What’s in the Box?

Donald Judd wanted his work totally empty. Which allowed the world to make anything out of it.

Donald Judd, Untitled (1980). Photo: The Chinati Foundation © 2020 Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph: Alex Marks
Donald Judd, Untitled (1980). Photo: The Chinati Foundation © 2020 Judd Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph: Alex Marks

You know Donald Judd’s work even if you don’t know you know it. Judd is to minimalism as Picasso is to Cubism. But unlike Cubism, which lives much more vibrantly inside museum walls than anywhere else in the world, minimalism quickly achieved exit velocity from the art world and took over … everything. Since the 1990s, endless streams of derivative decorators, designers, architects, less-is-more self-help gurus, Calvin Klein stores, landscape artists, furniture-makers, and corporate-office planners have owed many of their ideas to misunderstanding Judd’s notions of objects, space, material, and interior design, the built and lived-in environment. His wall sculptures became wall shelves, floating on the white space of generic HGTV-approved interiors and carefully layered with books and small sculptures. He is in everything from the buildings we live in and the furniture we sit on to our work spaces and iPhone design. Judd’s minimalism is the ubiquitous dark design energy of everyday modern life. Always there, even if you never consciously recognize it.

Today, this might make it hard to see Judd’s work — showcased starting March 1 in a MoMA retrospective, his first in 30 years — as art at all. In fact, his iconic boxes were meant to be an end point of a sort: not a form of expression but “the thing in itself,” an art-historical object emptied of all referential art-historical meaning. He wanted his art to have definite qualities, plain power, a sense of singleness — to make things that “aren’t obviously art.” He wanted to create works that were “neither painting nor sculpture.” The experience of his art, he said, should be democratic, available all at once, never mystical, hidden, expressionistic, or illusionistic. He was against weight and mass in sculpture because these weren’t things you could accurately ascertain just by looking. He was against all forms of figuration and certain forms of authorship — his vision was so much his own it was revolutionary, yet the works themselves were produced by machines or made to look that way, tributes of a kind to American industrial production. While he admired Brancusi and Giacometti, he thought their art implied the human body. He refused to suggest anything outside the work itself.

The problem was as soon as Judd emptied his objects of art history, the world changed on a dime, demanding the vacuum of form he established be filled again with content. In the era of Vietnam and civil rights, women’s liberation and the sexual revolution, the idea of pure formalism lost its currency. A hundred other types of art sprung up: Land and Earth art, process art, performance art, video art, Conceptual art. Many of these made use of Judd’s form, appropriating or stuffing those boxes with life, politics, history, biography, science, or biology. First came Eva Hesse putting squiggly plastic things into boxes. Then Robert Smithson filled them with rocks. Michael Heizer gouged two rectangles out of the sides of a mesa in Nevada. Félix González-Torres’s stacks of paper are Judd boxes with social commentary. Jeff Koons put appliances in boxes and invited us to worship them. Rachel Whiteread made boxy concrete casts of negative spaces. Damien Hirst put dissected animals in boxes. In the end, Judd was less an end point than a reset, an end of modernism and a beginning of everything that followed, who, in trying to invent a form of pure object, actually ended up producing a platform — or a theater — onto which everyone else’s ideas about everything else could be projected.

I first saw Judd’s work in the mid-1970s, when I was in my early 20s.
Even though it was barely ten years after Judd caused a sea change, his art already felt like it came from another world. It scared me, like I wasn’t up to coming to grips with whether these manufactured objects could be art. Judd’s work isn’t even spiced with the puckish, riddling frisson of Duchamp’s readymades, which his boxes might otherwise call to mind in their pure objectness. It also doesn’t have the messianic fervor of early monochrome artists like Malevich and Rodchenko, who made art out of rules, metaphysics, and philosophy on canvas. Judd, for all his seriousness, is less grand and more quotidian — nearer to the stripped-down wholeness, visual lucidity, and existential absorption conjured by photographer Walker Evans. Both artists feel close to the land, hardscrabble, serious, dignified, Spartan.

Decades after first encountering his work, I’m still of two minds about Judd. I love the totality of this Renaissance man who made paintings, sculptures, prints, and furniture; designed buildings; created outdoor works in his own landscapes; transformed museum-exhibition ideas; and was perhaps the best art critic between 1959 and 1965 — when much art criticism was seen by artists as almost universally bad. (Peak Judd is his awesome West Texas Gesamtkunstwerk in Marfa, itself now a strange, genuine art-world pilgrimage site turned generic Instagram backdrop.) Yet I also hate what Judd represents, how unyielding and antagonistic his abstract art can be.

None of that intensity came easy or quickly to Judd. He was a latish bloomer who didn’t stop painting and didn’t really focus on three-dimensional work until he was in his 30s. Then it took a few years for him to fully realize the implications of those ideas. In one of the best pieces of artistic advice I’ve ever heard, he said, “The problem for any artist is to find the concatenation that will grow.” He meant the ideas and intuitions that seem to portend some possible chain of interconnected or interdependent things that might lead to whole new places. He went on, “The first work that an artist feels is theirs is not a solution limiting the possibility, but is work that opens to limitless possibility.” That the boxes now look to us like fully formed conclusions, rather than open-ended, daring experiments, is another sign that we live too fully in his aesthetic universe to ever really attain a proper perspective on his work.

At MoMA, you will see the boxes, wedges, and lozenge shapes on the floor and other forms cantilevering off walls, displacing space like it was water.
(Art didn’t do that before Judd.) Most of these objects are made of mundane machined industrial materials — metal, plexiglass, plywood, aluminum.
Everything is produced to Judd’s exact drawn specifications. He sent these instructions to small fabricators he worked with. He never touched the work. Yet every detail seems considered, touched by his mind — as Richard Serra said, “executed to millimeter perfection.” All this may sound inhuman and high-tech, but in the flesh his works feel very mom-and-pop-shop-made, scruffy, vulnerable. Size-wise, his indoor floor forms are often around the arm span of a person of average height. You look at, around, and through a Judd box, follow the flow of air inside it, sense its hollowness, scan surfaces, perceive how it’s all put together. Serra credits Judd as “the first to deal with the contained interior space and the surrounding space simultaneously.” Indeed, Judd’s primary material is space.

Sometimes we see our reflections in his work, sometimes those of the room. Often you peer through clear or smoky plexiglass; the sculptures can turn into axiomatic diagrams of themselves before your eyes. Judd wanted you to see the work, its surface, consider the space inside and around it, understand the placement of it in the room, and ascertain the forces that define these spaces — all at once, the way you see the paint, color, process, surface, and drawing at the same time in a Pollock (an artist whose work he revered even though it was painting). For me, Judd is more than a wintry, plain-fact Wallace Stevens “thing itself” artist. He’s a little Whitmanesque in the way he wants to sing the sculpture electric and have everything merge into everything else. He extended the sculptural field of art to its breaking point. And it broke.

The most withering criticism of Judd came from his contemporary Michael Fried in a 1967 essay, “Art and Objecthood,” published in Artforum. Fried called Judd’s art a mere “genre of theater.” This is because you had to walk around his objects. This implied viewers’ having changing views. As if that sort of agency were a bad thing and we shouldn’t view Michelangelo’s David from behind? Fried is right that Judd’s art is “theatrical.” But he is also one of the wrongest critics of the era. The theatricality he disapproved of defines the art of the subsequent 40 years — from Lynda Benglis spilling paint on the gallery floor to the cutout paper panoramas of Kara Walker to the sculptural environments of Robert Gober. (Gober’s sinks conjure Judd’s boxes as well.)

How did Judd see his own work? Probably the premier sculptor of his time, Judd said he didn’t make sculptures. They were to be called “objects” or “specific objects.” He said, “I never thought about sculpture. Almost never.” Judd wanted to do away with all those European traditions. “It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain.” About modernism, he said, “I’m not too sure what that means.”

Judd also loathed the term minimalism and never used it. You weren’t supposed to either. That’s how stringent the mid-1960s Kool-Aid was. So how did people talk about this work at the time? Among the most dizzying aspects of minimalism was the incredible cacophony of contentious criticism and mandarin nonsense it produced. Clement Greenberg decried Judd’s work as “novelty art” and “mannerism” and said Judd had “nothing more to say.” Judd blasted Greenberg and Fried’s critiques as “little-league fascism,” the “incompetence of art criticism,” and called such attacks despicable and dogmatic. He said Fried’s formal analyses “are shit.” And while he was among the first to hail artists like Yayoi Kusama and Lee Bontecou, his reviews could be scorching. “First, this is poor [Leonard] Baskin. Second, Baskin is mediocre anyway.” Fried lauded Anthony Caro as the paradigm of sculpture; Judd wrote that Caro was “a conventional, competent, second-generation artist.”

For a time, Judd was viewed dismissively, too. Anna C. Chave’s landmark 1990 critique of the machismo of the minimalists begins with a bemused anecdote about her seeing two young women kick a Judd box and do their hair in its shiny surface while a guard simply looked on. Judd wrote a lot about how poorly his work was treated by museums, where shipping labels and gaffer tape were applied directly to its fragile surfaces. He loathed how museums so instantly and fully embraced and hijacked him and his ism and quickly turned minimalism into a white-male petting zoo, a symbol of good taste and corporate status. In the 1970s, I remember thinking all these minimalist artists were just the zombies, an ice age of art. But eventually, that ice age calved whole new continents.

Judd opens at the Museum of Modern Art on March 1.

*This article appears in the February 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Donald Judd’s Minimalist Legacy Is All Around Us