Beauty and the Box: One Sculptor's Passion

The Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, England, hosts 'specific objects' of artist Donald Judd

Compromise was hardly American artist Donald Judd's middle name. He saw one side of a question and stuck to it. If he had had a middle name, it would probably have been ''clarity.''

Everything about Judd's work and his writings on art evinces clarity. It is this quality that makes the current exhibition of Judd's work at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford so stimulating.

It is refreshing to become reacquainted with an artist who is so definite. ''specific objects'' was his label for his sculptures. But he did not just prefer the specific and the objective, he was in love with them; and his work has that kind of intensity.

I recall in the 1960s someone telling me that Judd's art was ''Romantic.'' Puzzling. I have finally decided this is nonsense, his idealism being so pragmatic and his imagination being strictly subject to the literalness of what can be seen. And yet ...

Now, in Oxford, someone tells me Judd is ''Baroque.'' Fascinating -- but surely nonsense too. Judd was insistent on the idea of ''wholeness'' as opposed to a buildup of parts. He disliked illusionism. He was the least deliberately theatrical of artists. He excised emotive elements from his work. The structure of his work is calmly devoid of crescendo or climax. How could such an artist be ''Baroque''? And yet ...

If his work falls into any tradition, it must be the ''Classical.'' He is a descendent of Alberti, not Bernini. His modern mentors seem more likely to be Mies van der Rohe and Gerrit Rietveld (he owned furniture by both) than Emil Nolde or Willem De Kooning. And yet ...

In Oxford the exhibition of Judd's sculpture, prints, furniture, and drawings for architecture is exceptionally popular, suggesting that Judd's work speaks to people as tellingly in the 1990s as it did when first seen in the '60s. It is unpretentious as well as uncompromising. It is also superbly made: Such things are in stabilizing contrast to today's multistyled, ''who-cares'' art mix.

Judd's work is closer to sculpture than painting only because it is in three dimensions.

His often boxlike structures developed, by his own logic, out of painting. He did not exterminate, but restated in different terms and materials (plywood, anodized aluminum, galvanized iron, concrete, brass, copper, plexiglas, enamel) certain essences of painting: characteristics of surface, emphasis on edges and lines, focus on shapes rather than masses (which he treats as basically empty), and on color, translucency, shadow, and reflectivity.

Unlike his friend (American sculptor) Dan Flavin, he does not incorporate real light in his works -- but surrounding light falling onto, bouncing off, percolating through, and directly penetrating his works. It is not simply unavoidable, but a crucial, even opulently sensuous part of them.

On the other hand, Judd's specific objects are anti-painting in the sense that he began to make them once he had concluded that painting was inescapably involved with illusion. The only way to escape from the illusory nature of painting was simply to do something different.

Judd wanted ''real'' space, ''real'' shape, ''real'' color. What he did not want -- and he said so -- was some kind of physical order based on or referring to some ''other'' conceptual order. He did not believe in that philosophically or aesthetically. In fact he preferred an ''order'' that was rather ordinary, an evenly spaced repetition of identical or similar objects -- like a ''grocery list.''

JUDD also wanted to be free from aspects of European art, including the compositional balancing of relational elements that European painters performed within the edges of their canvas or paper. In a joint interview he did in 1966 with the painter Frank Stella (both artists questioned by Bruce Glaser), Stella said: ''My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object.'' Judd did not dissent from this view.

Even Judd's furniture is part and parcel with his no-concessions stance. In spite of the unbending verticals and horizontals that transfer stylistically from his sculpture into his tables and bookshelves and even into his chairs and beds, he maintained ''the furniture is comfortable to me.''

Unfortunately (though understandably) visitors to the exhibition cannot decide this for themselves: No touching or sitting allowed. Although Judd was an outspoken advocate of sitting or even lying-down accommodations for visitors in galleries, his own, intentionally functional furniture now has to be ''viewing only,'' just like his sculpture.

Judd's furniture is as scrupulously crafted as his sculpture and evokes a similarly strong delight. It is the fact that Judd's work conveys delight that is perhaps its chief paradox: It is classical and severe ... and yet also exquisitely rich; like an Amish person in a haute couture suit.

Judd could be said to have been out of the limelight for almost two decades -- in spite of a major retrospective and a number of other exhibitions -- to have been relegated to the unfashionable status of ''leading minimalist'' and to have been dismissed by the post-modern art world as dispassionately formalist.

He had left New York to live and work in Marfa, Texas, in 1971. He died there a year ago, still burgeoning with plans, ideas, and work.

Mainly in Marfa, but also partly in Switzerland, he made his own universe. He started the Chinati Foundation (in an old army base), to display work by himself and some contemporaries.

Since his passing, the intention is that his personal estate will become a foundation, and Marfa will become a kind of Judd mecca open to the public. But this could be five or six years away.

r 'Art + Design: Donald Judd' remains at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford through March 26. From July 1 to Sept. 24, it will be displayed in Odense, Denmark, at the Kunsthallen Brandts Klaedefabrik.

It is the fact that Judd's work conveys delight that is perhaps its chief paradox: It is classical and severe ... and yet also exquisitely rich.

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