For the upcoming edition of TEFAF Online New York, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac present Donald Judd's Untitled (1988) as the gallery highlight. One of the most influential artists of the post-war period, Judd (1928–1994) radically transformed notions of the 'visible', developing a rigorous visual vocabulary that emphasises simple, mathematical proportions and openness of form.
The artist first came to public attention in the mid-1960s for his distinctive use of industrial materials – including aluminium, concrete and plywood – in rigorously geometric constructions, which sought to emphasise the purity of materials ‘for themselves, for the quality they have’. Judd, who also studied philosophy at Columbia University while training at the Arts Student League, was deeply concerned with the fundamental ways in which we experience not only sculpture but, ultimately, the world around us.
Untitled (1988) belongs to one of Judd’s principle and best-known bodies of work – the ‘stacks’, which he first created in galvanised iron in 1965. Together with his ‘boxes’ and ‘progressions’, these formed the artist’s essential vocabulary of forms that he would revisit and reconfigure throughout his career. Judd had abandoned painting in the early 1960s, recognising that ‘actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface’. He similarly avoided defining his creations as sculptures, choosing instead to call them ‘three-dimensional works’. Rejecting traditional categorisations, Judd sought to create an art form with no pictorial illusion, symbolism or narrative content beyond the formal properties of the works themselves, which were almost invariably untitled.
The space between can be even more definite than the two objects which establish it.
Judd varied the materials and proportions of his stacks, such as through the introduction of Plexiglas, but the fundamental form remained the same: a vertical progression of identical geometric units alternating with empty spaces. The precise, mathematical proportions of the box forms, as well as of the intervals between them, are central to the work. As Judd described in a 1983 essay, ‘Proportion is very important to us, both in our minds and lives and as objectified visually, since it is thought and feeling undivided, since it is unity and harmony, easy or difficult, and often peace and quiet. Proportion is specific and identifiable in art and architecture and creates our space and time.’ Through the serial repetition of boxes and gaps in Untitled, which establishes a complex interplay between positive and negative, space becomes a tangible formal element of the work. According to Judd, ‘The space between can be even more definite than the two objects which establish it’. No longer simply a void, space becomes perceptual to the viewer as a structural element and helps define our understanding of the work.
The interplay of material, space and environment inflect the perception of Untitled, thus revealing the ‘invisible’ aspects inherent to Judd’s conception of art. The aluminium boxes above or below the viewer’s sightline differ in appearance because different aspects become visible, revealing the undersides of some units and obscuring the Plexiglas interiors of others. Judd explained: ‘The box with the Plexiglas inside is an attempt to make a definite second surface. The inside is radically different from the outside. While the outside is definite and rigorous, the inside is indefinite.’ Light falls on the angles and planes of aluminium, eliciting a metallic sheen, while casting shadows on the Plexiglas squares that alter how their colour is perceived. Despite the engineered regularity of the six units, they are not seen as identical, drawing attention to the inherent complexities of perception, both in art and in the world.
While Judd’s early stacks from the 1960s featured horizontal acrylic sheets on the top and bottom of the units so that coloured light shone through, in those from the 1980s colour is contained within their interiors. In Untitled, the red and green-black colour pairing is divided by an internal aluminium panel. This is one the few works in which Judd employed a layered Plexiglas technique, using two red sheets on the right and green over black on the left to amplify their bold hues. The combination of red and black was characteristic of the artist, who gave a lecture entitled ‘Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular’ in 1993, just a year before his death. He explained that the colour combination resulted in a specific visual experience: ‘In a way, side-by-side, the red and the black become one color. They become a two- color monochrome. Red and black together are so familiar that they almost form a new unity.’ In much the same way as space, colour is treated as a material in its own right in Judd’s work, highlighting its central role in the process of perception.
The work of Donald Judd prepared the ground for a new artistic language and established the sculptural parameters he modulated throughout his career. For Judd, investigating spatial configurations and geometric forms was a means of distancing his work from symbolic meaning, often associated with Minimal art, a categorisation he adamantly opposed. His practice was embedded in the qualities of the materials he used, despite the industrial process of their production.
In 1968, the first major museum exhibition of his works in three dimensions was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In the same year, Judd purchased 101 Spring Street, a five-story cast-iron building in New York where he developed his idea of the permanent installation, his belief that the placement of a work of art was as critical to its understanding as the work itself. The building became a platform for his art and that of others, with Judd’s works permanently exhibited alongside those of his contemporaries.
In 1971, Judd first visited Marfa, Texas, where he eventually established studios, living quarters and ranches, now part of Judd Foundation. In Marfa, Judd’s work increased in scale and complexity as he started making room-sized installations. In 1986, he transformed the public part of this unique large-scale project into the Chinati Foundation – a landmark of contemporary art as much as it is a key expression of his aesthetic – in which his work was to be exhibited permanently alongside fellow artists, including Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Richard Long, and Ilya Kabakov. Until the end of his life in 1994, he endeavoured to question the notion of the art object, using a variety of materials, a crafted approach and rigorous experimentation with colour.
For almost four decades, Judd’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. In 2020, the major career retrospective Judd opened at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.