On ViewMuseum of Modern Art
Crisp, clean, cool, no-frills, matter-of-fact—these and similar adjectives constitute a familiar lexicon for the work currently on display in Judd, the appropriately tight, monosyllabic title MoMA has given its Donald Judd retrospective, the first in New York in over 30 years. The same forthrightness characterizes two anthologies recently co-published by the Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Press: Donald Judd Writings (2016) and Donald Judd Interviews (2019). These are squat and hefty volumes with unadorned covers and sans-serif title script, sold at MoMA in wall displays that take the form of neatly arranged color blocks: orange, yellow, blue. The Judd packaged here for our consumption—via both the artist’s prose and the works on view in the museum’s bright new galleries, a welcome change from the cramped and somehow perennially-dusty spaces Judd occupied before MoMA’s 2019 reopening—is bright, beautiful, clear, and succinct.
Though the exhibition’s 70 works range from circa 1960 to 1991, I am most interested in the earliest of those, before Judd became the author of exquisitely-fashioned, trim geometric volumes, and before he hired, in 1964, the experts of Queens-based sheet metal firm Bernstein Brothers to fabricate his works. The labor of these early-60s handmade pieces, which predate the unforgiving rectilinearity and uniform modular repetition for which Judd is best known, is located in the artist alone. Circa 1961, we can imagine Judd’s oeuvre moving in any number of directions. The MoMA retrospective offers an opportunity to look askance at this early moment, alert for answers to questions we pose to Judd’s work now, questions that exceed the circumscribed rhetoric the artist so carefully laid the groundwork for in his abundant written and spoken public presentations.
My thinking is focused on a single object, which is often on view at MoMA as part of its permanent collection: Untitled (1961), a black, rectangular oil painting on composition board measuring roughly 48 by 36 inches, with a tinned steel baking pan inset at dead center. The baking pan is aligned longitudinally: its long sides run up and down. Judd deduced the painting’s overall size and shape from the pan’s dimensions, so that the painting as a whole is oriented like a portrait rather than a landscape, its left and right edges a foot longer than its top and bottom edges. While I don’t have exact measurements for the loaf pan, it is probably around 9 by 5 by 3 inches. It is of that rectangular variety familiar to anyone who has baked pumpkin or zucchini bread.
This painting is something of an anomaly in Judd’s oeuvre, and begs a number of questions. Was the baking tin ever used for its more obvious utilitarian purpose, that is to say, was it ever filled up and put in an oven? Was Judd a baker? (I have heard that he liked to host dinner parties.) Does this painting have something particular to tell us about domestic labor, especially considering Judd’s later role as a homemaker in fashioning his own Spring Street studio? How do we account for the irregular surface of thick and craggy black paint, a color Judd used in multiple works in 1960 and 1962, but less consistently in his later three-dimensional work? Do these questions occur to me because I am a woman who sometimes bakes using a tin very much like Judd’s? Or because of my training as an art historian, one who questions the performativity of Judd’s (self-)image as perpetuated at sites like his Marfa complex? Or because I suspect that if Untitled was made outside the masculinist rhetoric of Minimalism or by someone who identifies as a woman, these questions would already have been part of the critical record?
Part of Untitled’s appeal is its human quality, manifest in the way it evokes the bodies of its maker and beholders. Judd’s black oil paint whorls and peaks into a stucco-like sedimentation that fossilizes individual brush marks. This puts Untitled in dialogue with the authorial expressionism of Judd’s immediate forebears in abstract painting, whose gesture he hadn’t quite repudiated. A craquelure in the black paint reveals an underlayer of bright red—especially visible at the painting’s lower left corner—suggesting the shallow networked valleys of human skin and the sanguinary crimson underneath. The baking pan itself is covered by a patina of dark speckles, suggesting traces of human touch and, if not use in the kitchen, at least age (it has not been replaced or restored). Lastly, and most importantly for my purposes, the loaf pan acts as a mirror, potentially reflecting the visage of a viewer, depending on that viewer’s height and the height at which the work is hung. The pan reflects the particular body of here and now, rather than the anonymous philosophical body that became, as a generalized abstraction, a cornerstone of New York Minimalism after the 1962 translation into English of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.
Judd had no problem with this type of bodily reflection in the galvanized steel or polished lacquers of his own work or that of his peers. “It doesn’t matter to me that surfaces reflect, or shine, or whatever,” he asserted in 1966–67, “because that doesn’t come under this kind of space, and it’s especially that kind of space which is sort of the center of the old naturalism.”1 For Judd, “that kind of space” was the tainted history of illusionism and its projection of a fake, anthropomorphic space whose humanist legacy he called out repeatedly, if in vague terms, throughout the 1960s. Untitled’s baking tin has often been noted as the tongue-in-cheek death knell of illusionistic space, extending, as it does, into real space instead. MoMA’s Judd repeats this interpretation, both in the catalogue and in the audio guide.2 Yet the particular body, as opposed to a generalized theoretical body, gets lost when these sorts of spatial readings are given priority.
There is pedagogical value to reading Untitled spatially: it demonstrates Judd’s shift away from painting, through relief, and finally to floor pieces as he moved from pictorial into actual space. But this reading reinscribes the well-charted academic and masculinist valences of Minimalism, emphasizing art’s teleological progress and Judd’s role in advancing it, while ignoring bodies that don’t match the white male positions of its makers like Judd. Too homey, too handmade, too messy, too human, Untitled is compelling as an outlier—as an abstract artwork, and one that transgresses the restriction on questions of identity that we find in most of Judd’s oeuvre.
The baking pan is the kind of empty central core around which sculptures of the human body have traditionally been organized, a fact that Untitled underscores through its portrait orientation. It was in precisely these terms that Judd later asserted his works’ status as not-sculpture.3 Judd himself offers some helpful commentary on these kinds of voids or holes. Beginning in 1961, the year of Untitled’s making, Judd penned several reviews of Lee Bontecou’s welded canvas and steel wall reliefs, whose most prominent feature is a gaping black hole (or sometimes several holes) around which Bontecou built up a crescendo of variously soiled canvas pieces, stitched together into a patchwork with wire. For Judd, Bontecou’s work exemplified what he called a “specific object”: an artwork that was neither sculpture nor painting. He described Bontecou’s reliefs with a disciplined formalism that nevertheless invokes the sexualized female body. Such allusions intensify over time in Judd’s reviews of Bontecou. In November 1961, he wrote of the “dark voids” which, “splayed” upon their frames, “stand out from the wall like contoured volcanoes” and are “thrust starkly at the onlooker.”4 In 1963, the images extended “from something as social as war to something as private as sex,”5 while by 1965 the mound was a “mons veneris,” its top half “thrust far forward.”6
While interpretations of Bontecou’s work in terms of female orifices are well recorded—despite the fact that the artist herself refuted them—Judd’s share in constructing this reading bears repetition given his esteem for her work (he admitted she “pushed” him if “not influenced [him] exactly”) as well as the visual correlation between Untitled’s hole, surrounded by black paint, and those black holes of Bontecou’s reliefs.7 We see that, coextensive with his work on Untitled, Judd considered the black hole as referring to a gendered body. Identity and difference therefore seep into Untitled, too.
Untitled is a disobedient object, too homey, handmade, and human to be constrained by the cool and rationalized rhetorical edifice around Judd. Instead, the particular body seeps in: our bodies as viewers, marked by difference rather than universality. Our ability to articulate this body, however, turns on a theorization of the hole as an open signifier for difference rather than the equivalency between the void and the female body that Judd’s reviews offer. In its address to viewers’ bodies, Untitled’s baking pan functions doubly, as a space for the experience of difference, however construed, and, in its mirroring potential, as a way of making visible the particular bodies who stand in front of it, however far—or close—they may have been from the minds and milieux of Judd and his fellow Minimalists in 1961. (And, for those wondering, I have it on good authority that Judd couldn’t, in fact, cook or bake.)8
1. Donald Judd, “Interview with Barbara Rose and Frank Stella, 1966–67,” Donald Judd Interviews, ed. Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray (New York, NY: Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books), 162.
2. Erica Cooke’s essay, which reads Judd’s paintings against his criticism, notes that the baking pan in Untitled evokes and negates perspectival illusion’s vanishing point. Erica Cooke, “‘The Student of Painting,’” Judd, exh. cat., ed. Ann Temkin (New York, NY: The Museum of Modern Art, 2020), 64. Ann Temkin, “Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961: Audio from the playlist Judd,” https://www.moma.org/collection/works/81706
3. Judd, “Interview with Barbara Rose and Frank Stella,” 149.
4. Donald Judd, “In the Galleries: Lee Bontecou” (1960), Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975 (New York, NY: Judd Foundation, 2015), 27.
5. Donald Judd, “In the Galleries: Lee Bontecou,” (1963) Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975, 65.
6. Donald Judd, “Lee Bontecou” (1965) in Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959–1975, 178.
7. Judd noted that “I was impressed – not influenced, exactly, but pushed somewhat – by quite a few people, for example by [Lee] Bontecou and [John] Chamberlain, who at one time I thought did stronger work than I could possibly do.” Donald Judd, “‘The New Sculpture’ Symposium with Kynaston McShine (moderator), Mark di Suvero, and Barbara Rose, May 2, 1966,” in Donald Judd Interviews, 96. Jo Applin thoroughly examines Bontecou’s negative space vis-à-vis Judd in Jo Applin, “‘Threatening, and Possibly Functioning Objects’: Lee Bontecou,” in Eccentric Objects: Rethinking Sculpture in 1960s America (London: Yale University Press, 2012), 13–41.
8. My thanks to Barbara Rose for this insight. Judd gifted Untitled to Rose (a friend from their shared years studying art history at Columbia University) who subsequently gave it to MoMA. Barbara Rose, email correspondence with the author, March 23, 2020.