A large-scale Donald Judd retrospective makes its sole stop in New York.
On March 1, The Museum of Modern Art opens “Judd,” a sweeping 60-artwork exhibition. It’s the first major U.S. retrospective of Donald Judd in over 30 years—a figure that may come as a surprise considering the artist’s outsized influence on what sculpture and contemporary art generally have become since the 1960s. In fact, Judd seems readily knowable to the art-interested: he’s a fixture of blue-chip auctions and permanent collections, and his live-in studio spaces in SoHo and Marfa, Texas, are visit-able, preserved posthumously by an eponymous foundation. But a general feeling of familiarity usually indicates that it’s high time for a retrospective—a celebration of what’s known and a deep dive into what’s unknown about an artist and his impact. MoMA’s show looks to supply both the fete and the free fall, with works across media—sculpture, painting, and drawing—detailing the breadth of Judd’s career.
“Half a century after Judd established himself as a leading figure of his time, there remains a great deal to discover,” said Ann Temkin, the exhibition’s organizer and MoMA’s Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture. “MoMA’s presentation will emphasize the radicality of his approach to art-making and the visual complexity of his work.”
Early paintings, which show the radicality of Judd’s practice from its outset, will likely be new to many museum-goers. In the mid- to late 1950s, Judd began experimenting on canvas; he created oil paintings with amorphous shapes that didn’t quite announce themselves as purely geometric or organic. At the time, things were moving quickly for the artist: he graduated from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy in 1953, and by 1957 he had his first solo paintings show and had begun work toward a master’s in art history, again at Columbia.
Judd also began working as an art critic, writing for publications such as ARTnews and Arts Magazine and reviewing hundreds of shows. As a critic, he was a proponent of minimalism, advocating for work that moved completely beyond representation. In his practice between 1960 and 1962, he reduced his color palette and featured repeated forms, incorporating found objects and using wax and sand to build up canvas, plywood, or Masonite surfaces. Untitled, a 1960 oil on canvas in the MoMA show, features a bright yellow background with thin silver tubes that seem to continue like a snake-like chain off the canvas.
When Judd abandoned painting in 1962, it was the canvas that put him over the edge—he found it to be inherently representational. He was unable to meet his goal with the medium, which was to create non-illusionistic space in two dimensions. So he moved on to working in three dimensions, where he could create actual rather than illusionistic space. He employed industrial materials like metal, acrylic sheet, and plywood and continued leaving his works untitled (a career-spanning practice). Untitled (1963), a red plywood box that has a notch across its top where a heavy iron pipe sits, is an early example of Judd’s experiments with three-dimensionality; it comes to the show from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C.
Judd called these new 3-D works “specific objects,” a term he elaborated on in his 1965 essay of the same name. These pieces, some mounted on the wall, others freestanding, were neither painting nor sculpture; they occupied a sort of formal limbo, in which they were the unity of both mediums but also nothing but themselves. With his specific objects, Judd employed the repetition of highly minimal geometric forms in varying permutations of material, color, size, and construction, creating works that were neither expressive nor bound by the constraints of the canvas.
Untitled (1966/68), a piece that showcases many of Judd’s concerns simultaneously, is on view in the exhibition courtesy of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Mounted to the wall, the work’s six stainless-steel-fronted, Plexiglas-sided cubes confront the previously held notion that an artwork should be handmade and complete. Instead, the work’s industrially fabricated geometric pieces are infinitely repeatable—in fact, though Judd made early incarnations of his specific objects, he quickly turned to having them made in a factory. With both solid and transparent surfaces, the work also challenges the viewer’s sense of perception, as one can both look at and through it.
A star of MoMA’s own collection, Untitled (1967), is one of Judd’s signature stacks. The piece’s twelve boxes are fabricated from stainless steel with green lacquer paint—a readily available type used on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The work’s identical parts jut out three feet from the wall, stretching vertically like a ladder up to a tree house. They’re each nine inches high and spaced nine inches apart. But Judd designed the work to be adaptable, so depending on the height of the room in which it’s installed, all 12 boxes need not be displayed.
As the 1970s dawned, Judd’s work grew in scale and complexity. He had purchased a five-story building in SoHo in 1968, which allowed him to install some of his pieces in permanent settings. Several years later, he began living in Marfa, where the desert landscape afforded him the opportunity to work bigger. It was there that Judd, with the help of the newly-minted Dia Art Foundation, established The Chinati Foundation—a multi-building museum that acquired work by many of Judd’s peers. In the mid- to late 1970s, Judd began making large-scale public art pieces, like an aluminum sculpture at Northern Kentucky University and a tripartite concrete work with steel reinforcements at Laumeier Sculpture Park outside St. Louis. He also began designing furniture—a practice he distinguished from his art-making, though it was just as adventurous and radical.
A 1991 piece from MoMA’s collection, Untitled (1991), is a good indication of where Judd’s practice ended up. Made just three years before his death, the large-scale enameled aluminum rectangle sits on the floor, made of a series of multi-colored rectangles that are stacked on top of each other and next to each other in sequence. It is, like the retrospective, a big celebration of what makes Judd Judd.
By Sarah E. Fensom