Donald Judd described his work as “the simple expression of complex thought” and it goes hand in hand with how I want to write and create. I’ve also researched minimalism as part of my MA final project which led me to discover Donald Judd. For someone who is considered by others a ‘father of minimalism’ the fact that he hated this term shows us how much this movement evolved along the years.
He is often referred to as a pioneer of minimalism, even if he hated that term with all his heart. But who was Donald Judd, after all?
Donald Clarence Judd (1928–1994) was born in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. He served in the United States Army in Korea from June 1946 until November 1947. Upon his return to the United States, Judd studied philosophy and art history at Columbia University and painting at the Art Students League. From 1959 to 1965, he worked as an art critic, often writing over a dozen reviews a month. Judd was a painter until the early 1960s, when he began making work in three dimensions which changed the idea of art. Throughout his lifetime Judd advocated for the importance of art and artistic expression.
He wrote extensively on the importance of land preservation, empirical knowledge, and engaged citizenship.–JUDD FOUNDATION
These days we used the term minimalism to refer to modern works of art or architecture that existed before this term was coined in the 60s. For instance, Philip Johnson’s Glass House. As Kyle Chayka explains in his book The Longing for Less, in the context of art history, the term minimalism and modern architecture were almost completely separate. Over the 60s a group of artists which used geometric, industrial materials emerged. Their work was opposed to being decorative or functional, making the viewers uncomfortable through the extreme simplicity. Richard Wollheim, a British art theorist, is known for making the term minimalism popular via his Minimal art essay in 1965.
In his essay, Complaints: part I, Donald Judd expressed his annoyance with the critics that kept labelling him as a minimalist because he felt the term was totally irrelevant to his work. Back in the days this term was associated with simplicity in the sense that no effort was made to obtain the final piece. Kind of makes sense to dislike the term in these conditions.
Even so, Judd is still seen as a minimalist, and maybe he would be less annoyed if he knew the term changed its connotations with time. Or would he just be more annoyed? In terms of his work, Judd is well known for the glossy metal-box structures that he began making in the 60’ which encompass the austerity aesthetic specific to minimalism.
Pieces of metal, glass or wooden boxes usually made the viewers nervous because mainly because they destabilized the traditional idea of art as one dedicated artist sweating and pouring his soul on a canvas, as Kyle also states in his book. The minimalist artists could simply order their art from a factory, so the romantic part linked to art it’s kind of gone. But, Wollheim explains the artistic and labour process in Minimalism. All the choices of material, treatment, scale and colour were artistic acts, including the decision that a piece was actually done. The process of simplification and deciding what elements to leave out, was a form of creative labour of the minimalist artist. This process is often overseen when somebody is looking at some metal boxes.
“What we describe as minimalism today- the white t-shirts, monochrome apartments, and wireframe furniture- doesn’t have much in common with the artists that Judd, Wollheim, and others gathered together in their criticism.
Flavin’s multi-coloured light installations were garnish and aggressive. Kusama’s sculptures were ornate and disturbing. Chamberlain made literal car crashes into art, all jagged edges. It’s not stuff you would immediately want in your house.”KLYE CHAYKA, THE LONGING FOR LESS (2020)
These artists, including Judd, became revolutionary because for the first time the art object did not have to represent anything and not because their work was plain and alike. As Kyle puts it:
Sensation replaced interpretation.
Every person who sees a Judd box in a space perceives it differently, according to the time and context. Judd refused any attempts to label his art. His revolutionary approach to form, materials, working methods, and display broke from the prevailing modes of art making at the time, which is why we are inspired by his work and decided to embed his words into our motto.
About Marfa, where Judd created some of his iconic pieces:
Interview by MOMA: