Kunstalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld, Germany
What surprises could another Donald Judd exhibition possibly offer? Many might yawn and consider the case on Minimal art closed: sure (they might say), it’s historically important, but between you and me (voice lowered, faint smile), it’s boring. This show, which travels to the Menil Collection in Houston next year, included not only the 1962-8 pieces for which Judd is best known but also earlier work dating back to 1950, most of it never previously shown outside his estate in Marfa, Texas. If encountering the seminal mid-1960s objects does not convert the disbeliever, the work preceding them certainly won’t either. But even for those who at best want to study their enemy, these drawings and paintings shed light on how Judd actually arrived at the Minimalist language of form.
Curator Thomas Kellein was careful to point out in the catalogue that the show had originally been conceived in conversation with the artist two years before his death in 1994. The 1975 catalogue raisonné of Judd’s oeuvre excluded anything produced before 1960, which was unquestionably Judd’s own decision - as a critic as well as an artist he was extremely eager to define the framework within which his ‘specific objects’ were to be read. Kellein’s statement is meant to counter any suspicions that showing the early work would have been counter to the intentions of the artist himself.
The earliest, untitled painting on display dates back to c. 1950, when Judd was a 22 year old student of art history and philosophy. The sitting nude’s left eye is painted closed, the right eye left hidden in a blurred shadow, as if the aspiring painter couldn’t decide on the way the eyes should look. It feels like he is avoiding her gaze, instead letting his focus wander to the window-frame to her left and the dark wardrobe behind her, which are painted with clear, decisive strokes. This attention to the built environment as both trace and evasion of social relations is confirmed by a series of untitled charcoal studies dating from 1952. They depict a New York stairwell, seen through an open apartment door. With its typical wrought-iron banister it recalls the stairwells that set the stage for quarrels with the neighbours and class distinction in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960). But again the sketched figures on the stairs are like ghosts passing through the geometric ensemble of steps, doors and windows.
Judd’s paintings from 1955-62 push painting further and further away from figuration towards factual materiality - towards sculpture. Welfare Island (1956) looks a bit as if a Hans Hofmann abstraction in green, red and yellow had been rigorously painted over by a Constructivist: a curved black beam dominates the visual field with the subtlety of a steamroller. By 1961 the battle seems won: an untitled work (inventory no. DSS 20) is like a painting turned pavement, coated in a coarse swath made from black oil paint with wax and sand mixed in. The square of grey diagonal stripes positioned in the centre looks like a road marking, not at all like a sublime compositional element à la Barnett Newman’s ‘zip’.
From 1962 the confident, no-nonsense tone of Judd’s critical writing helped to create the impression his objects were nothing but sober constructions straight from the drawing-board. But bearing the preceding ten years of hesitant struggle in mind they start to look more like eerie deductions from deeply sedimented daydreams. Untitled (DSS 35, 1963) is made of seven beams mounted diagonally like steps between two standing wood panels. Everything is bathed in the exuberant cadmium red paint Judd liked to use at the time, except for the fourth ‘step’, which isn’t angular but round - an aluminium tube enamelled in purple. After the dark 1952 stairwell drawings the piece looks like a candy-coloured proposal for a stairway to heaven. The serialization of beams or cubes suddenly makes you think not of assembly lines and modular architecture but of counting-out rhymes. Polished steel, amber Perspex, blue varnish on galvanized iron - it seems the imaginary had been successively purged from painting, only to return, with sweet vengeance, in the blissful materiality of the objects.
After the Minimalist knight’s visor of opaque self-reference had snapped down, only a narrow slit remained, excluding from sight the fuzzy seams where artistic practice gets entangled in the silly struggles of the everyday. Lifting the visor again, dead ends and failures are exposed. But the classic Judd pieces aren’t diminished by this - they grow.