in Features | 05 APR 04
Featured in
Issue 82

What is the object?

The Donald Judd retrospective opened at Tate Modern in February. It is the first major survey of the artist's career since 1988. frieze asked the following artists, historians, critics and designers for their responses to the show: James Meyer, Lynne Cooke, Mary Heilmann, Mark Godfrey, Richard Wentworth, Liam Gillick, David Musgrave, Jasper Morrison and Deyan Sudjc.

in Features | 05 APR 04

AMONG the first works on display at Tate Modern is a vertical rectangular relief, one of several projects from 1961-2 in which Donald Judd's abandonment of painting for a new category of art, the 'Specific Object', is revealed. The relief is extraordinarily simple. A rectangular sheet of masonite is slathered with dry, crumbly black paint. The panel is mounted on a wood support that projects a full ten centimetres from the wall. An aluminium baking pan burrows deep into the support; its silvery sheen counterpoints the paint's matt texture. Marianne Stockebrand, the exhibition's co-curator, observes in the catalogue that the pan produces a depth that is 'real, not illusory'. By this she means that the pan actually recedes into the relief. It is not a figure poised against a ground, but a physical entity that occupies space. Yet this element also suggests a subtle illusionism that is not depicted but also 'real'. The pan remotely reflects the body that stands before it and the gallery's light. Its battered edges suggest a fictive depth: the edges look like orthogonals, yet aren't. The relief stages a parody of Western perspective. The orthogonals, rendered literal, are robbed of their semantic function as signs (as markers of depth). The fiction they make is revealed to be just that. Judd's literalization of illusionistic conceits is nowhere more palpable.

It is important that the relief with pan is scaled to a viewer's body. Judd's subsequent works suggest that his critique of illusionism only makes sense in works that are bodily scaled. One can see this in To Susan Buckwalter (1964), which also establishes a perceptual paradox between its two parts - four identical galvanized iron boxes and the blue aluminium bar that joins them. The bar is placed just high enough for a viewer to peer through it and scan the work's length, a recession marked by the intervals of nails attaching it to the boxes beneath. Such works, as Rosalind Krauss noted long ago, stage a tension between the self-evidence of their shapes and construction and an illusionism inherent in their materials and the pseudo-perspectival views they construct. A stainless steel 'progression' from 1966 is also keyed to a body's perception. The flat sections mirror a viewer's torso; the convex sections create distorted reflections of her entire body and the room behind. The spatial recessions and reflections explored in Judd's early reliefs are set into a rhythmic pulse; the beholder compares her reflections in the gaps and projections of varying lengths.

One of the show's final rooms confirms that Judd, even as his work grew more ambitious in size and construction, never forsook the precept that artworks are meant to be seen by individuals. A rectangular floor work from 1989-90 in enamelled aluminium and galvanized iron, 750 centimetres long, fills a large space. Despite its considerable mass and girth, the work's height is just less than that of the viewer, allowing her to peer across the top and perceive the numerous red, orange, yellow, black, blue, and grey recessed panels on its five exposed sides. Nearby is a galvanized iron piece of the same proportions. The first work is brilliantly polychromatic; its composition is varied; it is hard to know in its entirety. The monochromatic work is more unified. The beholder is asked to look closely at both objects, to compare how they are similar and different.

The lesson of the work with the baking pan is not only that Judd would develop an art that put illusion and literalness, matt and reflected surfaces, into a productive tension, as Krauss and others have noted. It is also that, however large Judd's works became, they were invariably bodily scaled. Judd sought to make an art that a viewer could see and know, and this meant that his works could not overwhelm. In this, his practice could not be more disconnected from the giganticist tendency currently so prominent, typified by Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project (2003) in the adjacent Turbine Hall, for example. Eliasson's practice is often described as an extension of the phenomenological perceptual concerns developed by Judd and his contemporaries. I am not convinced. Viewers of The Weather Project are bedazzled by the vastness of Eliasson's conception; many end up lying down on the floor, passively gazing at the luminous half-disk, the artificial mist, and at their reflections in the mirrored ceiling above. By contrast, visitors to the Judd show are engaged in thoughtful acts of perception from the first room to the last. The difference could not be more stark.
James Meyer

UNTITLED, as are virtually all of Judd's works, the large copper box with red enamelled interior from 1972 is among his best known and most admired sculptures. Long familiar to British audiences - it was in the Saatchi Collection before it entered the Tate in 1992 - it has had a marked impact on many young artists, from the generation of Richard Deacon and Anish Kapoor onwards.

Classified as DSS 271 in Judd's catalogue raisonné, it's exceptional on several counts. Whereas most of Judd's pieces belong to series, there is only one variant of DSS 271, and this sibling with an ultramarine base has rarely been seen in public. But what makes DSS 271 indelible is the startling revelation of the glowing interior that reveals itself only when the piece is closely approached. The sumptuous warmth blurring the edges between planes and dissolving surfaces creates a mysterious refulgent light that suffuses the interior in a way quite unparalleled in Judd's oeuvre - and it does so without relinquishing or contaminating any of the stringent precepts on which his aesthetic is grounded.

In the current retrospective DSS 271 is sited at the point where the visitor turns to walk through the final sequence of galleries, that is, at the threshold of the 'home stretch'. By means of this telling but not strictly chronological placement it serves to signal the predominant concerns of Judd's later career: the expanded palette through which he explored more complex colour relations; the construction of spaces both illusory and plastic; and his proclivity for increasingly monumental forms. A hinge or a pivot in this installation, it is also the quintessence if not culmination of his abiding interest in simple, almost austere, structures: compare the hallmark single boxes of the 1960s, some with their ends left open or tops scooped out to accommodate a pipe, or sides held in tension by wires, with others, made much later, whose interiors are spliced by suspended planes. Few of Judd's sculptures so clearly straddle his formative and later phases: none has its iconic stature.

The last decade of Judd's career, from the mid-1980s to his death in 1994, reveals a protean inventiveness within a rigorously circumscribed vocabulary. Unprecedented variations of form together with an expanded range and combination of materials and colours produce an unexpected sensuality and subtlety. This much anticipated retrospective, the first since 1988, is too compressed both in its review of his more quirky formative years and, above all, in its survey of his extraordinary final decade. It does, however, memorably contextualize DSS 271, one of the Tate's great treasures.

Although a box, and hence the echt Minimalist form, DSS 271 is not just a box. Unlike Robert Morris with his slabs and Tony Smith with Die (1962) Judd was never interested in simple unitary Gestalts as such. As he stated in 1971 in reference to his landmark early works: 'I didn't want to make just boxes ... that seemed too easy and pointless.' For him, a plain red box was the three-dimensional counterpart to the monochrome in painting: a dead end.

Less quirky than many of the sculptures in cadmium red light that comprised Judd's début show at the Green Gallery in 1963, DSS 271 morphs as it crystallizes concerns first adumbrated there. For whereas Judd once privileged cadmium red light because it 'really makes an object sharp and defines its colours and edges', when he juxtaposed it with sheets of copper it reacted in quite contrary ways. The notion of sculpture as a unitary volumetric shell, envelope or enclosure defining an inner void that fuels many of his earliest three-dimensional works is transmuted here: not only does the highly reflective exterior engage its surroundings, but the capacious interior is activated optically by a perambulating viewer. Forsaking the disjunctive yet simple wholeness of its predecessors, DSS 271 is thus more reverberant than clarion in tone - a Grand Cru burgundy rather than a Beaujolais nouveau.
Lynne Cooke is the curator at Dia Art Foundation in New York, where she lives, writes and teaches.

TRAVELLING up the escalator to visit the Donald Judd show, through the magical Herzog and De Meuron super-scale entry space of Tate Modern, made me think of the scale of the architecture at Marfa. As I moved through the show I looked at the wonderful untitled blue painting from 1961 with its almost etched or cut white scalloped dividing line. It feels almost feminine, as much a sculpture as a painting; then the blue stack of 1990 beyond, and in between purple, blue, red and yellow-clad Plexiglas boxes, and the late big plywood wall pieces. They all made me remember how I felt when I first found out about Judd.

It was 1966, in Berkeley, California. I was part of a group of students doing cast-bronze and welded-steel sculpture, looking at the New York School, especially David Smith and John Chamberlain. Then the 'Primary Structures' show happened in New York at the Jewish Museum, and everything changed. That these sculptures lived in the room without being on pedestals changed everything. We had the catalogue, and we devoured the images of the work of Carl Andre, Anthony Caro, Ronald Bladen, Robert Morris, and Judd. Soon everyone was trying to hang, cantilever, prop, lean, stack and put things in rows.

The next big moment came after I had been in New York for three years, and returned to California where I saw the Judd retrospective in Pasadena. I'll never forget coming around a corner and being hit with the sight of the first giant stack I'd ever seen. As at that time I was heavily involved with the expressionistic and brute Joseph Beuys-influenced work of Eva Hesse, Morris, and especially Bruce Nauman, it was not so much the architectural and aesthetic refinement of his work (which became so inspiring to me later), but the raw power and scale of Judd that impressed me.

Some years later, someone who worked for Judd gave me a secret and forbidden tour of his Spring Street studio. It was there that I understood that the life, the art and the home were one reality, and that psychology was an important part of this architecture. The play of stasis versus disequilibrium in the arrangement of the household objects, furniture and artwork in relation to the interior and exterior of the loft thrilled me in a visceral way. Then I saw Judd's double bed, which he had designed. It was a box made from plywood and enclosed on three sides - a design which would trap one of the people if there were two in there. I felt the terror and imagined the masochistic pleasure of that.

When I visited Marfa a few years later, I had new insights about Judd. Again, it was similar to the feeling of claustrophobia that I got from the bed. There was a frisson caused by the experience of space, this time a conflict between euphoria and agoraphobia, provoked as much by the huge interior spaces of Chinati, as by the loneliness of the empty endlessness of the west Texas desert. This time, too, I had a sense of the artist's domestic life, a stark garden, outsized ceramic vessels, cooking pots and monastic guest quarters. Judd was dead by this time. I never met him, but I missed him.
Mary Heilman is an artist who lives in New York

ARTISTS and critics have always questioned Donald Judd's rhetoric, countering his claims for the precision and clarity of the work by pointing to its less definable perceptual effects. Rosalind Krauss and Robert Smithson alerted viewers to the 'allusion and illusion' in the work, its 'material uncanny', and the Tate's selection provides ample examples of these qualities. The four deep boxes of To Susan Buckwalter (1964) seem to hang from a paper-thin band of blue aluminium, whose weightless appearance is achieved by the contrast between its reflectivity and the duller quality of the mottled galvanized iron. It is only from the side that we can ascertain that the band is the face of a square tube that sits, inserted, on top of the boxes rather than suspending them from it, a tube whose internal surfaces, reflective yet dusty, make it a dirty kaleidoscope. Judd's colours can confuse our sense of how a work is constructed, or how it weighs, just as reflective materials can disturb the clarity of a volume. This is most dramatic in Untitled (1969) where an internal lining of purple Plexiglas melts the floor and tempts even a close viewer to think a layer of transparent glass blocks off the sides of the box when in fact they are open. What's remarkable about the work is that it encourages these illusions whilst never becoming mysterious or sublime, à la James Turrell or Anish Kapoor.

Because of these imprecise effects, pieces are transformed in changing light, and one of the pleasures of this exhibition is that the hang emphasizes this. On one visit, the late Swiss-made, inside-out-enamel-paint-and-bolts works appeared to me overly dull and literal. Meanwhile, in the next room, I was mesmerized by four aluminium boxes (Untitled, 1989) which seemed to comprise myriad sheets of slanting silver. (In fact, they were made just of vertical and horizontal planes.) A few days later, in dull February daylight the divisions and planes in the boxes seemed blunt and obvious while the colour works surprised, particularly the long crate (Untitled, 1989-90). On its evenly lit upper side, colour seemed to rise up as if each tray was brimming with liquid paint. Richard Serra's description of Judd's 'hedonism' is particularly appropriate here.

Many artists have put their finger on the quirkiness of Judd's work. In the 1980s Jeff Koons and Haim Steinbach indicated how the desire we might feel before Judd's surfaces points to our desire for commodities. In the 1990s Rodney Graham articulated the psychic dimension of Judd's serial repetitions by inserting a yellow copy of Sigmund Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life into a curving yellow lacquered MDF wall progression, and amplified the playfulness of the late Swiss works by turning them into trolleys for transporting Dr Seuss books. But despite these readings, Judd's work can now seem so finished that it's finished, or, as one artist told me, 'the end of something'. This is a danger, particularly if we think that only artists working with abstraction, colour and space could learn from looking at Judd.

Smithson wrote of Judd's surfaces as 'hideouts for time' and one aspect of the work that remains compelling is the way it slows down the time of viewing. One-liner art rarely challenges the attention span that products of the wider culture industry demand; the slow time of Judd's work can be critical, and points in many directions, for instance to someone like Tacita Dean. In Judd's early works, reflections and shadows extend the time we need to look at volumes and joins. In later works made after Judd jettisoned easily recognizable serial structures, the time of viewing is more confusing, particularly as the pieces activate and frustrate memory. The magnificent 30-part plywood wall piece, Untitled (1986), challenges us to make some sense of the arrangements of slanting planes and Plexiglas backings. We expect a kind of serial order, but our attempts to discern it are scuppered. Just try to recall the way volumes change to see if a form repeats: pretty soon you'll forget what you are doing as your attention is taken up with the colour shifts instead. Late Judd can be playful and sly, but so too was early Judd: the show includes Untitled (1962), a red monochrome painting into which Judd inserted on its side a yellow letter 'O' taken from a commercial sign. Given his aversion to the use of 'real objects' in the work of Robert Morris and George Brecht, this rare appearance of a readymade is particularly canny, since rather than being easily named like a bucket or rope, the O not only defies recognition but stresses this condition by representing language as a hole.

For me one of the most interesting problems the work raises is how an artist might continue to provoke an emotional response without recourse to the strategies of Expressionism or overblown phenomenal effect. The mood of Judd's work can be playful, exhilarating or sombre. Halfway through this show are the marvellously installed open-ended plywood boxes (Untitled, 1973). Why do they make you feel so lonely? Because they are multiple and you are singular? Or is it because despite their openness, they shut you out, rendering the square wall at their backs utterly inaccessible? Or is it because they employ perspectival space, but prevent you becoming its master since the vanishing point is behind a blank wall, and there are too many points to see into at any one time? Or because their sides are not even, as one might expect in a cube, but longest at the top, creating the slightest sense of downward compression? Judd wrote about his heroes Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman: 'The thought and emotion of their work is of the more complex kind, unidentifiable by name, underlying, durable, and concerned with space, time and existence. It's what Bergson called la durée.' It's also a pretty accurate account of the emotion and intellect of his own work, and surely still of consequence.
Mark Godfrey teaches art history and theory at London's Slade School of Fine Art.

NEVER mind the quality, feel the width.
As a boy I used to test the width of floorboards with my feet. I don't know whether I was measuring the length or width of my shoes on the floor's components. About this time I saw a vast Wellingtonia struck and felled by lightning. I was too young to know that Sequoiadendron giganteum is not a native, or that its popular name is the American Big Tree. I have never decided whether floors are made of trees, or boards, or both. In school French I always confused largeur with longeur for breadth and length, and in geometry I loved the idea that the point and line had no dimensions, that they were happy abstractions. It is a wonderful thing to be able to 'think' squares, rectangles and circles, to picture flatness, smoothness, dimension and distance and to rehearse what is solid and what is hollow, what is empty and what is full. All in the head. Painting is full of this stuff, and some sculpture too, but in sculpture the stuff often wins. In the world, the one which we make, there are surprisingly few squares and circles, and our point of view is good at converting the few that we have into lozenges and ellipses. We may name them. The dice, the crossword and the chessboard, the child's building block and the cube of sugar, the wheel, the coin, the clock, the plate, the drum, the pipe and the porthole.

I grew up wondering where stuff ended and the names began. When does earth become a brick, and when does a forest become a stack of orthogonal plywood? I found a small irreducible group where raw stuff retained its identity - a chalk, a sponge and maybe a stone, a rubber, a glass, a cork, an iron, a copper, a steel, woollens, nylons perhaps.

At Donald Judd's 1970 Whitechapel Art Gallery show I must have thought he knew all this - cadmium after all is both a chemical element and a colour. Checking its etymology I now find it derives its name from zinc ore - zinc (as in galvanising) of which Judd was so enamoured. His show, it seemed in grubby London, had been made in heaven, but there was one point of European recognition. In the mid-1960s I had seen my first Le Corbusier buildings in the flesh. They made me thoughtful about my body, its weight and its height, my grasp, my pace, my gaze and my eye level. I looked more closely at ladders, steps and stairs, how we transport ourselves from the utilitarian to the processional. The going and the rising. In the Whitechapel catalogue somebody mentioned Judd's penchant for 'matières nobles'.

In the early 1970s I lived for a few months on Greene Street around the corner from Judd's SoHo home. I remember being astonished on my first morning by the extravagant confidence of the granite monoliths which paved and paced the sidewalk and the effortless folded geometries of naval plate which articulated the loading bays and the basement entries (many signed 'Nuclear Shelter'). I had had no anticipation that the cast iron components which made up the facades would be such an eloquent lexicon. No less rundown than their formal stucco cousins in Notting Hill, and with no indication that they could ever achieve the doll's house brilliance that they now sport, here was a Mannerist parade set out like typography in Manhattan's sharp maritime light. Quoins, dentils, cornices, pilasters, mullions, lintels, sills, reveal rustication - shadows chasing light wherever you looked.

Seeing Judd going about his business in his spare and ordered interiors was a commonplace pleasure in what was still a rough and ready working district - somewhere where you could see the world being made, rather than displayed. A lone figure and the glow of his building at night was much as you would find in any Edward Hopper.
Richard Wentworth is an artist who lives in London.

A FEW years ago an artist, around the same age as Donald Judd would be now, but making completely different work, sat forward and mumbled that contemporary art magazines run texts by people who haven't seen the shows. He didn't mean it metaphorically or metaphysically but it made you want to write about the expectation of seeing something and discuss the anticipation of seeing a show. Art generates pre- and post- thoughts, that's what's good about it. Writing about art doesn't happen while you are looking at it or whatever you are supposed to do with it. When it does, you get bad writing with no reflection and little of the distance needed for interpretation and developed thinking.

If you have seen Judd's work mainly in reproduction or dusty isolation, it is worth reflecting on what a precise exhibition of it could be, to note down some of the thoughts that have developed over years of seeing partial presentations. Of course, there are problems if you think about Judd's work too much, as well as a whole set of difficulties if you don't think enough about the way it should be seen. The narrative-led practice that dominates most art now - whether process-orientated or flaky and full of ultra-subjective resistance - is absent in his practice. All you can do with an exhibition like this is treat the work properly. You could try and reproduce the conditions of his homes and workspaces, with their combination of old industrial buildings, Navaho rugs, simple furniture and craft alongside the art, but it would be mannered and hard to achieve. Just doing what you think the artist would do isn't quite right either.

There is too much focus on a few key statements that Judd made that over-determine the reception of the work in relation to other earlier art. His sense of breaking free from earlier models of hierarchy and narcissistic expression in art was a resolutely political and progressive gesture. You are not supposed to fixate on the structures in isolation or to over-rationalize them within the late modernist tendency towards reduction. The work functions best when it is allowed to hover between its connection to its given location and other relative experiences we bring to the space. His claim for the work's break with the past must be understood as part of a general, simultaneous drive towards equality and quality: a notched sequence of differences that suggest a nuanced egalitarianism rather than a romantic fixation on the elemental form of anything: people, relationships, power or objects.

A Judd exhibition is supposed to be what it is, not what the materials want it to be or what the circumstances appear to dictate. An exhibition of the artist's work should be both the sum of its parts and its parts simultaneously. This is not the same as saying that it would be a unified whole made up from disparate elements. Instead the work should be allowed to reveal a sequence of progressions and construction techniques that are never resolved in the manner of high-European Modernism - Piet Mondrian, Richard Lohse or Josef Albers - where elements of the compositional framework are often derived from a synthesis of earlier models. The work doesn't fall into relativist meandering about the given state at a fixed point in time but sits as a sequence of built markers. These are subtle distinctions, but this is art. It is this focus on post-compositional, non-resolved, non-hierarchical structures that are dependent on certain details of construction that could make an exhibition like this dissolve in the wrong hands if weight is placed too heavily on any one of these factors.

Of course, the idea is that this is not enough; it was never enough (think of all the writing at the time condemning Judd as the court artist of faceless corporate modernism), and it remains part of a last-ditch anally retentive mannerism that merely masks grouchy machismo along the same lines as the guy who stands with a beer at his side gently polishing the inlet manifold of an old car, while grunting at the pressure to relate to people rather than objects. At worst it blocks out the nuanced gestures required to compete with the mutating qualities of late Capitalism. But Judd's work stands in relation to other art as a clear focal point that is both instructive and repressed. It accepts that we operate in relation to various geometries. It has little to do with design or architecture. It doesn't stand in the way of progress, but it does requires us to think through processes of development and to make decisions about our relationship to the world via the way art is related to it, rather than just referring to it.
Liam Gillick is an artist who lives in New York and London