“Three dimensions are real space,” Donald Judd emphatically wrote in “Specific Objects” in 1965. “That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks of color… Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”
On ViewDavid Zwirner Gallery
May 6 – June 25, 2011
The recent exhibition at David Zwirner, which inaugurates the gallery’s exclusive representation of the Judd Foundation, features nine container-like aluminum boxes originally shown in a 1989 exhibition at Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden. Occupying the two westernmost galleries at the Zwirner multiplex, the spacious arrangement is the panoply of Judd’s aesthetic ideology and how differently it is read today. This exhibition suggests an imminent softening in Judd’s rigid convictions, particularly problematizing an illusionism created by objects—and their inherent physical characteristics—in real space. Despite tethering meaning to specific material properties and denying space created by anything but actual three dimensions, Judd permitted the reflections in the sculptures’ interior sheets of tinted acrylic glass, which eschew his earlier rejection of illusionism and produce a shimmering mirage of architectural space inside of the boxes.
These works suggest Judd relinquished control over the experience of real space and the materials. The mirror image quality intrinsic in colored acrylic glass (the more familiar brand name is Plexiglas), which is made with a chemical related to the acrylic paint polymer, quietly acts in painterly ways with subtle reflections of color and light. The reflections behave like an unapplied paint on an altering surface; their imagery veers with the direction and movement of a visitor. They also create a disorientation of gravity, flipping the overhead architecture upside down; a deception of depth suggesting that the acrylic glass bases are colorful wells leading to a subterranean gallery.
Judd’s sculptures act in concert with the architecture: the ceilings, skylights, and interior dimensions. The boxes’ proportions uncannily resemble those of gallery interior, as if Judd had designed them as metonymic or prototypically idealized space. Viewing the reflected images of the gallery’s lighting tracks (the light fixtures have been removed) and skylights on the bottom of the boxes, I got the sensation that the recessed skylights could be inverted Judd sculptures. The space feels destabilized, suspended, and, as Judd intended, it is experienced as a totality.
In an exhibition catalogue interview for the show’s original 1989 installation, when asked how the environment could influence his sculptures, Judd admitted a certain amount of accident in the way that specific qualities of natural light could affect the boxes. But this, he insisted, would not alter the work. The Zwirner show is evenly lit by skylight. Depending on the strength and quality of natural light, the local color of the inner partitions—such as orange or blue on anodized aluminum—becomes wilily delicate or subtly mutinous. There is a particular economy in the shadow and light, how one material’s color can cycle through several hues depending on its placement and the environmental light.
This show reminds us that Judd’s sculpture grew out of his painting, even though he still maintained stringently circumscribed distinctions between painting and sculpture, saying in 1989, “I’ve absolutely no interest in making paintings.” If Judd, whose radical ideas of the 1960s appeared suspiciously conservative by the 1980s, had concluded, “oil paint is hopeless,” this exhibition unearths a seemingly unconscious but illuminating painterly conflict via light. As Clement Greenberg stated in his essay “Sculpture in Our Time” (Arts Magazine, June 1958), “Rendering substance entirely optical, and form, whether pictorial, sculptural, or architectural, as an integral part of ambient space—this brings anti-illusionism full circle. Instead of the illusion of things, we are now offered the illusion of modalities: namely, that matter is incorporeal, weightless, and exists only optically like a mirage.” When Judd moved to Marfa later in his career, he began to engage with the real space surrounding the sculpture (or the theatricality of the surrounding space, as discussed in Michael Fried’s 1967 “Art and Objecthood” essay) and the space’s conditions of light. He also created skylights in the military warehouses on his property to allow more natural light for his sculptures. All of these characteristics suggest a Donald Judd thoughtfully moving on from how his work was canonized under Minimalism.
Complicating the tautology of Judd’s earlier works, the show refutes the 1960s critical response published in Time magazine that “for Judd, a box is a box is a box, and nothing more.” It brings to mind the argument Joshua Shannon makes in The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City, who said “Judd’s work identified an ascendant idealism in its city, and that it responded with an oddly qualified, materialist alternative.” Shannon characterizes Judd’s work as a response to New York’s deindustrialization, to skyscraper building and container shipping, and he notes the irony that Judd’s sculptures appear machine-made when they were in fact hand-assembled and fabricated. The most stunning images in Shannon’s book juxtapose Judd’s copper stacks (1969) with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Union Carbide Building (1955 – 60). Shannon concludes that, “The world this art imagines is the future—a future characterized by the metal modules of a postindustrial economy.” The shiny-new glass towers rising over the exhibition’s Chelsea location only reinforces Shannon’s position.
Contemporary sculpture has opened the relationship between painting and sculpture considerably, and it has expanded beyond the formal issues expounded by Judd to include political, social, and cultural content. Many young artists (using a plurality of mediums and materials) have adopted Rauschenberg’s combine strategies to fuse such concerns to abstract form. Some, such as Rob Fischer, Camilla Lowe, Tobias Madison, Mary Mattingly, Sterling Ruby, Wendy White, Matthew C. Wilson, and Michaela Meise, appear to comment directly on Judd’s work and its related urban idealism, while others— Rachel Harrison, Pam Lins, Matthew Monahan, Heather Rowe, Gedi Sibony, Suzanne Stroebe, and Oscar Tuazon—work obscurely with (or against) Judd’s aesthetic dictums.
Judd’s work will be forever atour de force of focused, clear-eyed aesthetic, machine-fetishizing machismo. This show reveals a tension by unraveling the intention to focus solely on real space that Judd described in “Specific Objects.” In 1966, Judd said, “I’d like work that didn’t allude to other things and was a specific thing in itself.” But, as this show expresses, “I would” or “should” is not the same as “I do.” I think Judd had more to express than the “thing in itself,” as his work proves, and his writing often intimated.