PRINT May/June 2020


View of “Judd,” 2020, Museum of Modern Art, New York. From left: untitled, 1963/1975; untitled, 1963; untitled, 1963; untitled, 1963; untitled, 1962. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

SEVERAL DECADES ON, the art of Donald Judd is still stunning. In the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that opened March 1, smartly curated by Ann Temkin, Yasmil Raymond, Tamar Margalit, and Erica Cooke, all the work looks fresh (kudos to the conservators), but the early paintings and objects are especially vivid. The intensity of the cadmium red, often made tactile by roughened surfaces of board and wood. The physicality of the specific shapes, such as a yellow oval affixed to the support or a tin pan embedded there. The first tentative move into actual space with a painting whose aluminum top and bottom curl outward toward us. And then the initial objects, cut in sharp geometries, set boldly on the floor without pedestal or plinth.

Also very impressive, the second gallery presents several pieces Judd exhibited in his first solo museum show in 1968 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. At this point, he had already begun to repeat elements, as in his “stacks,” which consist of identical shelves set on a wall at regular intervals from floor to ceiling, as well as in his “channels,” which are comprised of rectangular frames spaced on the floor so as to describe a perfect square. Represented here, too, are other familiar series, such as his “progressions,” which are made of box and bullnose units sized and arranged along horizontal bars according to mathematical orders like the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.). The second gallery marks a shift in production from the homemade work of the early 1960s, when his father, a skilled carpenter, assisted Judd, to the pieces fabricated later in the decade in iron, stainless steel, brass, aluminum, and Plexiglas by sheet-metal specialists. Some of these objects have a fragile finish that in the ’70s Judd offset with pieces in unpainted plywood, which recovered the crafted hardiness of the early work and allowed him to go larger than he had heretofore.

Donald Judd, untitled, 1966, turquoise enamel on aluminum, ten parts, each 48 × 120 × 6 5⁄8". Photo: Sheldan C. Collins. © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Along with a few other templates, Judd turned these series into a basic language that he deployed in different materials, colors, and sizes for the next two decades of his life, excellent instances of which are displayed in the third gallery. The fourth gallery of the exhibition is dominated by pieces that represent a final twist in his practice. In 1984, Judd began to collaborate with a Swiss fabricator that helped him assemble long blocks of color units in enameled aluminum. This is Judd at his most pictorial (the blocks are often set on the wall); the random combinations of colors might call up the grids of Ellsworth Kelly or even the charts of Gerhard Richter. This is also Judd at his most free; the work has little of the asperity usually associated with “late style,” but then Judd died prematurely, felled by cancer in 1994 at the age of sixty-five.

With Judd it is impossible to separate the artist from the critic, and some of his words remain as forceful as most of his objects. “Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture,” he stated in the famous first lines of “Specific Objects” (1965). “Much of the motivation in the new work is to get clear of these forms. The use of three dimensions is an obvious alternative.” Although Judd appeared to dismiss painting in toto—“The main thing wrong” with it, he remarked in his usual deadpan, “is that it is a rectangular plane faced flat against the wall”—it was Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ad Reinhardt who prompted his shift into three dimensions. Along with a commitment to large scale, unmodulated color, and emphatic materiality, their painting mandated a “sense of singleness” for Judd, who felt that this “wholeness” had “a better future” outside that medium.1

Donald Judd, untitled, 1964, cadmium red light enamel on galvanized iron, 15 1⁄2 × 93 × 78". © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Judd didn’t eliminate composition so much as he displaced it from the interior of the work to the exterior, where it became a matter of “symmetry” and “proportion” along a wall or on a floor. This was a radical move artistically but less so aesthetically, for first and last Judd held “that ultimately one essential of art is unity,” a traditional criterion indeed. Hence, unlike many of his peers, he had little interest in chance or any other device of the Duchampian avant-garde. Still, his shift—from an arrangement of parts within a painting or a sculpture to the wholeness of an object in actual space—was misread by early critics, and Judd responded fiercely. “I object to several popular ideas,” he wrote already in 1966. “I don’t think anyone’s work is ‘reductive’.” Far less was Minimalism—a label Judd also abjured—an attack on art: “‘Non-art,’ ‘anti-art,’ ‘non-art art,’ ‘anti-art art’ are useless. If someone says his art is art, it’s art.”

For all his resistance to “anti-art,” Judd articulated most of his motives in the negative. Above all, he was opposed to “illusionism” and “rationalism,” which, in his view, were closely linked. “Three dimensions are real space,” he wrote in “Specific Objects.” “That gets rid of the problem of illusionism.” Why did Judd object to this “relic of European art” so strongly? Again, his argument was not avant-gardist—that abstraction had voided illusionism once and for all (it hadn’t, in any case). Rather, the problem was that illusionism was “anthropomorphic,” by which he meant not simply that it allowed for the representation of the human body, but that it assumed an a priori consciousness, whereby the subject always preceded the object. In short, like composition, illusionism was “rationalistic,” a vestige of an outmoded idealism in need of expunging. “There is little of any of this in the new three-dimensional work,” Judd insisted. “The order is not rationalistic. . . . [It] is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another.”2

View of “Judd,” 2020, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Background, from left: untitled, 1973; untitled, 1973; untitled, 1977. Foreground: untitled, 1976–77. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Of course, Judd also put forward positive values, especially the related ones of “specificity” and “objectivity,” but largely to counter the negative ones. “Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglass, red and common brass, and so forth,” he stated, in his laconic way, about several of his preferred substances. “They are specific. If they are used directly they are more specific.” Here “specific” means physically emphatic: His explicit materials and straightforward presentations were intended to make us focus on the intrinsic qualities of the former and on our reflexive perception of the latter. At the same time, at least for Judd, these substances were unburdened by associations, artistic or otherwise, and this lent them even more objectivity. In his view, this specificity and that objectivity supported the autonomy of the artwork, which he honored most of all.

These values are mostly materialist, but what kind of materialism, exactly? In an incisive critique from 1975, Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn, two members of the Art & Language camp of Conceptual art, called it “middle-class” materialism, one that put too much faith in “the supposed ‘objectivity’ of science.”3 “I leapt into the world an empiricist,” Judd stated proudly, and his posture was indeed empiricist, according to which all knowledge is derived from sense experience, if not positivist, according to which all knowledge must be scientifically verified as well. (For a point of comparison, Frank Stella was positivist when he said of his painting of the early to mid-’60s, “What you see is what you see.”4) Judd moderated his empiricism a little through a reading of pragmatists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, and there is also a trace of the transcendentalists in his writings, especially when he struck his recurrent note of Emersonian self-reliance.

Judd was limited philosophically, and I imagine he liked it that way: He thought what he thought, and defiantly so.

Although Judd was art-historically trained—he did an MA under Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University—he was limited philosophically, and I imagine he liked it that way: He thought what he thought, and defiantly so. Judd believed, correctly, that, apart from other vices, “European rationalism” was too dependent on problematic binaries, not only of subject and object and mind and body, but also of thought and feeling, spirit and matter, and form and content, with the privilege granted to the first term in each pair. Yet, for the most part, he couldn’t think his way through these oppositions: He didn’t have enough Marx to dialecticize them (Judd mentioned Marx only twice in his texts), nor did he later possess any Derrida to deconstruct them. Arguably, his very insistence on the object removed it from the subject all the more. Clearly Beveridge and Burn thought so: They read the vaunted objectivity of his specific objects as so much “alienability,” equally divided between artwork and viewer. (This is what other viewers have long registered as the “coldness” or “impersonality” of Minimalism.5)

Donald Judd, untitled, 1989, clear anodized aluminum, amber acrylic sheet, 39 3⁄8 × 78 3⁄4 × 78 3⁄4". © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Judd didn’t oppose the specific to the general; he believed in “generalities,” that of art above all (again, “if someone says his art is art, it’s art”). If the specific object lies beyond the discrete mediums of painting and sculpture, that realm is the realm of art in general, Art with a capital A, which was also the conclusion drawn by his Conceptual followers, of whom Judd mostly disapproved.6 Prominent critics such as Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried saw the situation quite differently. Far from autonomous art, the specific object was too close to a mere thing (like “a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper,” Greenberg mocked), too caught up in mundane time (Fried famously termed Minimalist objecthood so much “theater” and opposed it to “art” in no uncertain terms).7 Yet Judd insisted on the autonomy of art every bit as much as Greenberg and Fried did, even if, as Beveridge and Burn alleged, his version initially required the art-institutional context of the gallery or the museum for it to be recognized as such. There is a further connection to his two great antagonists: Like Greenberg and Fried, Judd conformed to a conceptual framework that, far from being alien to “European rationalism,” might well be essential to it. In The Order of Things (1966), written in the same years that Minimalism was developed, Michel Foucault argued that modern man is “a strange empirico-transcendental doublet,” by which he meant that, however opposed they might appear, the epistemological orientations of empiricism and transcendentalism are actually bound up with each other.8 Greenberg and Fried put forward such a doublet—medium-specificity on the one hand, autonomous art on the other—and so did Judd with his empiricist attention to the object and his transcendental commitment to art in general.

Donald Judd, untitled (detail), 1976, galvanized iron, 10 × 72 × 26". © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

To be sure, Judd helped to open up new possibilities for postwar art. “The main thing for anyone now,” he remarked in 1966 in the full flush of this expansion, “is to invent their own means.” Yet, again, he ruled out some devices from the start, such as chance operations à la John Cage, and shied away from others, such as the found image or object. “I’ve lived in the shade of a coat hanger and a bed spread,” Judd lamented in 1981 in a light swipe at Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Certainly, after his initial move into three dimensions, Judd did produce brilliant variations, but he held fast to his basic theme. “I want a particular, definite object,” he remarked in a 1969 text on Dan Flavin. “I think Flavin wants, at least first or primarily, a particular phenomenon.” One can distinguish Judd from his other peers in this differential way as well. Whereas Carl Andre insisted on given material units, and Robert Morris opted for direct bodily engagement, and Richard Serra ventured into emphatic spatial intervention, Judd stuck with his discrete specific object. By and large, he supported, even prepared, these other moves, but he didn’t join them, not fully.

Robert Morris with Wheels, 1963. © The Estate of Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

This point seems clear enough now—the MoMA show helps in this respect—but it wasn’t always evident to artists and critics (myself included). For all the visual power of the Judd oeuvre—and often it has a haptic force, too—it doesn’t often engage us deeply in a phenomenological way. That it was thought to do so was partly a projection onto his work from the practices of Morris and Serra, who were actually interested in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. (Although Phenomenology of Perception was translated into English in 1962, Judd didn’t mention Merleau-Ponty in his writings.) An involvement in phenomenology might have also led Judd to probe process and space more amply than he did; clearly, it nudged Morris and Serra in those directions.9 Judd was interested in the effects of fabrication more than the discoveries of process, in the drama of installation more than the articulation of space. In fact, with all its reflections, transparencies, and color interactions, the viewer can get caught up in the mesmeric surfaces and volumes of his work in a way that disembodies and dematerializes more than the opposite. “Little was done until lately with the wide range of industrial products,” Judd stated in “Specific Objects.” “Almost nothing has been done with industrial techniques.” He did a lot with the products, of course, but not so much with the techniques—a point that Serra has recently underscored with a distinction drawn between the “shiny Minimalism” of Judd and Flavin, centered on objects and phenomena, and the “down and dirty Minimalism” of his own cohort (among whom he names Robert Smithson, Bruce Nauman, and Eva Hesse), focused on processes and materials.10

For all the visual power of the Judd oeuvre—and it has a haptic force, too—it doesn’t often engage us deeply in a phenomenological way.

Is this a fair assessment of Judd, though, when it comes to space? Although his move into three dimensions was hardly the first, it did alter the relationship of art to architecture significantly: No one could see it any longer as a simple matter of rectangles on walls or things in galleries. More precisely, his Minimalism altered “the geometry of viewing” in art and made us newly alert to the nuances of installation.11 For some critics, however, this awareness had a downside; Beveridge and Burn complained that Judd “programmed” his viewers and “choreographed” his objects too much.12 At the same time, although many pieces are nicely site-adjusted—including the stacks, the plywood pieces that extend across an entire wall, and multiple works in Marfa, Texas—not many are truly site-specific, at least in the rigorous sense given the term by Serra (“to move the work is to destroy it”). In this respect, Judd was also limited in his outdoor pieces, whose concrete geometries often seem more imposed on the landscape than fitted there.

Donald Judd, untitled, 1986, Douglas fir plywood, orange Plexiglas, six parts, each 39 3⁄8 × 39 3⁄8 × 29 1⁄2". © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

I don’t mean to be overly critical. Again, Judd set up crucial investigations of the ’60s and ’70s, and he shouldn’t be judged according to subsequent criteria in any case. Nevertheless, one wonders why he didn’t take his own radical move further. I have floated a few possible reasons; another concerns his historical resources. In a 1981 text titled “Russian Art in Relation to Myself,” Judd stated simply, “I essentially missed the Russian work,” by which he meant Constructivism above all. “I would like to have known of that interest in the early 1960s,” he added, with “the culture of materials” of Vladimir Tatlin in mind. Given his art-historical knowledge, did this work really escape his notice? Contemporaries such as Sol LeWitt, Andre, Stella, Flavin, and Serra were all aware of the basics of Constructivism, mostly through the 1962 book The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863–1922, by Camilla Gray. (Judd claimed that he was also “late” to De Stijl, though given his primary colors, clean geometries, and scalar experiments, that too seems a little dubious.) In any case, Constructivism could have assisted Judd in his principal battles: Its insistence on construction would have supported his critique of composition, and its understanding of materialism would have deepened his critique of idealism (it might have also complicated his empiricism). The Constructivist principles of faktura, tectonics, and construction were dedicated to a Marxist undoing of bourgeois art forms; the aim was to defetishize the work of art via a new transparency of materials and production. Arguably, Judd often did much the opposite, fetishizing facture as techy surface and outsourcing construction as fabrication. Obviously, there was no sociopolitical context for any thorough recovery of Constructivism, but that didn’t stop Andre, Serra, and others from a partial recuperation of its artistic principles.13

Perhaps the primary reason Judd held fast is that he rejected anything that looked like compromise, and, to him, a lot did: In his writings he often railed against wayward artists, obtuse critics, nefarious collectors, bureaucratic museums, untrustworthy foundations, and devious governments. His partial withdrawal to Marfa in the early ’70s was also a defiant stand against any encroachment on his autonomy; it is where his liberal belief in self-reliance edged into a Texan brand of libertarianism (“Don’t tread on me”). Yet, paradoxically, standing his ground also opened him up to some slippages, most of which weren’t his fault. For instance, if Judd didn’t oppose the specific to the general, he did pit it against the generic, and what is more generic than the commodities that suffuse our everyday world? However, when repeated, as Judd did repeat his boxes, stacks, and other elements, the specific object became less specific and more serial—one thing after another, indeed. In structural terms, then, the specific object began to approximate the commodity, and too often it is as “shiny” as any (other) product, which is far less the case with the “down and dirty” version of Minimalism. In this respect, too, Judd came to share a serial logic with his enemy twin, Andy Warhol (Judd disdained Pop). The difference is that Warhol owned that condition: Rather than deny it only to reproduce it, as Judd sometimes did, Warhol often exacerbated and so exposed it.

Judd rejected anything that looked like compromise, and, to him, a lot did.

Similarly, even though Judd insisted on the autonomy of art, he also designed furniture and architecture. That was his prerogative, to be sure, and he kept these ventures separate—and they remain so in the MoMA retrospective, where only a few benches, settees, and tables appear, and these outside the exhibition proper. But, intentionally or not, this activity blurred the line between the specific object and the utilitarian thing, the very line that Greenberg condemned Minimalism for crossing. In what ways did Judd prepare the repurposing of Minimalism by commercial design, both high and low, from Design Within Reach to IKEA? Are his detractors wrong to compare his late blocks of aluminum colors to giant Rubik’s Cubes? Whereas Minimalism once meant materially emphatic, formally rigorous, and perceptually precise, it now signifies differently: To some people it means sleek, expensive elegance, to others moral uplift via Kondo space management. This not-so-secret sharing between Minimalism and design is hardly all on Judd—it is a matter less of production than of reception—and yet, just as Leo Steinberg once pointed to a connection between Color Field painting and Detroit automobile styling, it must be mooted nonetheless.14 Other possible crossings are no less problematic. For example, if Minimalism initiated a new geometry of viewing for art installation, it might also have paved the way for galleries and museums to entertain the immersive spectacles favored by the culture industry at large.

View of “Judd,” 2020, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar. © Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Finally, there is this turn, for which Judd is responsible. In “Specific Objects,” he declared matter-of-factly, “A work needs only to be interesting.” Here, consciously or not, he posed the open criterion of “interest” against the Greenbergian shibboleth of “quality”: Whereas quality was judged by reference to the standards of both the old masters and the great moderns, interest was prompted by the testing of aesthetic categories and the transgressing of traditional mediums. In 1984, two decades after Judd made that famous declaration, in a two-part essay with the unironic title “A Long Discussion Not About Master-pieces but Why There Are So Few of Them,” he stated the opposite: “Quality . . . is nearly the definition of art.” Why did he take it back? Given that Judd had ascended to great-modern status by then, did he simply want to defend old-master quality as the ultimate criterion? Or had he secretly held out for it all along? For those of us who even as we admired Judd were also quickened by feminist critique of the male genius in the early ’80s, this was a real letdown. What happened to his caustic skepticism of traditional categories of art?

On the one hand, what Judd initiated is well-nigh epochal. “It’s not so far from the time of easel painting,” he commented in 1982; it’s “still the time of the museum, and the development of the new work is only in the middle of the beginning.” Certainly, for my generation he was a key reference, not unlike Pollock for his own generation; in 1987, I went so far as to declare his Minimalism “the crux” of postwar art.15 On the other hand, how salient is his work for artists and critics today? “The past never stays the same since it is always seen from a new time and place,” Judd also wrote in 1987. “The experience, the work, that once could not be seen from outside, is eventually, often sadly, given an outside.” Has that outside come to his work as well? However fresh it might still look, has it reached that Hegelian status, at once grand and melancholy, of “a thing of the past”? 

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton University. His book What Comes After Farce? Art and Criticism at a Time of Debacle is published this month by Verso.



1. This and all other Judd quotations are from Donald Judd Writings, ed. Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray (New York: Judd Foundation/David Zwirner Books, 2016). 

2. Judd also advanced this notion in a 1966 conversation with Frank Stella: “The qualities of European art so far . . . they’re linked up with a philosophy—rationalism. . . . All that art is based on systems built beforehand, a priori systems; they express a certain type of thinking and logic that is pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world’s like.” See Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968), 151. Incidentally, Judd was resistant to conventional composition in his writing, too: His prose often has a paratactic (non)quality, somewhat akin to that of Gertrude Stein, with statements that are at once specific and serial, one sentence after another.

3. Karl Beveridge and Ian Burn, “Don Judd,” The Fox, no. 2 (1975): 131.

4. Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” 158.

5. Beveridge and Burn, “Don Judd,” 132. Judd wasn’t immune to this sense of “alienability.” In fact, in one unpublished note dated January 3, 1976, it turned into a vision of nothingness: “For a long time I’ve considered time to be nothing. Any time that you think of is only the relation or sequence of events, how long a person lives, human biology, or how many times the earth goes around the sun. There is no other time than this. If you remove all of the events there is nothing. Space, also, is nothing. There are things in it, variously related. If you remove these and the means of measurement between them, their phenomena, most importantly light-years, there is nothing.” For an argument about how the phenomenological plenitude of Minimalist installations can flip into the opposite—a voiding of the viewer—see Robert Slifkin, The New Monuments and the End of Man: U.S. Sculpture Between War and Peace, 1947–1975 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019).

6. This is an argument that Thierry de Duve has often reiterated.

7. Clement Greenberg, “Recentness of Sculpture” (1967), in Battcock, Minimal Art, 183; Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), in Battcock, Minimal Art, 116–47.

8. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1970), 318. Foucault was concerned with Comtean positivism and Marxist eschatology in particular, but his point is far more capacious. 

9. Also, unlike Morris and Serra, Judd didn’t appear much impacted, at least in his art, by dance, even of the Judson Church sort, despite the fact that he was married to choreographer and dancer Julie Finch from 1964 to 1976.

10. See Richard Serra and Hal Foster, Conversations About Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 19–38.

11. I owe this point to Charles Ray.

12. Beveridge and Burn, “Don Judd,” 132. Not all Judd shows were so calculated, and though the MoMA exhibition provides informed juxtapositions and powerful sight lines, it also lets us engage individual pieces on their own, which Judd would have appreciated.

13. The more salient precursor is Josef Albers, whom Judd did acknowledge. The two shared an interest in the ambiguity of appearances, the interaction of colors, and the variations that can be wrung from a series. Like Albers, too, Judd delved into illusionism far more than his official literalism might suggest. On this point, see my The Art-Architecture Complex (New York: Verso, 2011), 182–214.

14. See Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 79.

15. See Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism,” in Return of the Real: Art and Theory at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 35–70.