Dear Donald Judd, A Begrudging Letter of Love
Updated: Jul 21, 2019
I’ve never given Donald Judd much thought. I remember seeing pieces of his at the Art Institute of Chicago (or somewhere) when I was young. They irritated me; I felt like they were in my way and I wanted to brush them aside. I think their relationship to furniture offended me.
But here I am in Marfa, TX, looking at hundreds of his sculptures and having lots of energetic thoughts. The work still irritates me, at least the hundred aluminum works do, inside the two gigantic open hangers in the gigantic open west Texas environs of his Chinati Foundation. The way in which they bother me though warrants exploration: it’s provocative.
It’s similar to the feeling I experienced around one of On Kawara’s date paintings, which I encountered regularly in collage.
I just loved to hate that painting. White block letters and numbers indicating a date, painted on a flat back background on a small format canvas. He didn’t get the spacing quite correct, so the digits on the right hand side are a little squished, a little thinner. The font is a little sloppy and the paint is not applied well, though the marks betray a focused attempt at neatness. I relished my indignation a about the presence of this object in the halls of art history, but I thought about it all the time. Over time, the meaning of the work resonated deeply with me. I realized that its nod to now-ness, it’s evidence of an impossible attempt to contain a moment, is perched adjacent to most of the significant concepts I stroke in my own work.
Judd’s many shiny, modular, geometric constructions leave the top three-quarters of the volume of the exhibition site empty and require bending over for close examination. The gridded expanse of them reminds me of cubicles with the walls removed and of the Apple Store, and I wonder, “Which styles can one buy from Design Within Reach for his or her workspace in Silverlake?”
I enjoy things though that make me think about math, and Judd’s Marfa multiples are nothing if not permutations. There is something Democratic about the arrangement: all unique and yet all equal, at least in terms of space allotted. And as I walk around and in between the pieces I notice the poetry of negative space and of the reflections of the desert light streaming in and bouncing about their angles. The illusion of the work is entertaining; “Is that an opening or a shadow?” Almost despite myself I am thinking about removal and absence.
I adore Robert Smithson’s low to the ground, mirror corners sculptures, filled with piles of earth. They invite rumination on these same themes. In comparison, Judd’s work has always seemed to me similar to this game called Superfection, which I enjoyed as a child. In the game, many diversely shaped and brightly colored plastic cube fragments must be fit together to make complete blocks before a timer goes off and all is lost.
I am having a new experience here in Texas. I seem to be enjoying minimalist sculpture as thought exercise. I am enjoying Donald Judd’s art. It should not be such a surprise, since I do respect and identify with his vision of art installed in a permanent home in open an empty landscape, the vision that birthed the Field of Dreams that is Marfa.
Going outdoors to the long path that is home to Judd’s large concrete box structures, I begin thinking about shipping containers and an abandoned factory in which I used to hang out as a teenager. It’s fun to hide in the sculptures. From inside any of the maybe 8x8x6 ft. open cubes, the openings frame the vast terrain and turn it into myriad landscape paintings.
I have an image in my mind of ancient tombs in Egypt or someplace and feel a strange, creeping fear of being shut up in one of these boxes, as if it’s a container truck and someone might slam shut the door. So I go back outside. There’s nothing precious about these pieces. The texture of wood grain is visible, touchable, on the walls that hold these inverse monoliths. The grain clearly records the molds used to pour the concrete slabs. Again I arrive at positive and negative, removal and absence.
As I move through the space around the structures- the space, which is the real medium of the work, I have an utterly new thought: “Nicely done, Mr. Judd.”