are like this: most modern commercial buildings . . . plastic with leather texture, the formica like wood, the cute and modern patterns inside jets and drugstores. . . . The stuff just exists, not objectionably to many people, slightly agreeably to many. Basically, again, no one has thought about it. It’s in limbo. Much political opinion is like this, much religion, much art . . . most opinion in fact, musicals, ice shows, graduation ceremonies.

Judd produced the most important body of art criticism of the ’60s. His writing focused the issues in much the way Greenberg’s had in the ’50s. Although he did not like to admit it, Judd shared many values with Greenberg. (Late in life Judd wrote: “The belief in what you are doing is in the form. If the form isn’t developed the artist’s interest is elsewhere, probably in the art and museum business, or more likely isn’t an interest in anything.”) However, Judd, unlike Greenberg, did not approach art from a fixed theoretical position. His likes and dislikes were too offbeat and unpredictable. Even his so-called manifesto, “Specific Objects,” illustrated such radically unrelated artists as Jasper Johns, H. C. Westermann, Robert Watts, Dan Flavin, Phillip King, Yayoi Kusama, Claes Oldenburg, Lucas Samaras, Frank Stella, and George Ortman. Hardly a stylistically or theoretically coherent group. As Judd put it elsewhere, “Neatness is not a good reason for doing anything.”

Judd opened up art writing, showing that it didn’t deserve its bad name as a literary form and that it could establish the grounds for a public discourse among artists. His contemporaries like Flavin, Robert Morris, and Sol LeWitt, as well as younger artists like Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, and me, all joined the published conversation. If our responses quickly departed from traditional art criticism (Graham’s “Homes for America,” Smithson’s “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” and my own “The Beach Boys – ‘100%’”), they were, initially, engaged in that discourse. The inmates had realized that if they couldn’t quite take over the asylum, they could at least talk to each other through the bars. Hijacking the critical discourse proved extremely subversive, redefining all the issues (goodbye “flatness,” goodbye “framing edge”) and eventually leading to a sea change in the nature of art.

In “The Domain of the Great Bear,” coauthored with Smithson and published in Art Voices in 1966, I wrote this parody of Judd’s “enumerative” style, as both an homage to and a rebellion against his influence:

Along [the Viking rocket’s] fifty-foot length are inset twenty plastic windows. Ten of these are clear and transparent. Four are green. Three are red. Two are blue. The remaining one is of an indeterminate cast. The body of the rocket was at one time white. It has become overcast, marred in spots, gray, somehow decadent. The nose cone appears to be of another material or else the same material unpainted.

For my generation, Judd posed the same problem as Picasso did for the Abstract Expressionists; you either had to go over, under, around, or through him. Conceptual, process, and Earth art, each in their own way, constituted a rejection of the “specific object.”

The importance of Judd’s sculpture is clear, but can his writings still be useful to a new generation of artists? I believe the answer is yes, but only if their republication provokes younger artists to initiate the kind of vigorous public conversation that is so conspicuously missing from the art world today.

Mel Bochner is a New York–based artist.


1. Jeffrey Weiss, “Language in the Vicinity of Art: Artists' Writings, 1960–1975,” Artforum, Summer 2004, 212–217.


Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959–1975: Gallery Reviews, Book Reviews, Articles, Letters to the Editor, Reports, Statements, Complaints, (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), 229 pages.