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Perfect Unlikeness: Donald Judd as Critic Author: Philip Leider Issue: February 2000 As editor of artforum through much of the '60s, Philip Leider published virtually every significant critical voice of the period. Here, on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of Donald Judd's death, leider reexamines the artist's critical essays and reviews, and finds in them as much breadth and depth as in the writings of any other critic of the period. In April 1966, the Jewish Museum in New York presented what turned out to be the major show of that year. It was called "Primary Structures," which was yet another term for "minimalism." Donald Judd, whose work was in the show, was appalled by the title, and was allowed to publish his disclaimer in the catalogue. Here are a few quotations from his remarks: I object to several popular ideas. I don't think anyone's work is reductive. The most the term can mean is that new work doesn't have what the old work had. . . . New work is just as complex and developed as old work.
Its color and structure and its quality aren't more simple than before; the work isn't narrow or somehow meaningful only as form. . . . "Minimal" and "ABC" are recent reductions of "reductive." A year earlier, in his fundamental essay "Specific Objects," Judd also tried to explain that what he called "the new work" was in no way minimal, reductive, "anti-art," "ABC art," or any of the other words and phrases (e.g., "Primary Structures") invented to suggest extreme simplicity:1 Simple form and one or two colors are considered less by old standards. If changes in art are compared backwards, there always seems to be a reduction, since only old attributes are counted and these are always fewer. But obviously new things are more, such as Oldenburg's techniques and materials. Oldenburg needs three dimensions in order to simulate and enlarge a real object and to equate it and an emotive form. If a hamburger were painted it would retain something of the traditional anthropomorphism.2 But if it was not the quality of reductiveness that distinguished the new work, what did?
be a distinctively "American" art. he was not simply an American chauvinist. it appears that . reviewing work by Hyde Solomon and Angelo Ippolito. as his love for Malevich. Klee. and—a typical Judd locution—"the best work is unlike in appearance. The color is beautiful and harmonious and the brushwork sensitive. Klein. unmodulated color. What they included were: a non-European look. new materials. Like every other serious artist of his generation (and the one preceding)." When we examine what each of these criteria meant to Judd. "singleness". . Solomon's deficiencies are much the same. but. or should. Judd consistently argued the problem of whether there could.Judd listed in several places the qualities he thought were characteristic. sense of art acquired from the European past. and other European artists makes clear. NON-EUROPEAN LOOK Here is Judd. Most of the time. . in 1963. two pretty typical "10th Street" painters of the time: Angelo Ippolito's Abstract Expressionist paintings are decidedly toned down by a . three dimensions. we discover that his critical position has often been seriously misconstrued.
corny. unusable. The real or usual anthropomorphism is the appearance of human feelings in things that are inanimate or not human. Any of the remnants of this are a liability. it doesn't imply a social order. usually as if those feelings are the essential nature of the thing described. . . The pieces have only the emotion . transparent. the work doesn't suggest a great scheme of knowledge. it doesn't claim more than anyone can know. Perhaps the fullest explication of Judd's objections to "European art" appears at the beginning of his essay on Oldenburg. In praising Barnett Newman. .his use of the expression "European look" is shorthand for exhausted. . But above all. . . Judd wrote that his work is concomitant with chance and one person's knowledge. I believe that for Judd "European art" meant an objectionable implied philosophical order. written in 1966 on the occasion of that artist's exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm: The real sense [of anthropomorphism] is one of the main aspects of old European art. Oldenburg's pieces have nothing to do with the objects they're like.
Chardin. and landscapes are not and humans are—in short. . In all of them. Cézanne or later Morandi. lonely. couples. anthropomorphic. tragic. Anyone particularly interested in objects in the past. hidden meanings. They seem sad. This belief came from rationalistic philosophy and through that from religion. and often do. all things that bottles. some of the little that is very good and free of unbelievable interpretation. as always. fruit. Oldenburg's work is. even lovers. seem human in their pathos. carefully chosen. . *** A small amount and the best abstract painting —it shouldn't be called abstract—isn't anthropomorphic in any way. believed that the things themselves had a reality that could be understood and shown. then. It has none of the attitudes and characteristics of traditional European art. Judd's examples are. the objects—bottles in Morandi—are wrapped in mystery. suggestive philosophical depths. His hostility to . sometimes look like families. and Judd simply hated it. in fact. .read into objects. Some threedimensional work isn't anthropomorphic or abstract.
His favorite of these was Oldenburg. which had consisted of the alternatives of . Lichtenstein's composition (something I still don't understand). and also applauded his appropriation of mechanical techniques: Lichtenstein's paintings are some of the most interesting done in recent years.) Oddly enough. was a thoroughly surprising development. feeling its artists had much less in common than the term implied). the artist Judd preferred by far was Lichtenstein. I believe. especially receptive to many of the "Pop" artists (he disliked the term. His representation of a comic panel . He also. Morris. surprisingly. It changed the whole problem of subject-matter in art. thought very highly of Lichtenstein. . but his art also exemplified an ideal of non-European scale and non-European color. and Sam Francis. for example. Judd's earliest reviews stressed. ."European" art made him. it is my impression even today that it is not clear to many people interested in the period that among. (Indeed. because not only did Oldenburg combine a distinctively non-European subject matter with nonEuropean materials. Rothko. Lichtenstein. of all things.
simply had no place else to go. of course.either traditional representation or abstraction. Judd also appreciated Rosenquist and some of the lesser Pop artists though strangely he showed almost no interest in Warhol. Lichtenstein's work is decidedly neither. for the time being. The most succinct statement of his position is in his thoughtful and appreciative evaluation of Kenneth Noland: . Finally. or what he simply called "the rectangle." He seemed to feel that the European tradition was so weighted in favor of painting that it made it almost impossible to imagine that painting might. have room left in it in which art could continue to develop. THREE DIMENSIONS Judd's feeling that much of the best new work was three-dimensional was based on his conviction that painting. Judd seemed to identify European art with an emphasis on painting. the idol. of the current generation (one senses in his reviews of Warhol a certain wariness). after achieving a rough equivalence between what was "in" the rectangle and the rectangle itself. and this will become clearer below.
Painting now is not quite sufficient. but his paintings are somewhat less strong than the several kinds of threedimensional work. Klein.Noland is obviously one of the best painters anywhere . If it does it will end up like lithography and etching. although only in terms of plain power. an existence for its own sake as a medium. It lacks the specificity and power of actual materials. Painting has to be as powerful as any kind of art. actual color and actual space. The image within the rectangle is obviously a relic of pictured objects in their space. . . as if the best painters were being forced by the logic of their own development into three dimensions. It is also significant that the work of the painters he most appreciated—Newman. circles or whatever are on it. it can't claim a special identity. This arrangement had been progressively reduced for decades. Judd makes his case for three-dimensionality most aggressively in "Specific Objects": . and especially early Frank Stella—all seemed to him to be approaching the condition of objects rather than paintings. More essentially it seems impossible to further unite the rectangle and the lines. It has to go entirely.
and new materials. welcomes him to the staff. space in and around marks and colors— which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. the (excellent) editor. fires him. provides a sample of the . The reason given is Judd's writing style. dated late April 1965. A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. unmodulated color. the Complete Writings reproduces the two letters that summarize his history as a critic for Art International. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space.Three dimensions are real space.3 Judd's conviction that the best new work would be in three dimensions is related to several of his other criteria: large scale (which he took to be fundamental to American art since Pollock). UNMODULATED COLOR AND NEW MATERIALS In one of the more amusing anecdotes about Judd's career as an art critic. dated January 1965. The first. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface. The second. The several limits of painting are no longer present. James Fitzsimmons.
" Judd thought that the "main development" in painting was toward independent color." Fitzsimmons could hardly be blamed for not understanding how much was packed into that "It's red. Other aspects of Judd's interest in "bright color" are related to his ideas about new materials and the colors inherent in them." remarks Judd." That didn't become explicit in Judd's criticism until the great 1974 essay on Malevich. There's some sculpture. Judd deemed Malevich the first to insist. The two artists whom Judd could not praise enough for their insight into "inherent" color are John . "There's a lot of force to the desire for independent color and form. John Smith shows a painting." I would imagine. It's fine. There. It's fine. which he called "narrow and intense" ("narrow. freed from its links to depiction. in 1915.kind of writing he finds unacceptable: "Most of the work shown is painting. Klein's blue paintings. to its life within the bounds of line. "intense" in the effect of that singleness). It's red. in their singleness of color. that "color and texture in painting are ends in themselves. for example. He deeply admired.
almost automatically. Two juxtaposed painted whites are subtle. . pastel enamels. working with fluorescent light tubes. his color is as particular. Flavin. sweet.Chamberlain and Dan Flavin. Indeed. The values "conspicuous" and "obvious" (both preferred over "subtle") are basic to Judd's aesthetic. In part it involves the hard. not just metallic shades. That is. two juxtaposed white tubes are pretty obvious. of Detroit's imitation elegance for the poor—coupled. their differences are conspicuous. complex and structural as any good painter's. frequently roses and ceruleans. makes more interesting color: Since the tubes are sources of light their colours seem given and unchangeable. Rooseveltianly. the full range. with reds and blues. to Judd's thinking. he sees them as equivalent to what he often means by "American" art and what he means by "European" art. and since as light the colours are much more visible than are material colours. which at the time consisted of constructions of crushed automobile bodies. Of Chamberlain's work. Judd wrote: Chamberlain is the only sculptor really using color.
House of Cards is an excellent example of one of . his audacity. by the slickness and glitz of fluorescent Plexiglas. anodized aluminum. and full of nuances. I had to admire his courage. his hedonism. blunt. when I walked into the Dwan Gallery and saw a series of blunt. . Serra wrote: I remember having fierce arguments with Smithson over Judd's preference for materials —I was taken aback by what I considered to be Don's fetishizing attitude. intricate. In its virtual isolation of all qualities other than the material itself. . hot-dipped galvanized-iron boxes cantilevered off the wall in a way that pushed the space and displaced the room. stainless steel. and honeylacquered finishes . and yet . European art is small. Judd's elevation of the importance of new materials particularly impressed Richard Serra (the admiration was mutual). polished brass. metallic paints. fussy. Commenting in Artforum on Judd's death in 1994. .American art is large. his rudeness. Serra has stated that his early lead piece House of Cards was an explicit homage to Judd. audacious. .
variations of a form. to analyze one by one. what he called "singleness. or the qualities of a new material. . Judd tries in several places to explicate the importance of singleness. to compare. In "Specific Objects" he writes: It isn't necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at. sometimes more clearly than other criteria but never with absolute clarity. The thing as a whole. They are not diluted by an inherited format. European art had to represent a space and its contents as well as have sufficient unity and aesthetic interest. its quality as a whole. clear and powerful. In the new . . I am sure. such as color."4 SINGLENESS The kernel of the idea of singleness. is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense." It became a part of Judd's aesthetic to seek work that isolated (and thus gave the fullest.Judd's highest values. to contemplate. or texture. . mild contrasts and connecting parts and areas. most powerful expression to) a single element. derives from the deep impression left on Judd by Malevich's statement that "color and texture are ends in themselves.
They are specific. has appropriated the results of industrial production. Another example is provided by Judd's surprising review of Morris's 1964 show at the Green Gallery. There aren't any neutral or moderate areas or parts. the shape. and Chamberlain.work. Reviewing some of his pieces in a group show in March. Judd wrote: . Klein. If they are used directly. The use of three dimensions makes it possible to use all sorts of materials and colors. aluminum. . . image. color and surface are single and not partial and scattered. either recent inventions or things not used before in art. any connections or transitional areas . Most of the work involves new materials. and so forth. red and common brass. Earlier that year Judd had been completely perplexed by Morris's work. Stella. . . . Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica. they are more specific. coldrolled steel. . Dan Flavin . Plexi-glas. Little was done until lately with the wide range of industrial products. Some of the artists Judd writes of as having achieved singleness primarily through the use of new materials are Oldenburg.
a second piece comprised a right angle with one end on the floor and the other touching the wall. writing about the Green Gallery show. "all shaped geometrically and painted Merkin Pilgrim gray. and everything is on their side. which is light. The shapes are strong and conspicuous and the color is inconspicuous. there is nothing to take. which is pretty puzzling. . "I need more to think about and look at. They are next to nothing. . Morris displayed an array of plywood forms. Rauschenberg said of one of his white paintings. They're here. as meager as they are. you wonder why anyone would build something only barely present. yet another was a large triangular shape fitted . Things that exist exist. his take on Morris was significantly different." One was a slab suspended about 1." Morris' pieces exist after all. "If you don't take it seriously. are large and are only rectangular.5 meters off the floor." Just a few months later. but added. There isn't anything to look at. . Judd went on to call the pieces "the most forceful and the barest" rejection of the "hierarchical values" of Western art so far.[Morris's pieces] are all painted light gray.
many aspects often thought essential to art are missing. . . such as imagery and composition. . the access to or denial of it. The Cloud [the hanging slab] occupies the space above and below it. this strikes me as perhaps the most original understanding of those early pieces by Morris I have ever read or heard. The occupancy of space. It's an unusual asymmetry. is very specific. . The triangle fills a corner of the room. . . "UNLIKE IN APPEARANCE" The oddly worded phrase appears in a statement written for "Sensibilities of the Sixties. The angle encloses the space within it. blocking it. .into a corner." an article by Barbara Rose and Irving Sandler that appeared in the January/February 1967 issue of Art in America: . What Judd liked about the show was its specificity. next to the wall. Whatever else one might feel. . but they're powerful spatially. Morris's pieces are minimal visually. . by which he meant the isolation of the single element of_ space_: First. The pieces are fairly ordinary geometric shapes and a very ordinary color.
works that seem to resemble one another. And it seems also a warning that. is not itself necessarily good. and especially the difference in the particular aspects of the work (the best work is unlike in appearance). bright color. It is also a warning that work by artist B.5 But it is in the plainest sense of the phrase that Judd lifts himself completely above the . and—without doubt most egregiously to Judd—Morris and Judd). in many cases. as we have seen again and again. are seen in time to have much. three dimensions.e. Newman and Rothko. Pollock and de Kooning. These are mostly obvious: the large scale and its particular nature. much less in common than it at first appeared (i.. use of new materials. and that it is simply lazy criticism to admire B because one admires A. which seems to "belong with" the work of the good artist A. "Unlike in appearance" seems simply to be an odd way of saying that the best works will not look alike.I think there are some very general aspects and attitudes common to most of the best artists. or that the best works should not be expected to resemble one another. or to belong together.
movements. and his writing about the period is mostly an odd kind of blustering. in Lucas Samaras and Serra."The range is from good to bad artists. the '80s). No major critic of the '60s. from Fried to Rubin to Bannard and Tillim. made it possible for him to genuinely see the best in Klein and Rosenquist. . could manage so broad an approach.better critics of his time. and there will never be enough of it alike to make one. "decades" (e. . (I've not included Clement Greenberg in this group because his greatness lies in his understanding of the '40s and '50s.) It was Judd's credo that there were no schools. . or academies.. Good work doesn't start in a school. Each time something new is done everyone expects the followers to grow up and make a school." he wrote." This led him to write . need not be motivated by a shared view of the state of affairs in art. in Oldenburg and Newman. "I don't like the terms avant garde and academy." or. The intuition that the best work of the time did not have to have a similar "look" or even a "family resemblance.g. Of the '60s he knew nothing. could understand the whole with the depth and clarity that Judd could. for that matter.
Each time we met I would raise the issue and each time would be .criticism as if the job of the critic were twofold: to distinguish the "dos" and "don'ts" that motivate the choices of good artists at any given time. and. And it strikes me as profoundly ironic that the only critic who could appreciate Roy Lichtenstein as deeply as Frank Stella or Richard Serra should be thought of to this day as the spokesman of a narrow. if possible. Notes 1. It is for this reason that Judd's writing. is the best guide available to the art of his time. much as Harold Rosenberg's 1952 "The American Action Painters" and Clement Greenberg's 1955 "‘American-Type' Painting" did for the '50s. without pitting one group of artists against another. and to a lesser extent Sidney Tillim's. nonexistent "movement" called minimalism. made it impossible for me as editor of Artforum at the time to get Judd to publish in the magazine. Judd's extreme disapproval of Fried's criticism. to explain how so. it seems to me now. "Specific Objects" and Michael Fried's "Art and Objecthood" represent the polar extremes of art criticism in the '60s.
) 3. One has the impression that he wrote in perpetual fear of the cliché. This paragraph will do as well as any other to discuss briefly the strangeness of Judd's prose. say. "compared backwards" (rather than "compared chronologically"). and it guarantees a careful reading.subjected to a harangue about how terrible the magazine was. "considered lacking"). I have discovered. (Judd's English. and I thought that having Robert Smithson writing regularly might coax Judd into contributing. I strongly wanted a counterbalance to Michael's overwhelming brilliance. But it turned out he hated Smithson too! 2. Such phrases as "considered less" (rather than. a puzzled consideration that ends with "Oh. "new things are more. now I get it." seem designed to force a kind of doubletake. both here and elsewhere. Judd's ideas about three-dimensionality. and also with a determination to force the reader to read everything twice. Maybe he didn't want any "Europeans" reading his stuff. provide a rough context for understanding Stella's later ." It's a system unique to Judd. is almost incomprehensible to foreigners who read "ordinary" English fluently.
in approaching something like "absolute" flatness." he wrote in a posthumously published essay in which he also complained that many artists of the '60s lost themselves "or they didn't know what to do. seriously compromising the clarity of mind found in his writing before . as Stella doesn't" (Artforum. who later took several swipes at Stella's constructions." had been moved from two to three dimensions. It was as if all the "problems of illusionism and of literal space.development. actual three-dimensional depth. This development must have horrified Judd. "It's easy to see that Chamberlain invented Stella's reliefs. but this time real depth. It was as if. Summer '94). and in that time Judd changed a lot more than Stella. he discovered depth again. space in and around marks and colors. That was thirty years after he'd called Stella the best painter in the country. To put it mildly. But then. A new idea is quickly debased. as the constructions of the '80s evolved they seemed to incorporate all the things Judd detested in "old" two-dimensional painting. an earlier characteristic crankiness had turned into what seemed an almost unrelenting rage. to his own surprise and deep interest.
he never had the slightest interest in either Smithson or Serra). Richard Serra. also lost interest in Stella (needless to say. to my mind.1975.) 5. the only artists of the '60s who managed to produce high art while maintaining a middle course through the magnetic field of the Judd-Fried tension. and Robert Smithson are. Judd went ballistic when the New York Times (not me) headlined a review I'd written "In the Shadow of Robert Morris. The posthumous essay mentioned above is a pretty good example. So there we have it: The two finest critical minds of the time found no value in the three greatest artists of the last half of the century. Morris had come out of a completely different milieu— . I'd guess that nothing infuriated Judd more than the constant coupling of his name with Morris's. Frank Stella. but Judd resented the idea that the artists in any way derived from him or his criticism. and Fried." Morris had organized the show. 4. Still. continued to admire Serra until his death. after about 1969. of course. (Judd. the record doesn't inspire confidence in the profession of art criticism. Judd turned his back on Smithson and the later Stella.
respectable people who should have known better felt that somehow Morris." Judd was already dead. (Relatively recently. Worse. in his writings. "spoke for" Judd. with gritted teeth.) . performance—none of which concerned Judd in the least.dance. and vice versa. in his grave. but turned. theater. a student approached me for help in writing an essay on "Morrison Judd.
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