Donald Judd never set out to become a sculptor. Despite being one of the most innovative and significant artists in modern history, he followed his practice with a sole focus on the work and exploration itself, first on canvas and then with objects and in three-dimensional space. Celebrating the diversity of his work—and his pioneering approaches to form, method, and material, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has just opened the exhibition, Judd. Marking his first U.S. retrospective in over three decades, the show features 70 art pieces created between 1960 to 1992 to uncover the reaches of the artist’s imagination, and the many ways his creative experiments forever changed the landscape of modern art.
Organized chronologically, Judd begins in the 1960s, when the artist established his fundamental geometric forms, before moving into the next decade, when he re-centered his practice with large-scale installations in Marfa, Texas and other site-specific locales. The exhibit concludes with the final chapter of his career, from 1980-92, when his use of color and form embraced a far more dynamic, vivid aesthetic. “Our aim was a conviction that many assumptions about Judd’s work do not do justice to its actual breadth and complexity,” curator Ann Temkin tells CR. “Though it may appear minimal, his work cannot easily be summed up into a Judd-like box—there are many twists and turns within it.”
Aptly, the scope of Judd’s art practice was preceded by the diversity of his broader interests. The Missouri-born artist (1928–1994) was first an army engineer before formally studying philosophy, and later art history. His conceptual approach proved an asset for his interim work writing art reviews and criticism for magazines. Judd’s own creativity began to take shape in late ‘40s, progressing from Abstract Expressionist painting into three dimensions, which he termed “real space.” He then turned to wood cutting, initially with figures and then increasingly abstract objects.
Then, by the ‘60s, Judd had founded his hallmark vocabulary of free-standing forms, often in series, which was the basis of his work for decades to follow. His legendary “boxes,” “stacks,” and “progressions” apply color, space, and surface in a wide range of combinations, such as Crayola tones of sea green and sky blue, which are at times translucent, and other times, lacquered with enamel. The artist also expanded into industrial materials, incorporating plywood alongside aluminum, steel, and Plexiglas through specialized metal fabricators. As Judd’s oeuvre developed, his artwork increased dramatically in scale and complexity with room-sized installations. Then, from the ‘80s onward, his use of color intensified and his shapes varied into a genre of rainbow-burst, geometric fusions.[pullquote align=’center’]”For all artists, there is a tightrope between continuity and innovation, and [Donald] Judd is an exceedingly strong example of that instead.”–Ann Temkin[/pullquote]
Though the artist’s works appear clear and definite, Judd’s inventive approach was acquired largely through the process of trial-and-error, and his belief in autonomy—that art is not representative and should stand on its own terms to simply exist. “For all artists, there is a tightrope between continuity and innovation, and Judd is an exceedingly strong example of that,” says Temkin. “He and his peers took sculpture away from being traditionally referential to the human figure, and a solid mass placed on pedestals or in vitrines. They made three-dimensional objects that they sought to bring into one’s own space—and by extension into one’s own life.”
From his earliest box structures to the large-scale installations displayed in his former New York and Marfa homes, Judd created wholly authentic, meaningful artwork. His pop-hued boxes and shapes were inviting—and deceptively complex—forms, much like the ideas and processes within them. These creations have provided inspiration to others, including peer artistic great Frank Stella, and contemporary architects David Adjaye, who designed D.C.’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and Annabelle Selldorf, whose art projects include the David Zwirner gallery and the Frick Collection expansion. “The generation of artists who came of age in the ’60s feels very relevant today as a foundation for the art of our time,” remarks Temkin. “There is a certain generational cycle that goes beyond art—culturally, politically, and socially—and reverberates back to that era.”
Judd is in fact a moment of reverence for a creative visionary, who unassumingly became a forerunner of modern sculpture. The artistic language he developed has since become a point of reference for many creatives who have followed after him. Judd’s influence on form and materiality—as well as the independent concept of his work—remain pivotal for the discoveries of today’s contemporary artists.
Judd is on view through July 11, 2020 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. MoMA is temporarily closed through March 30.
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