Obituary: Donald Judd
Wednesday 23 February 1994
THE SCULPTOR Donald Judd was a central figure in the group of American artists, including Carl Andre, Dan Flawin, Sol Lewitt and Robert Morris, who emerged in the mid-Sixties and who came to be known as Minimalists. Like most artists, Judd disliked the labels attached to him: he preferred 'Empiricist' to Minimalist, and to him to be a 'sculptor' meant to be a carver, which he decidedly was not.
Judd was an exceptionally intelligent, well-educated and articulate artist. He earned his first degree in philosophy from Columbia University, then studied painting at the Art Students' League, and returned to Columbia for postgraduate work in art history. As an artist, Judd pursued painting during the Fifties in work that became increasingly simple and geometric in form, arising more from the art of Kasimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian and Barnett Newman than that of the dominant Abstract Expressionists. In the late Fifties and early Sixties he started writing art criticism on a regular basis, principally for Arts magazine. His writing was noted for its rigour and clarity of thought, its bluntness and economy of expression - the same qualities later associated with his work. He championed the early work of many important artists including John Chamberlain, Frank Stella and Claes Oldenberg.
In his writing and in his art Judd tried to determine the most basic components of aesthetic experience. He came to consider composition, representation and even 'abstraction' as played out, the metaphoric expression of human emotion itself no longer truly possible, the grander implications of metaphysics redundant. Instead he proposed that works of art should be seen as autonomous objects, 'real' and specific, complete in themselves. He believed in the primacy of the viewer's direct, immediate, and unmediated experience of the work of art, that aesthetic experience could be accounted for solely in the visual, kinesthetic and physical experience of the viewer in the presence of the work. He sought to make an art both idealist in character and recognisably of his own time - his work celebrated the forms and materials of the contemporary world. His insight and courage in making art based solely on these beliefs established him as one of the most important, radical, and influential artists of his time.
Judd's mature work can be seen to develop from 1962. His rigorously persistent form was to be the box, the most simple object / unit of spatial organisation, but he used this apparently simple unit to create, without deviating from his principles, an immensely rich and complex world over the next 30 years. Articulation was primarily dependent on size, scale, proportion, number, materials, fabrication details, and colour. He made single boxes, boxes as repeated units, in series and in sequences, open and enclosed, on the floor and on the wall, indoors and outside, from small to vast, in coarse materials such as concrete and plywood, slick modern materials such as perspex and aluminium, and traditional sculptural materials such as copper and steel. Though his vocabulary was restricted, his work was not mechanistic, cold, or puritanical. Rather it was sensual and humane.
Judd's work helped redefine the nature and character of sculpture, breaking down completely the separation between art and the world represented by the plinth. Through his insistence on the specific object character of a work of art, Judd located the experience of art in the same realm as our experience of other objects in the world. These ideas greatly influenced Conceptual Art, and much of the art of today draws upon his formal language but includes the references and content he eschewed.
Like many American artists of the Fifties, Judd saw post-war European art as timid, decadent and tired. Like the Abstract Expressionists, he wished to establish a vigorous, new, American art and understood that to do so it was necessary to travel to the radical frontier of art. It was appropriate that in his last years this quintessentially American 'empiricist' absorbed himself in an immensely ambitious project in the Texas frontier town of Marfa.
Buying many of the buildings in and around this isolated and declining town, Judd set about renovating and expending them to display, in what he considered ideal circumstances, large numbers of his own works as well as many by his fellow artists which he had acquired over the years. He also equipped these buildings with the strikingly original furniture he designed and produced from the late Seventies. It is one of the tragedies of Don Judd's untimely death that this project will now never be fully realised. He was divorced from his wife, Julie Finch, a dancer, and shared his life for many years with his companion, Marianne Stockebrand.
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