Minimal in Vision, Complex in Meaning
Donald Judd had a very different perspective of art than other artists of his time. He envisioned art as something both aesthetic and historical and thought these two classifications didn’t necessarily have to be separated. He believed in looking at work as a whole. Judd once said, “Things that exist exist, and everything is on their side” (Zwirner 19). In other words, he believed that humans are one with the world and the objects around them. He often argued the importance of sensory emotions over conceptual thought. Through his art, he questioned people about what they truly know about the world around them and about the nature of the world itself. Donald Judd began as a painter and soon switched from canvas to sculptures, often using everyday objects in his sculptures. He was not interested in exploring the values of represented space and illusion but rather was focused on portraying what he called “real space.” Donald Judd argued through his work that actual space is more emotionally powerful and moving than two-dimensional paint on a canvas.
According to Richard Shiff, Judd “produced his art as a way of preserving a unity of thought and feeling, reason and sensation, the whole works.” This belief of his that thought and feeling had to happen all at once when viewing art not only influenced his transition from paintings to sculptures but also inspired him to utilize reductive forms in his work. Since Judd was also an art critic, he had a strong background in philosophy, which can be seen through his work. All of Donald Judd’s work was created with an aesthetic purpose, but he utilized aesthetic forms to communicate a greater idea about sensory wholeness. In many of his works, he used materials to create many different types of boxes which conveyed a sense of real space using different variations of form. He would vary the different sizes and placement and color of the columns placed inside the usually white boxes. However, color was not always meant to represent something. Judd once said “[Color’s] existence as it is the main fact and not what it might mean, which may be nothing,” (Zwirner 59). Judd used contrasting materials and colors to convey a wide range of moods and emotions to the viewers.
Judd’s work was constantly classified as “minimalism” but he detested that term and tended to think of his work as “the simple expression of complex thought” (Serota 7). In art such as his, work that constitutes being called minimalism, there is not really any detail which leaves form as the biggest influence on our perception of it. Rudi Fuchs once wrote that Donald Judd “found a way or method to organize colour as, almost, a narrative without a notable presence of shape,” (Serota 22). This meant that the color was independent from the shape of the work itself and he did not pick out the colors he would use prior to the creation of the work. Instead, he chose them visually and compared the brightness and clarity of different shades against others. Another reason he stood out from other minimalism art was that his works were stunningly beautiful. Fuchs also wrote that “that is why many people distrusted these pieces,” (Serota 24). Other minimal art was known to be objective but Judd utilized his subjective sense of beauty. One of the ways he did this was by using intense color.
Judd was so interested in portraying real space that he completely switched from paintings to creating sculptures. Many of his works include multiple subjects where the space between them is just as purposeful as the actual space they are taking up. He also utilized the degree of projection from the wall to manipulate real space. He talks a lot about real space rather than illusionism or literal space, to mean three-dimensional and the space the objects take up in addition to the projected space outside of the object.
He has claimed that painting and sculptures are just “containers” whereas his art is neither of the two because they are three-dimensional and have volume yet “lack parts which frees the work from both composition and effects as well as liberates the work itself from traditional European allusions to the body” (Davis). His works have a different effect than filled objects such as solid cubes would because the openness leaves room for projection and space outside of itself. They are extensive and convey an idea of wholeness. Judd saw the use of industrial materials as “aggressive and necessary for the identity of a specific object in its objectivity based in a neutral inaccessible way” (Davis). In other words, he didn’t want his work judged by the materials used but needed something that would require participation from the audience.
Judd believed that form in mass could more accurately depict and cause emotional reactions than painting on a two-dimensional canvas because with paintings, there is no real space. There is only literal space. Aaron Davis said “This is perhaps the most powerful effect of the work, its transitive ability to exist outside of itself both in real space, and rhetorical space.” Judd demonstrated this ability through simple ratios he came up with after simply looking to distribute proportion. He saw painting as a passive container for art whereas his work was an active element. His works also sometimes appeared weightless. Figure 1 shows an untitled work by Judd where Richard Shiff wrote about the vertical bars as being “simply ‘there’, without a generalizing relationship (of support and dependency) that would transform them into some kind of anthropomorphic anecdote” (Serota 33). David Raskin wrote, “Object status-the palpable combination of material and image- was the source of art’s ‘power,’ of its ‘amplified intensity” (Serota 84). He called his art “Specific Objects” because they were neither sculpture nor paintings.
Although he strongly believed in real space and preferred sculpture to two-dimensional works, he would sometimes make two almost identical works, but then place one on the floor and the other would hang on the wall. He didn’t see any real difference between the two settings since both still were three-dimensional and expressive. He thought that since the scale, sequence, color, and material were alike that the works were still of equal standing. He always hoped to be able to become limitless in his work and to be completely free of rules. He tried to create work that could hold a lasting emotion. He believed “all first-rate art has been based on an immediate phenomenon” (Serota 34). This phenomenon then, will create a lasting impression and will interest the viewer.
He believed he made an important contribution in the exploration of space in art because it was poorly understood before him. He said “the smallest simplest work [of mine] creates space around it, since there is so much space within…” (Serota103). Judd used mathematics and proportion to shape the viewer’s perception of the work. He eventually began to make works that deliberately occupy space and call attention to themselves.
For the most part, people thought of minimalism as consisting of art with excessive formal reduction but Judd never believed his work was reduction. He believed that he was taking complex ideas and complex thoughts and simplifying them visually. Although aesthetically, his works may appear simple and minimalistic, there is a larger idea behind them of merging feeling and thought. Judd once said “the main thing wrong with painting is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall…In work before 1946 the edges of the rectangle are a boundary, the end of a picture.” (Meyer 22). But he specifically detested the European paintings that relied on illusionistic space and preferred the new American painting that promoted unity. He believed it was necessary for sculptures to have simple design and the scale of the typical new paintings being created. Judd used a simplified format for his work that meant there was no meaning beyond its material components and that viewing was a completely subjective experience and perception of the real space. Judd eventually became “absolutely consistent, developing objects that were only slight modifications of his early works” (Meyer 38). During this process, he also became angry with the placement of contemporary work and began to only do semi-permanent and permanent installation of his works.
Donald Judd’s main purpose for creating art was to convey this idea of sensory wholeness. He believed that feeling and thought had to happen simultaneously for a true reaction from a piece. He used real space to hopefully connect these two components of a reaction in the viewer’s mind. He was very concerned with the audience and their reactions in this way. He thought the best way to manipulate real space was to create art that wasn’t exactly two-dimensional but wasn’t strictly three-dimensional either. Through his work, he argued that actual space is more emotionally moving than paintings. Although the term minimalism may apply to the aesthetic vision of his artwork, the philosophy behind his work could not be described as minimal. He created art by taking very complex thoughts and concepts and simplifying it visually.
Davis, Aaron. “‘What You See is What You See’: Constructing the Subject-Object.” Art & Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 October, 2012.
Meyer, James. Minimalism. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2000. Print.
Serota, Nicholas. Donald Judd.Millbank, London: Tate Publishing, 2004. Print.
Shiff, Richard. “Every shiny object wants an infant who will love it.” Art Journal. 70.1 (Spring 2011): p6. Academic OneFile. Web. 12 October. 2012.
Zwirner, David. Donald Judd. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl, 2011. Print.