On ViewDavid Zwirner
Donald Judd, Artworks: 1970–1994
November 5 – December 12, 2020
On ViewMuseum of Modern Art
Through January 9, 2021
When Donald Judd published his essay “Specific Objects” in Arts Yearbook 8 in 1965, just two years after his first one-person show of 3D work at Green Gallery, it was immediately recognized as the loudest if the not the most damaging shot across the bow of so-called Abstract Expressionist art, the then-dominant contemporary idiom. It heralded the arrival of undefinable art objects and banished from art all anthropomorphic appeal, every last trace of illusionism. From a distance of decades, it’s easier to see Judd’s veiled polemic for what it was: opinion masquerading as analysis and intuition supported primarily by his own practice. At the same distance, through two major exhibitions, it’s possible to see and feel intensely what Judd accomplished. These shows assume and reiterate Judd’s status, but questions nag: Are the reservations about this work really settled, and more important, can work that appears to be light years from current concerns with identity and politics have anything to say about where we are now?
The MoMA exhibition, portentously titled Judd, as if he were a lawman from the Old West, come to clear out disorderly miscreants, details the 30-year development of his “specific objects” from things that look like brightly colored but disturbingly outsized playroom equipment to the finicky precision of what might be called the wall furniture of his later years, precisely machined constructions of painted metal and plywood. A younger of his contemporaries, Richard Serra, might fall in love with industrial COR-TEN steel, but he could never leave mythology behind; his work looks like it was assembled by a race of antediluvian giants. Judd’s late work, on the other hand, looks like it was assembled by Swiss German engineers, fresh from an Audi test track or the CERN supercollider. As intimidating and confident as the works developed in the 1970s and after can be, it is difficult to banish their chilliness and their inevitable associations with the corporate aesthetic of the office building. Judd’s vociferous objection to that analogy only underscores the work’s continuing vulnerability to leftist critique.
The most important room at MoMA is the first, which to some degree mimicked the original Green Gallery show. The objects are painted a uniform cadmium red and each of them has a fairly obvious logic, sometimes bordering dangerously on Surrealism (an inert wooden cube with a metal tube running in a channel cut into the top), an approach Judd dismissed. They represent a calculated attempt not only to break with past traditions in a bait and switch (yes, there is paint, but no, these are neither “paintings,” nor are they sculptures in any recognizable sense; rather, inert constructed forms). They also seem to break with the idea of individual “works.” Judd’s emphasis on specificity and muteness encouraged critics of the time to consider the show in the old way. In those terms, it looked like a group show of utter mundanity. Yet the pieces in this arrangement seem less like “specific objects” and more like facets of a complicated cadmium red whole. It is the one room in the exhibition where it was possible to feel undistracted.
That is why the Zwirner exhibition is important. As Judd’s serial ideas (try this material relation, then this variant, then another, and now a new form … ) expanded, and as his work did indeed become more specific and diverse, display became more problematic. Viewing pieces together even in the large open rooms of MoMA forecloses the possibility for an experience of being-before-the-object, the discovery of your own physical presence in the impassive presence of the single thing. Too much eye candy lobbies for attention.
Zwirner’s answer is to play the space card. In the measureless halls of 19th Street, each of the objects gained maximum autonomy (another Judd preoccupation). This was transformative, and there were several major works that demanded attention, if not obeisance. The 1986 piece untitled is a wall of some 30 plywood boxes hung in three rows at 533 West 19th Street. The boxes contain upright dividers of varying spacings and angles and acrylic panels in three colors. At once ponderous and active, it displays the contradictions of Judd in extenso. Its calculated serial rhythms militate against any narrative reading, but it occupies the archaic position of a fresco, or perhaps a series of stained-glass windows. And rather than allowing the viewer some autonomy, it imposes a comprehensive set of demands and restrictions.
More uplifting is the main room at 519 West 19th Street, dominated by two pieces, diametrically opposed to each other. Bolted to the back wall and turning both corners are panels of galvanized iron, some warping slightly at their joints and giving the whole thing a rough, Serra-esque character. Constrained by its tight binding to the wall, plane against plane, untitled (1970) seemed least like an object of anything in the gallery. Far across the room hung a row of six small blue boxes of anodized aluminum. Alone on the vast white stage, they glowed like beacons. It was strange and wondrous to be caught between these two poles of experience, one attracting, one retreating, resisting.
Judd’s prescriptiveness toward other forms of art seems absurd if not downright medieval in these tumultuous times. His narrow approach reveals the meaninglessness of design. Yet his critique of conventional humanist platitudes about the expressiveness of art aligns with current interests in so-called object-oriented art. The movement is one more attempt to deflect art’s preoccupation with subjectivity in the interest of an enlarged, truly environmental vision. At this late date, Judd’s objects might aid us, in the words of poet A.R. Ammons, “ … not so much to know the self/ as to know it as it is known/ by galaxy and cedar cone,/as if birth had never found it/and death could never end it.”