Judd's subtly provocative Minimalism. Also at the Whitney - art from the '20s

American art has had its share of formal purists, but none have been more committed, consistent, and influential than Donald Judd. He is known, primarily, as one of Minimalism's leading theorists, as well as one of its finest and purest exponents. Not only did his paintings and sculptures play a vital role in that movement's attempts to reduce art to its simplest, most ``essential'' components; his critical writings in Arts magazine from 1959 through 1965 helped create the critical context within which Minimalist art could best be understood and accepted.

This double-barreled approach didn't, of course, make him very popular with those painters and sculptors whose ideas diverged from his. And with good reason. As a critic, Judd was unfailingly doctrinaire, and capable of dismissing such individuals as inferior artists or not artists at all on the basis of his strict interpretation of what could and could not legitimately be called art in the '60s.

Those who read him more carefully, however, and looked beyond the apparently monotonous simplicity of his work, noted that he was not as purely formal and reductive in his intentions as it might appear. And that his seemingly irreducible three-dimensional forms - made of such materials as Plexiglas, plywood, brass, copper, aluminum, stainless steel, and galvanized iron - were often subtly provocative. While he was inclined to agree with Frank Stella that, in his art, ``What you see is what you see,'' he also insisted that ``there is no such thing as a good painting about nothing.''

The pivotal issue, of course, is not what he intended to do but what he succeeded in doing. To help determine that, the Whitney Museum here has mounted an important 25-year retrospective of his work, which should go a long way toward clarifying his accomplishments. For those unfamiliar with Judd's and Minimalism's objectives, the Whitney has also provided an excellent catalog, with one of the best accounts of the artist's - and, to a certain extent, the movement's - intentions ever published. It was written by Barbara Haskell, who also served as curator for the show.

My own reactions to the exhibition are mixed. Judd's cool, precisely crafted geometric forms and objects are occasionally beautiful and almost always impressive - in a detached, frozen, cerebral sort of way. And the show simply reeks of integrity. But for me, that isn't enough. I can appreciate his creations, and they can engage me - at least on an intellectual level. But they don't engage me the way all art, major or minor, ultimately must before I can accept it as art.

At the Whitney Museum through Dec. 31. Guy Pene du Bois: The 1920s

The Whitney is also exhibiting a small selection in its Lobby Gallery of the works of Guy Pene du Bois (1884-1958), one of the more interesting minor figures of American art in the World War I era. A student of Robert Henri and an active member of New York's art community, he helped organize the famous Armory Show of 1913 that included six of his paintings.

By 1921, du Bois had made something of a name for himself as a social satirist and portraitist. In 1924, he moved to France, where he was quickly assimilated into the large community of American artists living abroad. According to Richard Armstrong, who organized the show, ``His five years abroad afforded him time to paint without interruption for the first time in his life, as he cast a cold eye on a new class of grandes dames, overstuffed plutocrats, and caf'e society.''

With the 1929 crash, however, all that stopped. He returned to New York, only to discover that interest in his work had declined significantly. Uninterested in abstraction, and increasingly frustrated by the art world's rejection of his kind of painting, he withdrew into teaching. Although he continued to paint, the only patronage he received was from the federal government, which commissioned three post office murals from him in the 1930s. They were not particularly well received, however; and so, in anger, he pulled back even further from active participation in the gallery world.

``Guy Pene du Bois: The 1920s'' includes 12 paintings and six works on paper, all of which bear the oddly rounded, ``streamlined'' look that was his stock in trade. Although primarily of art-historical interest, two or three of these canvases, especially ``Juliana Force at the Whitney Studio Club,'' hold up rather nicely. At the Whitney Museum through Nov. 27.

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