When asked what he thinks of the term “minimal art,” Donald Judd responds “Well I don’t like it, you know. What’s minimal about it?”
Though Judd is now classified as a minimalist, even his most pure work reflects immense sculpting and craftsmanship. This ethos is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the Spring 2020 Season. This is his first American retrospective in 30 years and presents a breadth of the artist’s work.
Who is Donald Judd?
When Donald Judd died in 1994 in New York he left behind a strong legacy rooted in space and place. In his lifetime he sewed seeds in Manhattan and Marfa, Texas, two distinctly different places that offered the artist different resources.
In Manhattan, he lived and worked at 101 Spring Street in the cast-iron district, which became a space for constant and permanent exhibition as well as proximity to the art world and his friends.
As his work grew in scale and demanded more space, Judd began purchasing land in Marfa, Texas where space was plentiful. In Marfa, Judd was able to create permanent installations of his work as well as that of his friends.
Prior to creating large scale sculpture, Judd was a painter and before that, wrote reviews for art shows and exhibitions for various publications throughout New York.
Donald Judd started making sculptures in 1962 when painting failed to fulfill his artistic ambition. His three-dimensional work explores themes such as orthogonal geometry, stacking and juxtaposition, and are made in industrial building materials including plywood, aluminum, brass, and steel. Judd also ventures into color composition and would create a piece that is either entirely painted or not, in a variety of color combinations unique to each piece.
Any one piece of art typically utilizes one material in a simple geometric form and is often in a series to showcase change and difference in perspective, form, shape, or light. His works are usually untitled with some rare exceptions. There is, in fact, one piece in the MoMA Retrospective exhibition that is titled as a dedication.
Donald Judd’s Stacking Series
One of the most well-known Judd archetypes is the Stacking series. Though they maintain the same idea, each stack piece is vastly unique. Within the MoMA Retrospective, for example, there are five (or eight, depending on who you ask) on display. The basic premise of this artwork is a vertical column of rectangular boxes evenly spaced between each other. At the MoMA, one stack is comprised of 7 units made of galvanized iron. Another is comprised of 10 units in stainless steel and plexiglass. Despite their differences, they are always installed on a wall.
These stacks can be seen as measuring devices, or light reflectors, or objects that draw your eye up toward something (but what?). What is special about the stacks is that a majority of Judd’s work is across a landscape that creates a horizontal field, and here the stacks are vertical protrusions toward a higher plane that draw the viewer’s eye up and balance out the horizontality of the rest of the exhibition and his oeuvre.
Highlights in the Judd Retrospective
Once you become familiar with Judd’s style his work becomes immediately identifiable. Quite gratuitously, the MoMA retrospective includes some of Judd’s early work when he started moving from 2 dimensions to 3.
The exhibition opens with several woodblock prints and several paintings that are wonderful and don’t immediately pronounce themselves as Judd’s. They are paired with early sculptures that are examples of Judd trying to stretch shape into volumetric form that grow out of or into the canvas.
This retrospective includes many iconic Judd pieces like the Stacking series, but it also features sketches and lesser known work that reveal the process behind Judd’s work. Many of his later pieces are immaculately produced. They are shown with his earlier pieces that show signs of experimentation and curiosity in what he and his manufacturers could achieve.
Tips for Enjoying the Exhibition
The exhibition has crowd control so you might have to wait in line but the exhibition space won’t be extremely crowded. The wall texts offer generous overviews of the galleries but one of MoMA’s best curatorial features are the audio guides that accompany some of the artwork. Any visitor can access the audio files from the MoMA website which you can listen to with your personal headphones. Or you can borrow an official museum audio guide.
Take your time going through the galleries and walk around all the sculptures if you can. Look at the details and try to find hints of the craftsman who made each piece. Observe each piece up close and from afar and be sure to watch the reflections made in the mirrored surfaces.
[At the writing of this article, the museum is temporarily closed in an effort to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Visit MoMa’s website for details]