In 1984, I met Donald Judd but did not know it. I thought I was talking with John Chamberlain. It was after an opening in a now defunct bar and restaurant on Lower Broadway. The place was packed and, not knowing anyone at the gathering except the person who brought me, whom I soon lost sight of, I got a drink and made my way to the nearest wall, where I stood next to a man who appeared content to be outside of the noisy, jostling crowd.
We introduced ourselves and I am sure he said his name was “John Chamberlain.” We had a pleasant conversation. He politely corrected me when I asked him if he lived in Florida, “No,” he said, “I live in Texas.”
Later, as the taxi carrying my friend and me was about to pull away from the curb, I saw him emerge from the party with an older woman I recognized as Annalee Newman, the widow of Barnett Newman. I turned to my friend and said, “I didn’t know that John Chamberlain knew Annalee Newman.” My friend looked at me with withering disdain: “That’s not John Chamberlain, stupid; that’s Donald Judd.”
I remembered this encounter when Ann Temkin and I recorded our conversation about Judd’s work for his upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (March 1–July 11, 2020). While Judd has been in many exhibitions at MoMA, this will be the first time the museum has awarded him a retrospective. Why did it take so long?
In 1988, the Whitney Museum of America Art gave Judd a retrospective, curated by Barbara Haskell. It consisted of 30 objects. This is how Michael Brenson described it in his New York Times review (October 21, 1988):
It includes work from Judd’s entire career; old paintings and new furniture; wood, plexiglass and metal; ladders of boxes and more than 12 iron squares that fence off the wall behind them.
Ann told me that the MoMA retrospective would have 80 works: 70 sculptures, and 10 works on paper. In our recorded conversation, we talked about three works, all made between 1984 and 1991: two wall reliefs and one very large piece on the floor. According to the sheet I was given, they would be in Gallery 4 of the exhibition. They were done during the last decade of his life, when sensuality edged aside austerity.
The call from MoMA stemmed from my participation in a 25-minute film, Donald Judd – Marfa, Texas, by Chris Felver. Filmed on June 3, 1992, Judd’s 64th birthday, it was the last interview he did. He died less than two years later, on February 12, 1994.
Sometime in 1995, Felver, whom I have known for many years, called me up and said he wanted to show me the film he was working on. He came over to my apartment and we watched the film. After we talked about it for a few minutes, Felver said it needed a voice-over and that I should do it.
Felver is funny and persistent. After uselessly protesting, I relented and said okay. After watching the film once more, Felver set up his camera and I started talking without any notes. He shot it once. While I have never subscribed to the Buddhist belief, “First Thought, Best Thought,” I was surprised by what tumbled out of my mouth.
That is how, 25 years later, I ended up in MoMA’s recording studio talking with Ann Temkin about Judd’s works from the last decade of his life. She and others working on the show had seen Felver’s film, which had been recommended to them by the Chinati Foundation.
Although I have appeared on film talking about Judd’s work, and now will be speaking on an audiotape, I have never written about it and I thought I should. The conversation between Ann and me was a little more than an hour. At most, three minutes of what I said is going to be on the audio guide.
In his late work, Judd becomes a materially sensual colorist working within severe, self-imposed limits. Was his use of colors such as pink and egg yolk yellow an unexpected development, or was the tendency there all along? I am reminded of Charles Olson, who wrote in his poem, “Maximus. To Gloucester: Letter 2”:
don’t change. They only stand more
Judd started out as a painter. A shallow relief, “Untitled” (1962, oil and wax on acrylic and sand on Masonite and wood with aluminum, 48 x 96 x 7 ½ inches), which was included in his first group show at Green Gallery, is almost entirely red, as are a number of other works from this period. It is apparent from the aluminum triangle protruding from the center that he was already looking beyond the flat surface. Three years later, in his essay-manifesto, “Specific Objects” (1965), Judd articulated his dissatisfaction with painting:
The main thing wrong with a painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.
As much as Judd complains about painting being a rectangular plane, it is worth noting that all of his sculptures are essentially made of rectangular planes, with circles and cylinders found only in one body of his work.
It has been said that all of Judd’s work fits into one of three categories: boxes that sit flat on the floor; stacks (vertical rows of box-like forms attached flush to the wall and spaced evenly apart); and “progressions,” which are based on mathematical formulas and incorporate a manufactured metal tube to unify and connect rectilinear forms alternating with empty spaces. I would add a fourth category of works that Judd began in 1984: the wall reliefs made of shallow boxes.
A box sits on the floor or is mounted on the wall. It does not need a base. It is a well-known form that exists in every society. You do not need to know anything about art history to recognize these sculptures are boxes, which leads to the question that MoMA’s retrospective will further clarify: is Judd’s art exclusionary or democratic? Does it speak to people who don’t know anything about art, or only to people who do?
Before the mid-‘80s, the boxes, stacks, and progressions were usually painted in one or two colors, with each unit (whether one color or two) identical in size and shape to all the others. It seems that he worked not only within restrictions he set for himself, but also within the givens of what was available.
This changed in a 1983 trip to Switzerland, where Judd learned of a company that used pigmented powder to coat a sheet of aluminum. This process enabled to him to begin using color in a way he never had before. The colors he used were not paint; they were baked on the metal. Suddenly, 150 hues were available to him.
The shallow boxes Judd used in his work after 1984 were the color they came in, technically speaking. The unpainted bolts joining the boxes together are always visible and unpainted. Nothing has been done to alter or disguise a piece’s identity as a shallow metal box.
The logic of the color juxtapositions is evident in some works, but not in others. By leaving the bolts unpainted, Judd shares something with Robert Ryman, which is the desire to reveal how a work is put together. They also share an interest in ambient light. You can see Judd’s interest in light and color, which was there from the beginning, in his choice of materials: steel, wood, aluminum, plywood, and copper. He scorned painting as a flat, simple rectangle. He hated the cult of the artist.
In the later “stacks,” or what Brenson called the “ladders of boxes,” with their use of Plexiglas planes that allow light to pass through, you sense Judd’s feeling of freedom, his sensitivity to light and color, his awareness that choice is bounded by circumstances.
Judd was committed to abstraction and democracy. His work praises human labor and industrial craftsmanship. Community-minded, he championed many artists, bought their work, and thoughtfully installed it in his compound in Marfa, Texas, which has become a destination point for art lovers.
The box, for him, was recurring form; it was not a reference to a so-called shared cultural experience, which has devolved into the replication of inoffensive objects from popular culture blown up to a monumental scale. That is capitalist aesthetics. Judd was far more expansive than he has been given credit for, and far more down to earth, more so than many of his peers, a number of whom who were shown in MoMA long before he was.
Judd opens tomorrow at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and continues through July 11. The exhibition is organized by Ann Temkin, the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, with Yasmil Raymond, former associate curator; Tamar Margalit, Curatorial Assistant; and Erica Cooke, Research Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture.