Judd: A Review

Introduction:
In light of the quarantine-imposed limitations in art seeing, we will seek to bring you closer to exhibitions now out of reach by way of thoughtful reviews.
This month we present to you guest contributor Jennifer Contreras who reviews two major exhibitions in New York that suffered the consequences of coinciding with a global pandemic. Jen is a New York-based art historian and writer who splits her time between the art world and fitness. I had the privilege of meeting and befriending her in graduate school when our entire lives evolved around art, its history, and the mesmerizing interconnectedness between different periods and backgrounds. Below, you will find Jen’s first review of the recent retrospective of Donald Judd’s work at MoMA, New York.

Judd: A Review, by Jennifer Contreras

Judd, furniture. Exhibition installation detail, Judd, MoMA, New York. Photo courtesy of the author.

Spoiler alert: at MoMA you can touch the art.  At least, the artist’s furniture at the entrance to his first retrospective in 30 years, entitled simply the monosyllabic “Judd.”  Spanning the breadth of his four-decade-long career, the exhibition brings together many works which are now on view for the first time in almost as many decades, and many which are currently not reproduced in the Judd literature (according to the Judd Foundation’s website, a catalogue raisonné is still forthcoming).  Judd’s work in particular benefits greatly from in-person, experiential analysis in at least two ways: firstly, one is better able to determine how the object operates in space, and, secondly, the quality of “obdurate materiality” which is of prime importance to Judd, is both tactile and observable.  The risk in Judd’s particular approach is that the works are highly dependent on the architecture and objects surrounding them, activating both elements in the strongest examples.  

Installation photo of Untitled, 1968 at MoMA, New York. Photo courtesy of the author.

What may strike any viewer who might be familiar with Judd’s own installations is just how crowded certain rooms at the MoMA show tend to seem.  The objects more often than not benefit from the space that seems to be denied them at crucial points (particularly the late 1960s/early 70s – more on this in my upcoming Judd-Chamberlain article).  This can, however, be easily forgiven when the works in question are among the strongest.  The exhibition uses a traditionally chronological approach to organization, with thrilling works and groupings of stacks, boxes, and progressions around the middle and end.  The sense that Judd arrived at something in the late 60s with his use of specifically industrial materials such as aluminum, steel, and plexiglass is convincingly felt.  

The star of the show (or at least the exhibition poster) turns out to be a stunning 1973 “Untitled” floor piece constructed of brass and blue plexiglass.  

Installation view of Untitled, 1973. Photo courtesy of the author.

The piece is well-positioned just to the right of the entrance to a room containing several strong objects, and holds its own amongst stiff competition.  Similar hollowed-out floor objects have been on view recently, but the particular combination of rectangular void and brass encased by a deep blue somewhere between deep sky and shallow sea proves both intellectually intriguing and aesthetically pleasing.  The fact that one’s view is drawn inexorably to the center – if only to find nothing at its core – allows the liquid shell to play against the fragile density and ultimate hollowness of the inner brass.

Installation view of Untitled, 1973. Photo courtesy of the author.

Upon inspecting the wall label, one learns that the work is from the rather (in)famous Giuseppe Panza collection, now at the Guggenheim.  Panza had a rather public dispute with Judd which resulted in “Una Stanza per Panza,” published in 1990, a text so scathing that it necessitates almost a visible asterisk on the label of any Panza-owned Judd thereafter.  At the heart of their dispute is what actually constitutes a finished work, Panza having purchased several proposals for objects so he could fabricate the works anytime he wished.  Although he had little to do with the actual manufacture of his objects apart from specifying their particular materials and arrangement, Judd was exceedingly particular about the resultant object, often making changes and adjustments as necessary after assembly to achieve the result for which he was aiming. 

Color Scheme, Judd. Photo courtesy of the author.

One can only hope he would have found the 1973 floor piece successful, along with various works with stunning impact included in the show.  Whether a viewer’s familiarity with Judd’s oeuvre borders on casual or academic, most works at MoMA have clearly outshined Judd’s assertion that “a work needs only to be interesting.”  Many are, in fact, also deeply beautiful and engaging.  They are also, at their core, exceedingly modern in their claim to truth, in much the same manner (if not manifestation) as Pollock’s drip paintings.  For Judd, these “specific objects” are one of few credible forms of artistic production remaining post-Pollock.  They endeavor only to present what they physically are, using industrial materials which were new and are specific to the 1960s, 70s, and 80s in which they are made into Judd objects – materials which were liberated from the (dead) weight of art history.  They are obdurate form and material, with no determinable reference outside themselves.  If shown in the right manner this is how they will be understood, and, ultimately, “Judd” allows ample opportunities to do so.

Installation view of the artist’s late works, MoMA, New York. Photo courtesy of the author.
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