New York

Donald Judd

Heiner Friedrich Gallery

An oft-quoted tenet of Minimalism reads: “Characteristic of a gestalt is that once it is established, all the information about it, qua gestalt, is exhausted.” I thought crudely, and not entirely facetiously, that one could read, for “gestalt,” a “Minimalist sculptor like Donald Judd,” so nearly is the box an unequivocal sign of Judd sculpture and, metonymically, of Judd himself. What new can be said?

The new show is new; the work, though not unfamiliar, is defamiliarized. Seventeen oblong boxes, mostly open to us, are set evenly along the wall, just below eye-level. The box is a format, within which each interior (of more or less complex plywood planes) is unique. Thus a tension obtains: to and away from a norm, wholeness, series or a logic of form. Neither given as a priori nor narrated in process, neither subsumed by a concept nor experienced first and last as an object, the sculpture is impervious to the usual critical probes.

As the box is a constant, it is like an armature, analogous to a canvas support, within which the interior planes are like lines. Thus the problematics of the interrelation of external and internal design, debated by Stella and others in painting ten years ago, seem operative here. One is not sure whether to read the boxes from the inside to the outside or vice versa. Either way, one does read a content, distinct from the box form. This is important as it sets the work apart from Minimalist sculpture, in which, as Rosalind Krauss wrote of a Robert Morris piece, “the specific configuration of the the work is not allowed to become a figure seen against the ‘ground’ of the object’s ‘real’ structure” (Artforum, November 1973). That one may read the boxes so, i.e. as figure and ground, is partly because they are placed on the wall. Such a (re)alignment with the verticality of the viewer is proper to sculpture, but here, with the boxes on the wall, it may have more to do with the illusionism of painting: each box, like a canvas, is seen as a natural extension of our own visual field.

I said that the material-illusionist relation of box and interior is analogous to that of support edge and interior. However, to go as far as to equate box with matter, and interior with illusion, is too simplistic: a metonymy of material confuses the two, for both box and interior are plywood. In general, as Judd has noted, “There is an objectivity to the obdurate identity of a material.” But I wonder if this is true of plywood; to be sure, it is a surface conducive, as a ground, to painting (in fact, I associate it now less with sculpture).

Perhaps other analogs will help the work disclose itself. A Judd box has roughly the same dimensions as a television set, and that too is an object effaced, in part, by an inner space that is read simultaneously before and beyond the wall. Of course, the tension between materiality and illusionism is (was) very topical in experimental film; and the boxes can be read as frames that are effaced, as one “pans” the gallery to the film-like animation of the interiors. (It is important to note here that the order of boxes does not imply narrative: the variations from box to box are not consecutive, nor does the order imply montage: the variations are not dialectical.) So too, as the boxes are on the wall, they recall relief, a medium in which context also projects materially as content seems to recede.

Sculpture that is Minimalist in origin must face the brand of “theatre” applied to Minimalism proper by Michael Fried (Artforum, Summer 1967). To Fried the Minimalist object is theatrical insofar as it imposes as a presence, a presence that provokes a situation between viewer and itself. This he spurned as not self-critical. “What lies between the arts is theatre.” “The literalist espousal of objecthood amounts to nothing more than a plea for a new genre of theatre, and theatre is now the negation of art.” The new boxes are related to theatre—but to conventional theatre, the place of drama, not Friedian theatre. Open at front, they relocate experience within the object; and though there is no sign of drama there (as there may be in a Cornell box), there is a multiplicity of space that acts as a locus for potential drama. Each box is thus a kind of empty theatre. Inasmuch as a box or a theatre displaces space, it is an object; and yet, inasmuch as it also contains space, a space privileged for illusion, it is an object effaced.

No single reading is secure: looked at longer, the boxes map out other spaces. Open, with inner planes that angle outward, each box looks like a perspective device whose point of intersection is where we stand: in a sense it is as if we were an extension of its space as mere coordinates in an abstract system of axes, and real space were elsewhere (perhaps behind the box).

The boxes cast shadows on the wall, and these must be taken into account. Indeed, they effect a radical reading of the boxes. One would assume that the shadows make each box more typical as sculpture, as a distinct object in space. However, if we read the shadows as modeling, and the planar edges as contour lines, each box becomes, in toto, a figure on the ground of the wall. Such a reading is corroborated by the fact that Judd translated the boxes into etchings. That translation makes of the boxes motifs—figures for a graphic art. Moreover, as etchings, the boxes do not project as forms. There is a “positive-negative” instability to that medium (an optical effect also of graphic cubes) that negates perspective. The etched boxes are flat, abstract lines.

In the essay that put forward the critical notion of “theatre,” Fried detailed how the Minimalists shied away from sculpture that is relational in character; he quoted Judd in particular as adverse to work “made part by part, by addition, composed.” The strategy here was to negate anthropocentricity, both in image and in process, which was done, superficially. The tendency to see anthropocentricity negatively, as a bias that inflects all thought, and the enterprise to render it nugatory, are still very much with us, as the work of Jacques Derrida makes clear, and the strategy is now more profound. Hand in hand with anthropocentricity goes the notion of “presence,” which, as Fried was perspicacious enough to note, Minimalism had not negated—had in fact promoted. Not only does Minimalist sculpture have a physical presence, i.e. command a situation or theatre, it also speaks to a metaphysical presence, i.e. to a plentitude, not an “exhaustion,” of gestalts, forms, ideas, etc.

In the past, as Rosalind Krauss noted, Judd used forms that seemed given, forms that were somehow a priori. This was done in order to delimit (or disguise) intentionality, what she called “the intention-laden grammar of process,” and the presence implicit therein. To Krauss the idea was to make meaning “a function of external space” as opposed to a function of internal space, that metaphorical realm where the operations of the constitutive mind occur. She saw the denial of such a space and such an operation as crucial, a break with the “Cartesianism” that was the ground of “Western illusionism.” That is a brilliant idea, but I do not think that Minimalist sculpture made such a break. When I see a Judd sculpture, say of 1967, I cannot help but posit, as ground, a mental or internal space in which it is posed, if not conceived, as form, as a priori. Even a gestalt, as the tenet quoted above states, must be “established” as such. There is, thus, a presence “behind” the work.

In 1977 Judd showed several boxes that were set on the floor and open at the top. There are three basic elements to these works: an external space, an internal space, and the plywood itself as a transitional membrane. As derivations from a gestaltlike norm, the boxes cannot be internalized; rather, it is as if consciousness passes from viewer to object, from one receptacle (the mind) to another (the box), in a conduction of presence. The “exhaustion” is of the viewer, the plenitude of the sculpture.

The new boxes counter all these forms of presence. The presence that promotes theatre in the Friedian sense is no longer an issue, for the boxes do not insist upon an objecthood; they are not monoliths of any absolute. The presence that is the mind which poses forms, conceives gestalts, is also no longer an issue, for the boxes seem automatic and are not gestaltlike at all. Lastly, the presence that is sensed in a kind of metaphysical equation of viewer and object is also no longer an issue, for the planar interiors of the boxes deflect any such exchange. There is neither an equation of presence nor a transcendence into presence (as is the case when one “enters” a more hieratic art-object, like a Madonna and Child).

My discussion of presence, given the rigor of philosophic discourse, I know to be crude. Nonetheless, I do see a relation between the topical notion of presence and Judd’s new sculpture.

Hal Foster