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Donald Judd’s rectangular stacks are the visual equivalent of Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose.” In modern parlance, they stand for the simple notion of “It is what it is.” Beauty exists on its own merit, no explanation needed.
With simple forms such as rectangular boxes stacked one atop the other and interspersed with precise amounts of empty space, Judd could induce the viewer into a meditation on minimalism. But one is left with the sense that Judd did not want to unduly influence the viewer, offering up instead such neutral comments as: “Art is something you look at” and “Art need only be interesting.” Perhaps he just preferred that people figure things out on their own, without any prompting from him.
One of the leading American artists of the 20th century, Judd is perhaps best known for his three-dimensional works made from fabricated metal. But an exhibition on display through June 24 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, explores the artist’s evolution and his ultimate contributions to art history through another art form. The exhibition, “Donald Judd: Paintings,” highlights rarely seen works that preceded — and perhaps prompted — the artist’s breakthrough with fabricated installations.
The show would likely appeal to Judd’s pared down view of the world. It consists of only 14 paintings from 1959 to 1961 and a single floor sculpture in his favorite Cadmium red. Curiously, all of the works are untitled — perhaps another subtle prodding for the viewer to develop his or her own individual meaning by separating the visual from any verbal associations.
“He really was against reference,” says Alex Gartenfeld, ICA Miami’s deputy director and chief curator.
The curators of the exhibition — Gartenfeld, along with the museum’s outgoing director Ellen Salpeter and the artist’s son Flavin Judd, curator and co-president of the Judd Foundation — should be commended on their display of the artwork. Through the clever placement of walls, visitors see only a maximum of seven paintings at a time, rendering the exhibition that much more minimal.
It might seem a bit cheeky to devote an exhibition to the paintings of an artist who declared that painting was “finished.” Gartenfeld, however, dismisses the notion that Judd renounced painting as an art form. “There was no ritual burning,” he says, laughing. “There was no manifesto.”
In Judd’s defense, he appears to have struggled with the limitations presented by both painting and sculpture. An art critic during the early days of his career, Judd wrestled with how to break free from the strictures of existing art forms while embracing the next evolution. The new art of the 1960s, something called “three-dimensional work,” involved the creation of sculptural works from fabricated objects.
In 1965 Judd described the emergence of this new art form in a famous essay titled “Specific Objects” for Arts Yearbook.
“The objections to painting and sculpture are going to sound more intolerant than they are,” Judd wrote in that essay. “There are qualifications. The disinterest in painting and sculpture is a disinterest in doing it again, not in it as it is being done by those who developed the last advanced versions.” His objection to painting centered on its physical limitations. “The main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall,” he wrote. “A rectangle is a shape itself; it is obviously the whole shape; it determines the limits in the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it.”
The paintings on exhibit precede Judd’s essay by four to six years. Arranged chronologically, the paintings illustrate Judd’s internal struggle with the limitations posed by painting. Abstract in appearance, the earlier paintings have a psychedelic feel, with squiggle shapes in blue and purple on a gray background. Still others appear almost like aerial views of landscapes with twisty roads running through them.
Although Judd had previously created landscape paintings with cascading lines and rectilinear blocks representing bridges against a horizontal landscape, according to Gartenfeld, the paintings at ICA Miami represent a break from that more representational approach.
“This is a moment when, with these particular paintings, Judd is seeking to do something that hadn’t been done before with painting,” Gartenfeld says. “Which is, to not merely be abstract, but to represent the quality of paint itself.” To Judd, the very nature of the paint represented something else, sometimes thick, sometimes tarry.
Unlike Hans Hofmann, who famously used color and texture in paint to create the illusion of depth, Judd sought to flatten the surface.
“The way that he was composing at this time was trying to create an image that didn’t have a foreground or a background,” Gartenfeld explains. “Judd never lets you move past the surface of the paint, or at least he tries not to.”
One of the last paintings in the show hints at Judd’s own evolution as an artist. It is as close to an “aha” moment, captured by the artist’s own brush. The black painting features a series of black lines on a slant, each line separated by a gray line that appears to indicate the negative space later used to optimum effect in Judd’s famous stacked blocks.
As a nod to Judd’s future artistic endeavors, the exhibition concludes with one of his three-dimensional works that was fabricated in 1964. “There are only three of this form that Judd made,” Gartenfeld says. “Sometimes people colloquially call them ‘swimming pools,’ but that is not an approved way of referring to the sculpture.”
It was irrelevant to Judd that he did not physically create the finished object. In his eyes, the hand of the artist was less important than the ideas that sprang from his head. Much of his work was not physically created by him but by nameless metal fabricators.
With this new approach, Judd became a formidable force in the art world, helping to advance art into the industrialized age through the use of new materials and methods.
IF YOU GO
What: “Donald Judd: Paintings”
Where: The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St., in the Design District
When: Through June 24.
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.
Note: Judd’s collected criticisms can be found in the ICA-Miami bookstore. The dense volume with a bright yellow cover is titled “DonaldJudd/Compete Writings 1959-1975/Gallery Reviews Book Reviews Articles Letters to the Editor Reports Statements Complaints.“