Image: Out Of The Box
Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas, 1993 © Laura Wilson
Featured in Prestige | HK

Out Of The Box Donald Judd's exhibition at Thaddaeus Ropac Seoul

7 September 2023
Seoul Fort Hill

Flavin Judd, son of American art legend Donald Judd, curates a show of his father's work for Thaddaeus Ropac as part of Kiaf 2023 / Frieze Seoul 2023. 


Donald Judd, artist, writer and heavyweight of American art, was either the pioneer of art-world Minimalism (a term he despised), or a gnarly, capricious intellectual little understood by his peers, or both. Whatever the reality, he played a pioneering role in shaping the artistic landscape of the second half of the 20th century, establishing a new visual language. A painter first, he subsequently liberated himself from the canvas for the three- dimensional, exploring notions of empty space – the place in which his art was exhibited being as integral to the experience as the art itself. Oh, and he also helped support the career of a certain young Japanese artist called Yayoi Kusama, in New York, in the 1950s, and they lived in the same building ... but more of that, later.

Judd is a polarising figure in the lofty art firmament. And among art writers, detractors included the late Time critic Robert Hughes, who described his work as a “temple of aesthetic fanaticism”, claiming its “denial of the sensuous is deeply American” and bemoaning its likeability, or lack of. He claimed Judd’s work showed no figures, no relationships, no movement. And the late New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl began a 2020 piece on a Judd retrospective at New York’s MOMA, thus: “I would tell you my emotional responses to the gorgeous work in the Donald Judd retrospective that has opened at the Museum of Modern Art if I had any.”

Judd talked the talk and walked the walk. He thought straightforward industrial materials offered more potential to artists than traditional paint on a canvas. Wall- mounted brass tubes, rectangular boxes and shelflike units in Plexiglass, plywood, rolled steel, aluminium and iron became his stock in trade; hardly user-friendly when measured against French impressionism or Pablo Picasso, and certainly not every gallery- and museum-goer’s cup of tea. The chief problem for any writer or critic assessing Judd’s work was that it didn’t really seem to be about anything. All the more so, when gazed at through the storytelling lens of the 21st century. Not that Judd cared: he thought museums were places art went to die.

That said, Judd’s works espoused high-end production values. They’re consistently exquisite to behold in the flesh, but in spite of being visually stunning they can feel emotionally sterile, devoid of any narrative or symbolism.

A Judd work will more likely incline you to salute its military precision, than melt your heart with its soft power. But that’s Judd’s whole mantra. He wasn’t dealing in illusionary, painterly creations and imaginative leaps of heart and mind. Judd’s art was life, but specifically the stuff that surrounds us, which he felt we don’t take time to ever properly see. “Things that exist exist and everything is on their side,” is one of his most oft-quoted lines.

All of which provokes a spirited reaction from his son Flavin, co-president of the Judd Foundation with sister Rainer, on what his father might have thought of the internet and social media as an art platform. “Don would have hated the digital world,” he declares. “He’d have had absolutely no interest in it whatsoever.” But might he have come to like it, perchance, seeing its infinite yet unexplored capabilities, we wonder? “No,” he fires back over Zoom, in his Breton- sleeved top from his apartment in Paris. Categorically ‘no’, I enquire, playing devil’s advocate? “Never.”

And NFTs? “Now there’s a good example of the real world versus the art world. The art world is chasing after NFTs. One thing I must say; if you look at Don’s [Flavin always refers to his father as Don] work, the work itself is always an attempt to make something that is clear, so there’s a morality built into the work, and the work itself is ... ” he pauses to contextualise his father in the present. “He’s highlighting a world in a way which is contrary to the current digital realm. Possibly Don’s work is an antidote to the so-called digital realm, and its illusoriness, and not at all fact based. I don’t have any big theories, I’m just saying his work is the anti-NFT, because it’s absolutely there, it’s absolutely in front of you, and you might overlook it in your daily life. And in his view, that’s the most important thing we have.”

Part of which is now visible at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery in South Korea for this month’s Kiaf 2023/Frieze Seoul 2023, the first solo show of Judd’s work there for 10 years. Curated by Flavin, artistic director of Judd Foundation, the exhibition spans more than three decades of his father’s work, from the 1960s to the beginning of the 1990s. Featuring early paintings alongside his three-dimensional works, a highlight of the show is the 20 woodcut prints conceptualised by Judd while in Korea in 1991, being presented in Seoul for the first time.

Donald Judd was no stranger to South Korea. “It was the first place Don ever discovered outside the US,” Flavin tells us. “It’s pretty radical for your first trip ever, and he wasn’t even an artist when he went to Korea. But it informs his aesthetic in a way that other countries don’t.” His next trip was Sweden in 1964, but by then, he’d already had his first show.

How then, does the Korean aesthetic manifest in Judd’s work? “Michael Govan [director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, who writes in the show’s catalogue] and I were discussing that,” says Flavin. “We both think the probability of seeing the palaces in Seoul, with their high walls and very regulated placement of buildings within the walls is not dissimilar – I’m not saying there’s a direct connection – but not dissimilar to the Block in Marfa, and ... I will say it’s mostly visual. His interest in space, was I think, informed to some extent by his visit to Seoul. I think the palaces in Seoul could possibly have given him an idea of what architecture can do which you couldn’t find in the Midwest.” Govan believes the use of emptiness in Korean art and architecture bespoke a tradition which likely influenced Judd’s own theory of space.

The paintings and three-dimensional works are accompanied by a work showing in Korea for the first time; a group of 20 woodcut prints. Emitting both expression and radiance, it represents Judd’s most extensive use of colour across his printmaking practice. The work plays on reversals of filled and empty space through a rigorous geometric logic of grids and rectangles, the rigidity of which is tempered by the handmade hanji paper they’re printed on; a paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry plant native to Korea’s rocky mountainsides, which Judd selected for the prints when he travelled to South Korea in 1991. After his transition to 3D works in the early ’60s, his prints were the only works he continued making in a two-dimensional format, placing them at the centre of his artmaking.

Judd shared a decades-long friendship with Yayoi Kusama and the two of them exchanged correspondence and artwork throughout their lives. Part of the reason he was in Korea in 1991 was on account of two shows he held in Japan, during which he visited Kusama. He owned several of her works, including dresses she designed. They became neighbours, living and working on separate floors at 53 East 19th Street. Judd would help her stuff soft sculptures and armchairs with phallic protrusions. (He moved to 101 Spring Street in 1969.) You can go to the Judd Foundation page and read all about it. In October 1959, Kusama had her first solo show in New York City at the Brata Gallery and Judd wrote about it. He also described his first meeting with Kusama at her studio: “Yayoi Kusama is an original painter. I thought the paintings were terrific and I wrote it all down. They were the best paintings being done. Or at least, the best paintings that were new in any way. I mean, besides from Newman [Barrett] and Rothko [Mark].

It transpires that, remarkably, for man who wrote so prolifically, and whose Complete Writings 1959-1975 are an art masterclass unto themselves, Judd never used a typewriter. “Everything was handwritten,” says Flavin. “He used what was at hand, pen, pencil, biro, and usually wrote on a yellow legal pad.” Interestingly Flavin, despite being named after his father’s friend and fellow artist Dan Flavin, also carries the middle name Starbuck, which he says is nothing to do with coffee, but knows not its epistemological route, although he does attest to its being from early 1800s America.

Meantime, it was because of the support of friends like Judd that Kusama got permanent-resident status in the US in 1963. Here’s his 1961 letter to US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) in support of her claim. “In October 1959, Yayoi Kusama exhibited five large paintings which were recognised as exceptional. The show proved to be the sensation of the season and remained one of the few important shows of the last two years.”

In March 1978, Judd travelled to Japan for one of his shows and visited Kusama. She later wrote: “The thing [that] delighted me most was to see that you had become a truly mature and profound artist. (I hope I have matured as you have.) I am proud of your brilliant achievements. I know we cannot escape from getting older, and I feel strongly that we should make our utmost efforts in creating our best works while we can.” Forty-five years later, she’s still delivering wonder.

And it wasn’t just Kusama. South Korea’s Nam June Paik, champion of the electronic superhighway and Fluxus member, was “practically a next- door neighbour too, would come around to Spring Street for dinner with Donald.” Flavin doesn’t recall much of their conversations but was struck by Paik’s generous, engaging and charming deportment at all times.

And then Judd ditched New York and moved to the unlikely setting of Marfa in West Texas, in 1971. It featured in the film Giant and had a population of around 2,000 when Judd arrived, and inadvertantly made a destination of it. He converted domestic, military and commercial buildings to house installations of his work and launched the non-profit Chinati Foundation in 1986, an ongoing programme of scholarships, exhibitions and artists’ residencies.

To a generation that’s grown up in digital times, the word Marfa is more commonly associated with Prada Marfa, the sculptural, non-functioning replica of a luxury Prada boutique located in the middle of the Chihuahua desert, by the side of a west Texas highway, 60km from Marfa, created by Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. They assumed their work would disappear into the landscape before most people had chance to see it. Almost a rumour. It’s become a cultural sensation, on The Simpsons and on Beyoncé’s Instagram feed. And people visit on the way to Judd central in Marfa. 

Judd died in 1994, so, nearly 30 years hence, how did Flavin decide what to curate of his father’s work for the Seoul show? “It’s always based on the space and colour. 

There’s no theme, ideology, no point to be made, it’s just what goes well with what, and a spread of time, from the early ’60s to the early ’90s. I try to stay away from thematic shows. You want the work to look as good as

possible, so you take the space and light into account. It works. That’s my only concern, you never see it before you start it, so you always just hope it’s going to work.”

After all, despite his work with the Judd Foundation, he’s “in the art world by accident”, he says. “Put it this way, there’s nothing we want from the art world. We want to do what Don wanted, to restore his buildings, his work to be seen, his writing to be read and published in Korean. And if we can publish in Korean, that’s fabulous.”

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