New York

Donald Judd

Leo Castelli Gallery, Max Protetch Gallery

One speaks of an “emerging” artist; can one speak of a “reemerging” one? Donald Judd is running very scared to be reborn, blasting other artists and critics in recent essays (Art in America, September and October 1984) that may signal the demise of the artist’s text as a useful statement of intention. (Judd’s aim is to deny anyone else’s right to an independent view). What did he give us in these shows? The same old “specific objects” refurbished in fresh materials-concrete, in the most monumentally ambitious ones-and in some instances rehabilitated as furniture and architecture (without quotation marks). The latter works join what by now has become a tired trend, if also reviving the De Stijl ideal of a universal style. (The Erector Set furniture, made by screwing together De Stijl-like colored metal forms, confirms the revival, even if it belongs in Conran’s.) Pity, to be always a little late—to be not really “new.”

If one were a formalist critic—if one wanted to spite Judd’s insistence on being purely sculptural, yet still working within the formalist context of consideration of medium—one could go on and on about the architectural dimension of his pure sculpture. But I want to show how old his ideas really are. His sculptural boxes derive in part from Naum Gabo’s stereometric cubes, showing what Gabo calls “the constructive principle of a sculptural space expression.” Like Gabo, Judd considers space “an absolute sculptural element, released from any closed volume.” Judd even uses the same diagonal plane to “cut” the cube, opening it up while also signaling the possibility of closure. Such subtle flexibility! If one stands in front of the large concrete floor piece at the Castelli gallery, one sees a possible passage through the three units, but the shifting diagonal blocks the hypothetical movement. One is decisively kept out and away; after all, this is art, not life.

From the stereometric principle of spatial articulation everything else in Judd follows—the seriality in some of the works, the coy reflection of the passing scene, the declaration of openness in the face of illusion. Is there anything inadvertent in this highly calculated art, a lesson to all loose, impulsive expressionists alive or dead? And the half-pretty, half-luxurious color—we know about the trouble over David Smith’s use of color, which made some of his advocates distraught about the incompleteness of his purity. In Judd’s work the color ideally functions like. the diagonal plane, denying volume while creating a porous spatial closure. Color acts as a membrane on Judd’s planes, effecting an osmosis between its closed, opaque reality and its potential open transparency. Practically, I think it functions another way: it makes the objects voluptuous, which makes them all the more marketable. It makes them look like “mass produced luxury goods,” to use Theodor Adorno’s term, rather than like what André Breton called drops of “intellectual blood.” Perhaps unwittingly, perhaps through excess of manipulative zeal, Judd has converted the intellectual utopianism of the De Stijl constructivist vein into the utopian capitalism that “fine art product” tends to convey today. He has made the perfect art for the illusory golden age of un-self-reflective capitalism.

Let the last word be that Judd’s work is intellectually bankrupt—inherently so, rather than simply because it is dressed for social success. In 1925, Theo van Doesburg wrote of his own variant of De Stijl, “The construction method of Elementarism is based upon the abolition of positive and negative by the diagonal and, in respect of color, by the dissonant. Balanced relationship is not the final result. Elementarism rejects the modulation of colors against each other and of each color against the whole (the Classical concept of composition!). Elementarism acknowledges color as matter and independent energy.” Judd carries Elementarism to a reductio ad absurdum. The independence of color matter, and the diagonal that brings us to consciousness of the unity of space, have become the basic ingredients of a perceptual dead end, a meaningless epiphany. In analyzing perception, Hegel said that every “here and now” implies a “there and then” for it to make sense, to be truly intelligible and forceful. Judd’s work makes no sense, for it suppresses the “there and then”—which mediates, enriches, and completes the “here and now”—for a fraudulent immediacy. We used to think this was its forte; now we know this means it has no dialectical power. Such power was implicit in the rebellion van Doesburg’s Elementarism was in the ’20s, but today Elementaristic work has become a travesty of self-conscious art. Judd’s sculpture makes a farce of oppositional intellectual art, for it is no longer in the opposition (the point of Judd’s recent articles is to pretend that it is), and, worse yet, it has lost the inherent oppositional character of earlier constructivist art, which was tied to utopianism.

Donald Kuspit