New York

Donald Judd

Donald Judd’s new sculptures have an air of sterility that testifies to the fact that he has become so much the victim of his own history that he can only reflect and repeat a stagnant identity. He continues to produce perceptually catchy works, but his art no longer has the edge of significance it once did. Since he came into his own in the ’60s, he has been moving contentedly in a more or less straight line. Materials have varied, and with them textures, but the artistic principle has remained the same. His geometries seem more limited and simplistic in their logic than ever, despite obvious nuances. Does the introduction of a circular column into a half cube, in the plywood sculpture Untitled, 1991, or of vertical planes into open rectangular boxes in the Cor-Ten steel piece Untitled, 1991, constitute true esthetic and conceptual advance? If nonobjectivity was once revolutionary, in Judd’s hands it has settled into decadent complacency. Here, constructivism has become a pompier art.

What remains fascinating whatgives Judd’s sculptures some sense of uncanny implication, for all their peculiarly self-caricaturing geometry—is his use of color and texture. Judd’s infatuation with surface indicates an eroticism manqué—so repressed that it does not know what it means to “express” itself, though it nonetheless makes itself felt. His surfaces resonate quixotically and exotically beyond the tediously holistic structures they constitute. His cadmium red might not be war paint, but it is exciting enough to convey a sense of risk and danger. Elsewhere, however, the colors can only be described as designer. Not that there is anything wrong with good design, but it is, after all, stylization and not style. Is Judd then the Ralph Lauren of abstract art, giving it a traditional look? Certainly he milks its distinguished pedigree for its particular cachet.

Two small “chairs,” more nondescript than austere, suggest that Judd’s turn to furniture in the ’80s signals a profound crisis, however unconscious, in his development. He has nowhere else to go, so he turns to function. This is an old Bauhaus strategy, but when the Bauhaus artists introduced this idea, it was a heroic experiment. It was at once an attempt to show the eternal contemporaneity, as it were, of fundamentalist abstract art, and to show that it was integral to everyday modern life. By contrast, Judd’s furniture sculpture’s are a last-ditch defense of the relevance of artistic fundamentalism. They are entropic objects, appropriate, perhaps, in the Texas desert where he lives. But then, for Judd, the real desert is an ironic codification of Kasimir Malevich’s nonobjective “desert” as a register of transcendence. In a sense, these works are too little too late: Judd is making icons for a dead religion. He has always taken the idea of abstract art too literally, which is why he naively made “specific” objects, that is, works wholly stripped of the symbolic import that the pioneers saw in the nonobjective.

Donald Kuspit