Donald Judd

Featured in the Aesthetics Lessons
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Donald Judd, Untitled, 1974, stainless steel and Plexiglas, Purchase: gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Denby, by exchange, The Carnegie Museum of Art, ©Donald Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Donald Judd, widely regarded as a key artist of the post-war period, created sculptures linked to the Minimalist art movement. Minimalism proposed eliminating representational imagery and reduced painting and sculpture to the essentials in color, form, and space. In the early 1960s, like other Minimalist artists of the time, he rejected the illusionism of painting, embracing instead the literalness of sculpture, which existed as an object rather than a representation of something else.

Among Judd’s best-known works are his stacked box or “shelf-like” sculptures. Untitled consists of seven small, open-ended steel boxes with Plexiglas backs. With a predetermined  and mathematically derived composition, the forms’ positive volume is simulated in reverse order by the negative spaces between the boxes. Commercially produced of thin milled steel, the boxes are precisely constructed and finished. Judd rarely titled his work, a practice that further emphasizes the impersonality and exactness of the objects. In its development and installation, the work reflects the artist’s particular interest in the history of sculpture and the relationship of the viewer’s body to a three-dimensional object.

Judd did not consider it important for an artist to make his own work, and commercially fabricated most of his sculptures to his specifications. He wanted the pieces to be about form, space and color—without visual references to any other objects or artworks. To maintain visual interest and complexity, Judd used what he referred to as phenomena—the real visual illusions that everyone sees based on the physical properties of vision.  One example of such phenomena is retinal afterimages, the phantom flash of red you see after staring at a green object. The distinction for Judd is that these illusions are real, based in the physical and are not born of artistic trickery meant to fool the eye. 

Judd began publishing articles in 1959, ultimately producing about 500 reviews and numerous essays on the art, politics and culture of his time. His commentary confirmed a developing belief that emphasized objectivity and the physicality of materials. These writings and conceptual underpinnings became just as influential as his artworks. In both his artworks and writings, Judd championed the formalist aspects of the new art: the physical reality of the object in and of itself, separate from history, unattached from external references. He said, “It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful”.[1]  

 [1] Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” 1964. Arts Yearbook 8 (1965).

Comprehension Questions: 

  1. What are some of the characteristics of Minimalist art? How are these characteristics related to formal aesthetic theory?
  2. How was Untitled conceived and made?
  3. Using what you know about formalist aesthetic theory, give three reasons why Judd’s work Untitled is a valuable work of art. Do you personally agree with this? Why or why not?