Clockwise from top left: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1960, oil on canvas, 65 x 49 1/2“. Donald Judd, Untitled, 1955, oil on canvas, 31 x 36 3/4”. Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961, oil on Masonite and wood with aluminum pan, 48 1/8 x 36 1/8 x 4“. Donald Judd, Untitled, ca. 1950, oil on canvas, 30 3/8 x 24”.

Clockwise from top left: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1960, oil on canvas, 65 x 49 1/2“. Donald Judd, Untitled, 1955, oil on canvas, 31 x 36 3/4”. Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961, oil on Masonite and wood with aluminum pan, 48 1/8 x 36 1/8 x 4“. Donald Judd, Untitled, ca. 1950, oil on canvas, 30 3/8 x 24”.

“Donald Judd: Early Work 1955–1968”

Donald Judd did not begin to produce mature, wholly distinctive works of art until shortly after his thirty-second birthday, in the summer of 1960. Or so the story is told in the artist’s 1975 catalogue raisonné. “Early Work 1955–1968,” curated by Thomas Kellein, director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld (which co-organized the show with the Menil), gathers together paintings and drawings executed before the official oeuvre’s clock started ticking. Offering itself as a missing prequel to the Judd epic, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue whose cover (in Judd’s signature cadmium red) is an exact replica of the 1975 document, only half the size. It’s the raisonné’s Mini-Me.

Much of the interest here owes to the show’s seeming promise to disclose a young Judd as closet painter, cavorting with palette and easel. Many of the works have never been allowed public viewing before or at least have not been shown since the ’50s: Judd participated in three New York gallery exhibits between ’55 and ’57, the last a solo outing the artist himself deemed a “stupid show [of] half-baked abstractions.” Actually, some of the paintings are not half bad. (Deep down Judd must have agreed, having never destroyed them and consenting to the present exhibit when it was first proposed in 1992.) The best of the early canvases are just shy of dismissively tentative, their surfaces stitched together by brushwork heavily indebted to Cézanne and Mondrian, with beige or gray-blue grounds at once animated and anchored by thick black horizontal bands—which are themselves crossed and paralleled by swatches of red, green, and white. Judging these paintings on their own is impossible, though. They are contextualized here, which is to say greatly outnumbered, by many well-known works: the later paintings with found objects embedded in their surfaces from 1961–62, as well as the trademark wall- and floor-bound objects made of wood, metal, and Plexiglas, dating through 1968.

Seen strictly within a teleology of the literal, connections emerge between the ’50s oils and charcoal drawings and the mid-’60s Specific Objects. Kellein emphasizes a couple in his catalogue essay. He relates a staircase at the Art Students League that served as a motif for several early drawings to stairs-like or banister-esque elements in the Specific Objects debuted in Judd’s first shows at the Green Gallery in 1963. More interesting, the early paintings show circular notches repeatedly cut into abstract forms at their edges—a tendency continued in the many grooves, troughs, and pipe beds rutted into the top of the later sculptures and wall reliefs. Kellein uses such continuities to argue his case—never stated outright but heavily suggested—that Judd’s official oeuvre be revised with an earlier start date (meaning that the “stupid” shows, not the ones at Green, would count as Judd’s first). But he also hedges: While the exhibition’s title designates as “early” everything from ’55 to as late as ’68 (the year of Judd’s big Whitney survey), both the catalogue and the show are organized in two distinct sections, with a sharp break at 1962—that is, between the paintings leading up to the Specific Objects and the Specific Objects proper (which, of course, leave painting in the dust). What ends up foregrounded is the idea of revelatory breakthrough itself.

Curiously, the show includes one work that falls well short of Judd’s official oeuvre no matter what start date is used. It’s a painting from roughly 1950, a seated female nude facing directly out at the viewer, her body lit by a window to her left and framed by a dark stretched canvas leaning against the wall behind her. The presence of the figure is obviously uncharacteristic, but other elements distinguish the picture as well. The portrait format, the receding planes that enclose and house the figure—all are jettisoned during the ’50s, as Judd turns to landscape for inspiration and his paintings grow more flat and abstract. Flattening helps project shapes all the more aggressively against the picture plane, and yet these forms can’t be said to entirely face the viewer. Instead, looking notched, drilled, or otherwise machined, they seem to face each other like interlocking puzzle pieces. Moreover, they tend to collect toward the center of each canvas, away from the framing edge. Judd would soon come to realize that one of his main beefs with painting concerned its frame—namely, how the picture frame figures human vision and, by extension, thought and belief, thus already flooding the rectangle with representation before a single mark gets laid down. Judd’s early paintings strive for the appearance of self-integration, perhaps as a way to forestall assimilation by the viewer. Tellingly, in 1960 (and through the following year) Judd returned to the portrait format, and he even made a painting that features receding planes constructing a roomlike enclosure—a hard black painting on Masonite with a tiny aluminum baking pan lodged in its middle. The difference between this work and the early nude? The space created by the pan is “literal”: It can only be looked into, it can’t reciprocate or mirror our viewing, it can’t look back.

The very next things Judd created were the Specific Objects, with their aggressive materials, blocky and inert shapes, and bland repetitions combining to obscure any sense of a definable frontal aspect or face by which they present themselves to an audience. Even the wall reliefs, which seem to have frontality imposed on them, still turn their attention sideways, perpendicular to the line of sight, repeating their component parts either up and down or across the wall. Judd’s breakthrough constituted a decided triumph over the frame. And this, as legend has it, led to the discovery of ever larger apparatuses modeling our vision and belief, the institutional frames of the museum, gallery, art magazine, and so on. Ironically, though, today it’s the notion of breakthrough itself that may be kaput—that is, now that there are no more frames to break, now that the galleries, museums, and art magazines have all become indistinguishable from entertainment, and now that art objects, no matter how specific and literal, have been dematerialized into digitized images stored in data archives without end. Perhaps Judd foresaw all this, which may explain why, when he later decided to take the matter of “framing” his work into his own hands, he chose such an indomitable fortress as Marfa.

Lane Relyea is Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Practice at Northwestern University.