Space odyssey: Donald Judd - space, light and sculptures that take on a life of their own

It was Donald Judd’s ability to give inanimate objects a life of their own that made the late American artist one of the greatest sculptors of his age

It has been the fate of the American artist Donald Judd in Britain to be viewed more as a leading member of the so-called “minimalist” school of sculpture than as a singular artist in his own right. Most curators here would readily attest to his importance as one of the most significant postwar sculptors.

Examples of his work appear in broad surveys of art. The Tate held a retrospective of his work in 2004,  10 years after his death in 1994.

But the British have always found him somewhat cold as an artist, a cerebral proponent of ideas rather than the hand-fashioned, organic works that they prefer. 

Judd in his turn kept rejecting the epithet “minimalist”, arguing that his plywood and metal cubes and stacks were the products of creative  imagination just as much as classical sculptures and figurative bronzes.

You can judge for yourself in a  current exhibition at David Zwirner in Mayfair, the first gallery showing of Judd’s work in Britain in 15 years. It’s not a large exhibition, with only seven works in three rooms. But they are  spaciously presented, include some of his seminal “boxes” and wall-mounted cubes and cover works from all three of his last decades.

The initial impression walking into the first room with only two works, the red fluorescent Plexiglas and steel box simply labelled Untitled from 1965, and a row of plywood boxes fixed to the wall, Untitled (Ballantine 89-49), is indeed of “minimalism” in its most pared-down form. The boxes are without decoration. In the wall group they are without colour, the variation provided by the space dividers within, fixed straight in the first box and then positioned slanting on either side.

It is only when they are given room, as they are here, that you understand that they are essentially exercises not in form but in space and light. Like Giacometti, Judd was fascinated by the space around an object and what the work did to  create space by occupying it. While Giacometti worked with the figure, however, Judd played with the abstract and increasingly, through his use of modern materials, with the effect of light as it  impacted on space and surface.

Donald Judd’s initial grounding was as an engineer in the US Army. He graduated in philosophy from Columbia University while taking night courses in art and his first ambition was to be an architect rather than an artist. In a sense, he never lost the desire for clarity of logic and detail of preparation that engineering and philosophy gave him. Art, he later declared, was “the simple expression of complex thought”.

Not that he was ever simply a man of ideas in the manner of the conceptual artists who flourished around him. He actually started out as an Expressionist painter but fairly soon gave that up to take up sculpture in its most rigorous form of construction. He never showed much interest in it as an expression of physical sculpting, although he had begun with wood carving. Indeed, he denied his works being sculptures in the sense of being man-made at all, being perfectly happy to farm out the actual implementation of his ideas, based on drawings, to fabricators to build using industrial processes.

He nonetheless remained an artist in the old-fashioned sense that he  regarded the work as a stand-alone  object, the product of the artist’s will and imaginings. Traditional art he thought redundant because it tried to represent space. What he wanted to do was to use real space and give it presence through clearly defined objects.

From very early on, in the Sixties, he developed a series of forms – “boxes”, “stacks” – which he pursued and developed through the next 30 years to a point where some critics at least found them merely repetitive. Simplifying an object into a basic structure such as a cube or a square, he sought not so much to develop variations as to search out possibilities. By putting lids of coloured Plexiglas on steel frames on a wall he suffused the light within the space  behind the rigid forms. By placing  anodised against stainless steel he deepened the space but made more  ambiguous the cube within.

The David Zwirner exhibition  contains examples of both his early work and his later efforts, when he had bought a complex in Texas and increasingly opened up his work both in size and in its sensitivity to changing light.

Untitled of 6 July 1964, a simple square shape made of enamel on galvanised steel, already shows his preference for cadmium red as the basic background colour of his works for the decades ahead. A wall-installed bar of stainless steel, Untitled (Bernstein  76-32), from a decade later illustrates his growing interest in sequenced and repeated shapes as they push out into the space of the viewer.

By the late 1980s, in his free-standing constructions of plywood, such as Untitled (Ballantine 89-31) of 1989, and his wall-mounted cubes of anodized and enamelled aluminium, here represented by Untitled (Menziken 88-63) and Untitled (Lascaux 89-59), he had developed a wide-ranging repertoire of colour, materials and basic form.

The fascination of these works is  partly the subtlety with which they take on a life of their own through variation of colour and material as well as form. Judd’s Untitled constructions intrigue not because they say anything directly to you but because they draw you into spaces where light and the play of  shadow and depth become a texture in themselves. There is something about an open box that impels you to look  inside, to try and search out its corners.

Fixed on the wall or positioned on the floor, they challenge you to understand them. Placed at eye level on the wall, they come out towards you,  imposing themselves on your space as well as inviting you in to theirs. Standing on the floor, they induce you to look down and into the internal spaces hidden from your sight line.

How does an inanimate object so carefully contrived become such a live presence before you is almost impossible to pin down. But it is what makes Judd such an outstanding artist and also such a singular one. It has something to do with the reduction of shapes to their most basic form. As in music, there is something ethereal in mathematical order.

In a three-dimensional work the  purity remains but the effect is extended by the interaction of the planes and the play of light and shadow between them. Judd may have given up his  ambition to be an architect but you can see why he first wished it. Many of his works do have the quality of an architect’s model. As he became more experimental in his combination of materials and colours, I think he also became less certain of just how it would work out in practice and more open minded about the possibilities.

An exhibition such as this can only provide a taster of his work. It does not include the much larger and more monumental works he produced once he had purchased a ranch and then tracts of desert in Marfa, Texas, in the 1970s. There he was able to erect structures specific to the landscape and the light of the place as well as to work on  commissions elsewhere. He wanted his sculptures to have a permanent place where they could own their space rather than be treated as objects to be shifted around galleries to compete with other objects and different backgrounds.

In Zwirner’s gallery, they are given the space of their own. They’re far from being Judd’s whole work or  necessarily his best. But just stand and let them work on you and you can see why so many feel him to be on the greats of the past 50 years.

Donald Judd, David Zwirner, London W1 (020 3538 3165) to 19 September

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before