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