New York

Donald Judd

Blum Helman Gallery

Donald Judd’s singular body of work, it seems, will be brought to light little by little all over town. This show, which had things from the early ’60s through the ’70s, included some of the forebears of the surprisingly illusionistic recent wall and floor pieces Judd showed downtown earlier this season. The consistency of his purpose is as remarkable as the beauty and particularity he has been able to impart to so restrained a repertoire. For although there is an obvious, conscious absence of authorial hand right from the start, Judd’s minimalism, unlike other more conceptually derived and manufactured examples of the style, has been indelibly infused with his esthetic—severe but celebratory.

The earliest pieces here, two wall reliefs and two floor pieces, were all painted red—the most unequivocal signal of Judd’s desire for nonallusive coloration. Both the large wall pieces, from 1961 and 1962, have opaque surfaces with sand mixed into the paint, early starts toward undifferentiated fields but also uncharacteristically personalized treatments of material. The freestanding, upright, angled floor piece from 1962 is also somewhat out of character: two cornered planes are joined together by an angled piece of black enameled pipe which emanates a faintly surrealist, or at least assemblagist, air. However, the galvanized-iron floor piece from 1975, a large, open, beveled square with rounded corners, which recalled the small, incised, yellow Plexiglas oval in the later of the wall reliefs, deftly reintegrated past with pluperfect tenses here.

With the painted wooden box from 1963 Judd begins to hit stride. Cadmium red like its peers, the piece asserts a volume even while admitting its own absence of mass, punctuated as it is by an open, rounded trough which runs off center across the top plane of the box. Thin wooden panels drop from this long semicircular concavity, slicing the interior space into progressively smaller parts. A single metal wall piece from 1965 repeats the superficial concavity of the floor piece with a shallow blue-lacquered indentation into its top plane.

But it is in the varying intervals, the negative spaces, between constructed masses rather than in this kind of surface modeling that Judd finds his first (and continuing) subjective sign. All of the four later wall reliefs rely on this compositional device: the two thin linear arrangements of boxes, one set red-painted steel, the other blue aluminum, each joined across the top by a brass bar; the all-brass piece from 1972 that protrudes from the wall, presenting four semicylindrical forms paced by three intervening flat squares; and the green-lacquered seven-unit iron stack that marches nine feet up the wall.

A rectangular box from 1965 is curious as much for the translucency of the fluorescent red Plexiglas that makes up its top and two of its sides, as for the four interior steel cables that hold together its two steel end planes and which are revealed by the translucency. This is Judd at his most endearingly frank; how insubstantial this simple exposition of idealized form and medium must have been thought at the time, in an art scene dominated by David Smith, Anthony Caro, Mark di Suvero, John Chamberlain, et al. Its progeny, the larger brass cube of 1969, is more in line with the Judd we think we know: restrained, concise, utopian, certain of geometry’s universality, empathetic to the inherent expressionism of modern materials.

Richard Armstrong