New York

Donald Judd

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Donald Judd’s work used to be seen as a polemic on esthetics—its relentless repetition and recombination of spare Minimalist motifs suggesting a debater’s tenacious insistence on a position. The principal criticism of it was the prophecy that its uncompromising rigor would inevitably become a compromised rigidity. The exhibition at the Whitney Museum, far more varied and lively than most visitors would have expected, suggests a different outcome. Though this was a retrospective exhibition, most of the works were from the ’60s, a fact that dated the artist with remarkable precision. But in a sense chronological considerations are insignificant in regard to Judd’s art; after the initial transition from painting to sculpture, little sequential development can be seen. The ’80s work is mostly quite like that of the ’60s.

The great formative moment of the work was its transition from painting to sculpture in 1962–63. Judd himself proposed the term “specific object,” claiming that the work was as much like painting as sculpture, and not precisely either one. His acumen as a critic stands behind the statement. The work has never lost its roots in painting, and the colored panels deep in the containing boxes are like monochrome paintings in cumbrous sculptural frames. The exhibition was at its most probing in illustrating the transition from the paintings of 1961 and 1962—color field with abstract expressionist touches—to the “specific objects.” The transition from the wall to the space of the room was a universal mandate for Judd’s generation, and it led to the box solution—the rectangular plane unfolded into three dimensions—in a number of cases.

For Judd, the box is, in effect, a painting that has come off the wall but that does not claim the organic presence of sculpture. His boxes emphasize their emptiness, while others’ (Lucas Samaras’, George Brecht’s) emphasized the idea of fullness, or of the hidden interior as the essential mystery. Judd’s work was founded on clarity rather than mystery (at least according to the nine-minute “orientation video” provided in the museum’s lobby). But twenty years later it looks mysterious anyway, and it appeals to the viewer’s fascination with the “inside” as much as do box works in general—the delicate inner color surfaces of lacquer or Plexiglas look like the insides of shells, both hiding and inviting, both retreating from the eye and gleaming at it. The metaphysics of the box—the difference between inside and outside and the location of the sensual mystery, the color presence, deep inside—live in this work today, perhaps more than any supposed analytic clarity.

At the Paula Cooper Gallery Judd showed furniture, sculpture, and architectural drawings. Understandably, the installation tried to keep the first two categories separate. Many of Judd’s boxlike sculptures of the ’60s and ’70s looked vaguely like furniture at the time. Now his furniture pieces—angular beds, chairs, and a drawing table, all of which appear to be uncomfortable—look vaguely like sculpture. The new sculptures themselves—multicolored industrial beam assemblages—were located in the back room, mounted high enough on the wall so that they couldn’t be confused with furniture.

Thomas McEvilley