Books

The Artist as Acerbic Critic: Donald Judd’s Writings

A new volume of Donald Judd’s art criticism contains previously published essays, rejected ones, and choice passages from his notebooks.

Donald Judd Writings (2016) (photo by Sol Hashemi © Judd Foundation)

Donald Judd (1928-1994) was an intelligent SoHo artist most noted for his unadorned rectangular sculptures that arrived during the mid-1960s and stayed alive in art exhibitions to his death. His second claim to art -world fame was his renovation of a sleepy Texas town along the Mexican border. In Marfa, Texas, he purchased land, built exhibition spaces along with lodgings, and established the Chinati Foundation that survived him.

What is sometimes forgotten is the fact that Donald Judd began his professional career as a writer, indeed as an art critic, at a time when the downtown NYC art scene regarded the writing artist as suspect. As early as the late 1950s, he published reviews of several kinds, not just of individual exhibitions — as were common in the art magazines of the time — but also on general subjects such as New York City’s museums and other critics’ art reviews.

These short pieces (most under 1,000 words) were generally more carefully written and more objective than other art writing at the time. What initially makes them interesting significant now is the forecasts he made of his own art. While the most influential essay was “Specific Objects” (1964), this book, Donald Judd Writings (edited by Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray), published in 2016,  becomes valuable for reprinting an earlier appreciation (from from January 1963) of Lee Bontecou. Bontecou’s wall mounted sculptures from the late 1950s (perhaps most familiar to visitors to the lobby of the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center) had a revolutionary influence at the time. He says about these pieces:

The four obvious aspects of the reliefs — the broad scale, the total shape, the structure, and the image — combine exponentially into an explicit quality and are the aspects of a single form. The new scale excludes everything but the positive elements; there is no field in which the structure or the image occurs; there is no supporting context. The entire shape, the structure, and the image are coextensive.

Donald Judd, Handwritten note, 21 May 1986, pencil on paper, 11 x 8 1⁄2 inches, (Donald Judd Text © Judd Foundation Image © Judd Foundation, licensed by ARS)

In a few sentences Judd concisely identifies some anti-expressionist principles that later informing his own sculptures that which similarly lacked any visible supporting apparatus.

Two qualities of Judd’s best criticism are superior understandings, as in the passage above about Bontecou, and his often risk-taking prose:

Warhol: You have to conclude that things that shit shit, talk shit, and look like shit are shit. Or shit, talk shit, and look like shit are shit or are shit that shit, etc., or are shit that craps, talk shit, and look like shit. Or are craps that shit, talk, crap, and look like shit are shit.

One measure of the seriousness of Judd’s criticism is that his asides, often in parentheses, are pointed:

One of my jokes about Heiner Friedrich and Philippa de Menil was that they were rednecks in kaffiyehs, since around 1980 they became Sufi Muslims, supposedly the most reactionary group in Turkey. Friedrich once tried to gain my sympathy, as if I knew nothing of left or right, by saying that after all they were trying to overthrow the Turkish Government. The kaffiyeh covers your neck so that it’s not possible to have  a red neck, but being Sufi makes it possible to seem chic and jet-set and exotic, cool in New York City, while really being a redneck, this is, narrow and super, self-righteous, simple and intolerant, racist, fascist, everything ignorant and arrogant.

Donald Judd, Handwritten note, 14 April 1987, pencil on paper, 5 3⁄4 x 4 inches (Donald Judd Text © Judd Foundation Image © Judd Foundation, licensed by ARS)

Since he didn’t resist saying what was on his mind, some of his later essays appeared not in art magazines — which can be blinkered, especially if the artist’s writings can be dismissed as self-serving — but as contributions to catalogs accompanying his exhibitions around the world.

Some of the strongest essays recall Judd’s disappointing dealings with art dealers, curators, and collectors (especially Giuseppi di Panza but also the de Menils, as in the passage quoted above), which is to say that they contain art world truths that many suspect, but are not commonly admitted. For these nuggets alone, younger artists would learn much from this book. For example:

Everyone thinks that they are doing artists a favor: the newest “collector” on the street, already asking for a discount; the new hole-in-the-wall gallery with a new discount sable; the first-year subcurator; the old director, notoriously the entrepreneur of a “culture garden,” the bed shotgun collector. To them art is defined by its lack of integrity.

My hunch is that their publication was delayed for 20 years after Judd’s death because some objects of his negative notice are now dead and thus cannot sue for libel.

Co-published by his eponymous foundation (along with David Zwirner Books) more than two decades after the author’s death, Donald Judd Writings is an impressive brick. With its small format of four by seven inches, which the critic Edmund Wilson recommended (since adopted by the Library of America), This book can be held aloft in the reader’s hands. Writings includes not only previously published essays, but also rejected ones (and a few that appeared before only in another language), as well as choice, short passages from his notebooks. Selah.

Donald Judd, 2nd Floor, 101 Spring Street, New York, 1985 (photo by Doris Lehni-Quarella © Antonio Monaci, licensed by ARS)

Some curious design departures include burying the copyright in tiny print on page 1,056, where the book’s populous production team is also identified. Also, the absence of running heads or running footers is disorienting. This labor of self-foundation-love closes with 156 pages of color illustrations of works by Judd and those colleagues he admires. As these pictures are, given the book’s small format, tinier than is typical, my suspicion here is that Judd himself, who didn’t like seeing his work diminished, might have objected to such thumbnail illustrations.

Thanks to the force of Judd’s critical intelligence, this is a brick of a book — its small format notwithstanding — by many measures as heavy as any other written by any of his contemporaries.

Donald Judd Writings was co-published by the Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books in 2016.

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