Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-75.Press of Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 2005. 229pp. £40
‘What you’re sending me is not what I want, ’ wrote a magazine editor in 1965 to Donald Judd.
‘It’s not what you say… it’s the shambling basic-Hemingway you write in.’ Donald Judd:
Complete Writings reveals Judd to have continued in full combative flow for a further decade, well beyond the time when he needed to write for bread and butter.
Few would accuse Judd of not being to the point. He is the quintessential Minimalist. In his sculptures, his installations, his furniture, his every utterance, he is the arch formalist - pared down, assertive, dogmatic, imperious. He speaks - as does his work - of clear and firm beliefs, a world based on measure, order and logic.
Judd died in 1994 and his house and studio in Marfa, Texas - where he decamped from the overheated Manhattan art world - has become a pilgrimage site. You can see in its garden how he razed and tamed the desert landscape:
straight and straightened lines are everywhere. Beneath the wall his Land Rover remains - in the back of it, a perfect geometry of tightly packed, cuboid stainless steel containers, a domestic art work ready for a desert excursion.
Judd was by all accounts a fractious, demanding man.
In his retreat he became master of his own universe. The Chinati Foundation he set up in Marfa displays his own works, and those of fellow artists, as he believed they should be seen - perfect, immovable, inviolate (AJ 02.10.97).
This volume is, then, a step back to a time when Judd was moving in his own work from painting to sculpture and supporting himself as a jobbing writer of reviews for Arts Magazine, Art News and Art International. The bulk of the writings are from the earlier and (for Judd) hungrier years, 1961-64 - a seismic period in American art, when hot Abstract Expressionism gave way to cool Pop and Minimal art, and when legendary galleries (Leo Castelli, Andre Emmerich) were coming to the fore. Judd’s reviews give an intriguing glimpse into these heady years, written as they were before art history straightened things out, coined the names of movements and established a pantheon. The reviews are reproduced here direct from the magazines, with half-tone illustrations and short retrospective comments by Judd in 1975.
Judd’s task - unbelievably - was to review all gallery shows in New York. And how he churned them out. He writes of many names now famous, others long forgotten, with equal force and lack of deference. His style, like his art, is economic, assured, uninflected, and often abrasive. He gives short shrift to anything he believes unthought through, derivative, or without formal rigour.
He says little about Warhol, more of his fellow artists Roy Lichtenstein, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg and John Chamberlain - to whom he mostly remained committed, applauding originality of form and concept, the ‘unique idea’.
This was a time when artists began to advance their causes in words as well as works, and Judd was much to the fore in this. He was a partial, involved observer of the scene, promoting what he believed to matter in contemporary American art; he reveals a marked anti-European bias.
What is the value now of these writings? The anthology’s completeness inevitably results in the inclusion of clipped comments on artists whose names mean little or nothing to us (Omar Rayo, Herbert Kallem? ). Short reviews rarely survive, yet there is in this ensemble the interest of reading a diarist, observing history as it is made; and of the raw wisdom of the artist as critic, unenslaved by theory. Yet in the later texts, when Judd occupied a position of some authority in the late-60s art world, there are longer, manifesto-type pieces - seminal texts on what came to be known as Minimalism.
One such is ‘Specific Objects’ (1965), in which he talks of three-dimensional work which is not painting, not sculpture: ‘Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism [Judd’s bugbear]… Anything in three dimensions can be any shape, regular or irregular, and can have any relation to the wall, floor, ceiling, room, rooms or exterior or none at all. A work needs only to be interesting.’ A fi ne comment on his own work? In its insistence on a formalist reading of all art, such writing on the works of others, while incisive, ultimately reveals most about the writer himself, Judd, and his own art.
Martin Caiger-Smith is head of exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery