God is Dead! Painting is Dead?
“Painting is dead.”
Although I can’t find an actual quote where Don Judd states this, in Local History (1964) he comes close. During late night discussions in the mid-1970s, I heard Judd denounced as a heretic by elders of the hardcore painting tribe: a received myth is often more durable than truth.
Perhaps the notion of an artistic medium becoming aesthetically passé doesn’t rise to the level of the Nietzschean deicide that shook Christendom to its roots. But, to a young knucklehead painter, weaned on the macho legends of Picasso, Pollock, and de Kooning, any disparagement of pigment, canvas, and brush was an invitation to a smackdown. It was only later that I realized Judd’s aversion was that of a skilled polemicist who began as a hopeful paint pusher in the crucible of New York’s era of Abstract Expressionism.
While Judd was far too accomplished a student of art history to glibly kill off the epitome of 50,000 years of Western visual culture, his dialectical gambit did what it was intended to do, positioning him as the major voice of a new sensibility of artistic and critical discourse in 1960s America.
Judd studied philosophy and worked towards a master’s degree in art history with Meyer Schapiro, but always maintained the straightforward language of his Midwestern upbringing. Like many of the artists who would become known as “minimalists,” he was a U.S. Army veteran. This is notable because Judd designed his campaign with the finesse and strategy of a military operation. In 1959 Hilton Kramer hired him to write Arts Magazine reviews, being paid $180 a month and putting off the writing until the deadline and, because he didn’t type, submitting only handwritten content. Despite whatever talent or devotion, with the passage of time, a major portion of the artists he reviewed have tragically fallen into obscurity. Reading these reviews for me is heart wrenchingly melancholic. His years of critical discourse tilled the soil, in preparing the reception of his own theories.
Through his writing we witness art history’s first draft, still warm from the oven. Seeing the 1960s art world through this lens is like reaching across time to drive an artistic version of the Mars Rover over a fantastic cultural landscape. How many of the artists or elaborated notions, through psychic osmosis, have unconsciously seeped into our own? Imagine visiting the earliest shows of Andy Warhol, Lee Bontecou, Jasper Johns, Yayoi Kusama, Alfred Jensen (the list is endless). Despite being written over fifty years ago, these essays remain prescient. His descriptions are concise, formal, and empirically simple, avoiding the mushiness of the “mystical,” the “spiritual” or the “expressionistic.” His broader essays became manifestos.
Although scolded by today’s acolytes of political correctness and globalism, Judd was essentially an American artist and thinker. For his project he had to clear the decks of the past, and stake out new aesthetic territory. His cultural nationalism was shaped less by lowbrow political nativism than a Whitmanesque optimism and a desire to preserve an open democratic frontier where new ideas, untainted by decadent and failed old world traditions, remained possible.
I began this essay with a satirical reference to Judd’s supposed postmortem of painting, but his writings support a sincere love and appreciation for painting and painters. Many of his favorites form the core of my own canon of painterly saints.
It’s taken years, but this knucklehead finally perceived a profound lesson from this complicated cat: though a radical opposing view as a means of resistance and identification from the currently accepted ideology may be a necessity, you must always stay aware, analytical, and openhearted to this opposition, if only to present a more articulate and skillful rebuttal.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.