One way of looking at a Judd

There are many different ways of looking at a Donald Judd sculpture, and many of them are useful. Let me describe one way that has been helpful for me and that I haven’t seen described elsewhere: the narrative method. It’s probably “wrong” somehow for some kind of theoretical reasons, but it’s an approach that practically forces itself on me when I look at certain Judd pieces.

I can explain the narrative method better by telling about my first encounter with a James Turrell ganzfeld piece (“New Light”), at the National Gallery in Washington. A guard stood outside a room off one of the downstairs galleries in the East Wing, warning you to let your eyes to adjust to the darkness. And in fact when I passed through a couple of sets of heavy curtains I entered a long room in which at first I could barely make out anything at all in a palpable darkness.

As my eyes adjusted I saw at the far end a glowing red rectangle, maybe eight feet wide by four high, projected against the wall. I walked forward to get a better look. The rectangle seemed oddly soft, like it was projected on cotton. I looked for a projector on the ceiling or floor that could be the source of the red light but saw nothing. I decided it must be projected from behind onto a scrim. But the whole thing seemed a bit pointless — just a glowing red rectangle in a dark room. It felt like something else must be going on.

I looked around and made sure I was alone in the room, then tentatively put out my finger to touch the glowing rectangle. And my finger passed right through — it was nothing but air. It turned out that the rectangle was a hole cut in a room divider; the space behind was a chamber with smooth walls and rounded corners and was entirely evenly lit by a faint red light. The eye, perceiving the surface of the wall from which the rectangle was cut, created a glowing red surface where in fact there was nothing, really a break in the surface. (The optical effect is known as a ganzfeld.)

My surprise at this discovery was profound, and I think a large part of the metaphorical impact of Turrell’s work is to be found in this surprise — that where we perceive a barrier, there is nothing but light. Turrell is always creating the perception of the material from the immaterial, then inviting his audience to witness the dissolution of the illusion while remaining aware of its power. The narrative of an encounter with a Turrell piece provides an entry into this important facet of the work.

Exploring Judd’s work narratively is similar, but instead of relying on a single, big surprise, the work asks the viewer to discover many small surprises, each one revealing something about the formal problems and solutions Judd poses for himself.

This method requires time to allow the simplicity and perfection of the objects to calm the senses, to open them up to noticing small variations. Then you start to notice the little explosions. This weekend I went with friends to see the Christie’s pre-sale exhibition of works owned by the Judd Foundation. Jason and I got to wait for ten minutes in front of a particularly rewarding piece while another friend found a restroom. We had time to allow the piece to tell us a few stories, and not surprisingly it became our favorite work in the exhibition.

The piece consists of four plywood boxes, each one 100cm wide by 50cm tall and deep, mounted to the wall in a row. The front of each box is the only open side. Here’s the not-too-helpful picture from Christie’s:

Judd Untitled 1989
Inside the boxes on each end of the row is a kind of “V” of plywood set vertically and extending halfway back into the box, with the right stroke of the “V” perpendicular to the front plane and the left stroke of the “V” at a 45° angle from it. These “V”s are set to the left and the right of the center point of the box.

Jason and I looked at the four boxes for a while and started talking about the pattern of these insets. “It’s simple,” I said. “They’re all the same, just set close to the center or at the far left or right.” But looking again, we found that the two center boxes were different. Instead of an inset “V,” each of these boxes had only a single inset piece, like the left stroke of the “V” in the other two boxes. In the second box from the left, the front of this piece of wood was mitered, so viewed from head-on it looked just like the “V” pieces, as if another piece extended out behind it. In the third box from the left, the piece was mitered to be flush against the interior wall, so the rightmost wall of the box became the phantom right stroke of the “V.”

Here’s a schematic view looking from the top to make this clearer:

Judd schematic
One surprise here, then, is that what looks at first like a simple pattern (four “V”s, set near-left, far-left, far-right, near-right) is actually a more complex one (“V” near-left, single piece far-left, single piece far-right, “V” near-right), and complex in a way that creates two subsidiary surprises in the center two boxes. (You expect box 2 to contain a “V” when it doesn’t; you also expect box 3 to be the only “cheat” — a “V” missing its right-hand stroke — but it turns out to be no more of a cheat than box 2, although unlike box 2 the single piece creates an enclosed volume.)

You can create more surprises by moving around the work — start at the left end and walk slowly past the four boxes. In each box, the 45° piece hides what’s behind it, inviting you to look around the corner. In fact, the suspense is really whether there is anything behind the 45° piece or not; sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t. And what could be a more important anxiety to have: Is there something or nothing? This is formalism as microscale metaphysics.

What I have called “surprises” here are very small-scale, certainly. If you notice them at all, you might think they’re not worth remarking on. But as a defense of this way of viewing this piece, I would offer that the carefulness of conception and fabrication of Judd’s objects can only be a request for careful, calm, and patient attention; this attention lowers the threshold at which we can be surprised; and the surprises in this case are occasion for fruitful reflection on the work and on formal issues. What else can you ask of a method than that it grow from the demands of the work itself and provide insight into the work and other issues besides?

Not all Judd pieces set up these little surprises. But they all employ some “narrative” technique or other: They reveal delights, jokes, illusions, questions, even mysteries only in the course of an investigation that takes you around and around the piece. Exploring a Judd object is a temporal exercise: It is another irony of Judd’s work that it can be seen as an “art of time,” like music or poetry, when it superficially presents itself as timeless physical form.

The Christie’s exhibtion is on view at the Simon & Schuster building in midtown Manhattan for another week. It contains some absolutely classic Judds as well as a number of pieces that I consider jokes — wonderful pieces but unusual in the context of Judd’s oeuvre, and the kind of things you won’t see in a museum show of Judd’s work. Roberta Smith loves the show, so it’s good enough for you to check out.

7 responses to “One way of looking at a Judd”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Dave,

    I love Judd’s stuff, especially in that it rewards patient viewing. Most of his pieces do well in rooms with little or nothing else on display.

    I like your argument that he presents narratives, not only because it makes me think about the pieces differently, but it also makes me think about narrative differently.

    On a cross-country drive a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to go to Marfa, TX, where Judd bought an old military base and used the barracks and surrounding land for a number of larger scale works. The Chinati Foundation, which runs the place now, also has a great collection of other minimalist artists — Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, etc.

    As the Judd quote on the front page suggests, he felt that art should be looked at for a long time. Putting installations like these out in the desert — hundreds of miles from any city and a good way off the nearest interstate — sort of forces people to look at them for a long time. The logic is “Well, I drove all that way, so I might as well stand in front of this aluminum box for a little while longer.”

    I heartily encourage any of you who find yourselves anywhere near west Texas to go (plan on staying the night, if not even two). The town, I hear, is now over-run by downtown types who have a lot of money to drive up property values. This is a double-edged sword, of course: there’s also an excellent restaurant (straight out of the West Village) right on Main St. down a block from the hotel.


  2. Lane says:

    One of my favorite “jokes” in Judd is how the plexiglas in the back of some boxes creates little “representaional paintings” by reflecting what is opposite them. I particularly enjoyed this show with the views so high up in mid-town Manhattan. Some of the works reflected or “captured” the mid 70’s high Modernist buildings across the street. These little images blemished the perfection of Judd’s boxes. But also, and more poetically, by tinting the reflected scene the color of the pleixiglas, the images had a mystrerious air like a Whistler nocture of 19th Century London, and created a kind of elegy for the era that bore Judd aloft.

    The Times review was great. “This exhibition is the most beautiful survey of Judd’s work ever seen in New York. . .”


  3. i was actually stunned by the final line of r.s.’s review, which is now “Times select” and must be purchased. (I *hate* it when they do that!) It was something like: “If this show were on permanent display in New York it would change art.”

    my favorite part of mounted Judd pieces are the shadows, which change like a sun dial depending on the lighting in the room. this show was particularly rich given the natural lighting.

    speaking of the buildings across the street, lane, i loved how walking out into the street made those early 60s (?) publishing house towers — the sorts of buildings Ginsberg called robot apartments — look like so many Judd boxes stacked in a row.

    xo — bryan (the friend who went in search of the bathroom)

    ps — Tim — a major regret of mine is that i had family obligations during a southwest trip several years ago (2001?) that took everyone else (dave, lane, farrell) on a roadtrip to marfa and a sleepover at the lightning fields. at least we got to join in for a couple camping trips as bookends.

    pps — Lane: I really loved your description of the reflections. I didn’t note it at the time, but can perfectly recollect it thanks to your comment.

  4. Dave says:

    Yeah, Marfa is really obligatory if Judd turns you on at all. I was lucky that Lane made it my introduction to Judd; it was like having an 18-year-old single malt for your first drink.

    And that Times Select thing is really annoying. It worked this morning, I swear. And didn’t the Times say all their reviews would stay free?

  5. Lane says:

    I think one of the most interesting things Roberta Smith wrote in her piece (which I saved in case anyone wants it without paying) is that Judd “combined the opposing modernist forces of Matisse and Duchamp – art and anti-art, full on retinal seduction and the cerbreal provocation of the readymade.”

    It’s strange to read Duchamp invoked in writing about Judd. His primary dealer Leo Castelli once noted that Judd was “almost completely lacking in a sense of humor” and Duchamp used humor like Matisse used purple, i.e. quite a bit.

    But I remember Dave and Farrell and me all remarking in Marfa how playful, and light and even funny Judd’s sculptures are. And for all of their rigor and purity it is interesting to read in the Christies catalogue that Judd admired Frank Stella’s geometric abstractions for their “impurity.”

    Indeed as Smith notes “His legacy, as complex physically as it is intellectually, is a national treasure that should be much more accesible to the public.”


  6. Anonymous says:

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