New York

Donald Judd

Various Venues

It is not so much a period of Mannerism that we are seeing in the arts as one that bears some resemblance to the Reconstruction era, complete with carpetbaggers, furious enterprise, fast luck, and sudden switches—reason enough to question any sense of elation at seeing recent work by an imposing and steadfast Minimalist like Donald Judd. But Judd’s giant new sculpture of plywood stacks was his most comprehensive, fluent work to date, and one that demonstrated just about every structural theme he ever devised with a magnanimity that he has not before seemed motivated or interested by.

Judd’s sculpture has, over the years, suggested a secular hermeticism that sometimes bordered on the misanthropic. His well-documented systems and variations were not to be deciphered as keys to materials or process, nor did they allude to any abstracted sense of sound or smell or movement. Rather, each work effected a rigorous perceptual closed circuit around itself—precisely Judd’s intention. Their identity as objects was indeed total, and, despite characteristically rich surfaces, they could appear constrained and feel constraining. This new work, however, while entirely germane to its predecessors, engaged every element surrounding it, and the viewer’s full senses and faculties.

Twelve feet high, four feet deep, it rippled along eighty feet of wall like an arpeggio. Its rhythm, set by a basic rectangular grid defining 30 eight-by-four-by-four-foot modules, was syncopated by horizontal “shelves,” some parallel, others diagonal to the grid. This rhythm was not contingent solely upon the articulation of concrete materials (the perfectly seamless use of plywood can be credited to Peter Ballantine, who executed the piece), but also on a resulting modulation of light and dark. From any oblique viewing angle, the narrow shelves between layers could be read as black dashes, or rest notes in music. The horizontality of the sculpture led to all manner of narrative association, from opera score to comic strip; but whatever system Judd used to anchor its lengthwise movement was so attenuated as to appear ineffable, if not intuitive. Seen directly, the vertical, triple-tiered stacks assumed a more particular tonal significance. The rectangular modules, differentiated by the straight and slanted slats, looked like stereo speakers adjusted to various pitches. They denoted volume and amplitude, both spatially and acoustically, to such a degree that one almost expected them to start uttering diphthongs.

In a 1967 interview (Art in America, July/August) Judd said that “the main virtue of geometric shapes is that they aren’t organic, as all art otherwise is. A form that’s neither geometric nor organic would be a great discovery.” Part of the discovery of this work is the realization that it is both geometric and organic. Most surprising, however, is its element of performance. Set on a pedestal, it seems to present itself not just to “the viewer,” but to a projected audience; comparisons could, in fact, be made between it and Robert Wilson’s enormous dollhouse set for Einstein on the Beach. It was as though Judd, the ascetic gone virtuoso, had decided to let rip with every chord and scale he knew, and made an instrument big enough to sound out to the furthest seat in the largest auditorium imaginable. An artist with Judd’s innate dignity can well afford to be grand.

Lisa Liebmann