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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Donald Judd

An untitled Judd installation at Art Basel in Miami , 2013      

Untitled, Donald Judd. Taken individually,
Minimalism has little impact as seen in this
piece taken from the more impressive
installation above (top row, center).
As a art student from the fall of 1969 to the spring of 1972, I can recall several traveling art exhibits hosted by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, for the enlightenment and edification of their impressionable, young, would-be artists (like me). One show in particular stands out in my memory as both fascinating as well as perplexing. The show featured gigantic canvas paintings (usually square in shape), gallery wrapped (meaning no frames), with bold, hard edged, masking tape inspired blocks, stripes, and circles of pure, flat, off-the-shelf wall paint. Sometimes the color juxtapositions were quite soft and subtle. Often times, they should have been moreso--primaries colliding so stridently they tormented the eyes. Sometimes the edges were extremely soft, probably created by air brush. Most of the works bore the title, "untitled (plus a number." Taken as a whole, filling a modestly large, white-walled gallery, they were quite lovely to look at. It was as if Piet Mondrian had died and gone to heaven. Taken individually...what a waste of canvas. There were even two or three similar pieces of sculpture. I don't recall any of the artists' names except that of Ad Reinhardt and I think, Frank Stella. If he was represented, I wouldn't have recognized, nor remembered, the name of Donald Judd; but I do recall a piece or two that I now recognize as probably being his work.

Is Judd's Minimalist cube transparent of reflective?
Donald Judd, climbing the wall.
What I didn't realize at the time was that I was witnessing, firsthand, art history in the making--the death knell of Modern Art. They called it Minimalism and at least that much I understood...if nothing else it was, indeed, minimal. The prices listed for the various works weren't so minimal, most being in the range of three to ten thousand dollars (probably garage sale bargains in today's art market). Minimalism was historic in that it was the ultimate destination ending a convoluted trek of more than a century from Courbet Realism through a gauntlet of other "isms" too numerous to mention. Virtually all of them had progressively less and less to do with the "real world"; and more and more to do with the formal elements of art itself. Minimalism had only to do with "art for art's sake." The ultimate in Minimalism is simply...nothing. And while most Minimalism stopped just short of what we might call aesthetically suicidal, the movement as a whole flirted dangerously with asphyxiation.
Donald Judd, sculptured color or simply shelves for the library?
Judd's chair duo--uncomfortable art.
Donald Judd is the three-dimensional equivalent to the paintings which I found so perplexing as a college freshman. His work is not easy to like, but by the same token, seldom garners any feelings of dislike either. Where art is concerned, that's not good. Art should arouse, speak, whisper, shout, scream. As demonstrated above, Judd's colors get a bit "loud" at times (as my mother would have deemed them), but taken as a whole, his work gives the impression of being...well...colorful storage units. Judd and Ikea would go well together. In fact, Judd did have his own line of rather uncomfortable looking furniture. Of course, there's more to Donald Judd than simply shelves. There's repetition. Judd dotes upon it...lives and dies by it. Individually, most of his rectilinears are Minimalist nothings. But when displayed in multiples, whether climbing up a wall (above, right), or marching aimlessly across a minimalist desert, outside Marfa, Texas, they begin to acquire an elemental rational--cold, hard, unforgiving logic few but Star Trek's Mr. Spock could appreciate.
Donald Judd's bedroom--living (and sleeping) minimally.
The House of Judd, 110 Spring
Street, New York
Donald Judd

While other minimalist artist, one suspects, embraced the style for it's sheer simplicity of creation and the brief popularity of the style (roughly 1968-1976), Donald Judd lived Minimalism. Born in 1928, forty years later, Judd bought a five-story cast iron building at 110 Spring Street in the SoHo district of lower Manhattan (above, left) at a cost of $70,000. There he established his studio, housed his family, amassed a sizable collection of Modern Art (mostly Minimalist), lived, worked, and died in 1994. (Recently Judd's monument to Minimalism has been restored and is now open to the public.) His art collection included works he admired by Jean Arp, Carl Andre, Larry Bell, John Chamberlain, Marcel Duchamp, Dan Flavin, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, Ad Reinhardt, Lucas Samaras, and Frank Stella. From the free-standing window blinds in his bedroom to the no-nonsense minimalist furniture and working surfaces in his studio, the building itself, though ornately fin-de-ciecle on the outside, is pure Judd Minimalism inside.

One of several Judd concrete installations at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas.
Beginning in the 1970s, when the Minimalist era was at its peak, and long after he'd given up painting for sculpture, Judd's work began to increase in scale. Whereas before, he'd worked with mostly interior pieces, and well before the advent of today's massive contemporary art museum spaces, Judd moved outdoors, embracing steel, aluminum, and concrete. His colorful "shelving units" began to resemble housing units. In fact his hollow, garage-sized, sculptural cubes at the Chinati Foundation's (largely) outdoor museum near Marfa, Texas (above), began to influence architects The sculptor's own Judd Foundation began working and consulting with architectural and interior design firms. Though pure Minimalism, especially in these highly ergonomic disciplines, imposes quite a number of practical problems, and in fact, dictates something of a minimalist lifestyle, Judd's simple, flat surfaces and monolithic cubes do lend themselves Postmodern architectural adaptation. Yet Minimalism is a demanding ideal, especially as seen by Donald Judd. It's not without compromises, but when imposed upon by the antics of daily human habitation, it can easily be diverted from its near "nothingness" ideal to the layered complexities it seeks to avoid.

Judd-influenced Minimalist desert architecture by the Greek firm of KLab.

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