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Donald Judd's architectural fury

Donald Judd’s spatial art is pure, furious and humane. He’d have made a great architect, says Patrick Lynch

In his lifetime, Donald Judd (1928-1994) developed from philosophy to art criticism to art, then towards architecture and finally polemic. In 2005, I visited his house and the Chinati Foundation art museum he founded in the desert at Marfa, Texas. His sheds and fields, filled with art, sat peacefully in the tepid equatorial winter air. You can sense his concentrated attention and almost religious devotion to detail. Spaces were shepherded, and condensed. He arranged things with precise affection and care for a visitor’s perception. Judd aspired to the ambitious programme we call architecture. This entails tending and husbanding the earth and its effects, even if the situation is invented and theatrical. Marfa is something like a Baroque project in its fragmentary complexity, where architectural imagination tends towards the creation of order, however unnatural.

It is odd how far behind art architecture lags. Judd’s 1964 essay ‘Specific Objects’ attacks the specious poses of artist Yves Klein and his attempts to make art a spontaneous joke. In true dialectical fashion, Judd rails against Klein’s blue-daubed bodies, against the artist’s idea of perception as the subject of art. Since Judd, no-one at art school trusts the idea of the artist-seer. Unfortunately this myth still drives the embarrassing image of the mindless architect-god. Architects and schools that try to emulate artists are 50 years out of date.

Judd’s other contribution to architecture is the essay ‘Nie Wieder Krieg’ (‘Never Again War’), written while he was very sick in 1991, just before Gulf War I. Discussing the effects of the war machine upon culture he wrote: ‘The consequence of a fake economy, which is a war economy, is a fake society. One consequence of this is fake art and architecture… The art museum becomes exquisitely pointless, a fake for fakes, a double fake, the inner sanctum of a fake society.’ Frank Gehry gets both barrels: Judd decries the ‘horrifying design of Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum [in Weil am Rhein, Germany]. These buildings make a joke of art, of culture, of the community, of the whole society.’

It is easy for us to forgive the dying rants of a sick man. Much harder to forgive are the dying rants of a sick culture. If I read Judd correctly, the avant-garde actions of the military-industrial complex pay homage to the bombastic aggression of the Futurist Manifesto. The Futurists’ crypto-fascist fantasies haunt architecture today. War imitates bad art. Or as philosopher Hannah Arendt has it, the banality of evil mirrors bad architecture in its brain-dead desire to force a reaction. Judd’s example is easy to dismiss, but he was right to point out that, ‘Fascist architecture’s main quality is not its aggressiveness but its mindlessness and vague generality, [its falsehood].’ Judd brilliantly yokes neo-con policies with the future-hubris of the international architectural avant-garde. Both want the fake purity of a new beginning, a cleansing Armageddon. Both worship technology. Both see speed as force. In humane contrast, Judd’s marriage of art and architecture is a gift, not a threat.

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