Now as then, Donald Judd’s writing on art makes us mindful of the studio writ large. Verbalized or not, our art resides in the many decisions informing the manufacture of artifacts of some kind, for which tectonics and facture must speak to some clear purpose.
Judd’s discourse issues in sentences that do studio work, presenting to the reader just that what and how by which the artist at work thinks with the matter at hand. Imagine the famous Art News series of studio visit interviews with artists, projected this way: “Donald Judd Unmakes and Remakes a Painting (or Sculpture).”
Judd’s sentences profess the concreteness of manufacture, as though, through that, the sincerity of the resulting object presented itself. Put another way, the art we make has value insofar as it can give a fair accounting of itself. By this pragmatic stance, Judd reveals a great assumption of the American belief in, or myth of, the common sense of making and doing, but to judge by his writing, the making and doing are not self-evident. For Judd’s writing on art shows his working of sentences as testing certain material decisions for their conceptual mettle.
This is something I had in mind when writing essays on Judd’s own work, specifically “Box, Aspects of: Donald Judd” and “Quality Through Quantity: Donald Judd,” essays included in Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960 (Cambridge University Press, 1999). In the latter essay, I wondered aloud how Judd’s descriptions of the sculptural elements comprising Robert Morris’ show in 1964 at the Wadsworth Atheneum conveyed more than information: “At least in the context of an emerging Minimalism, Judd’s review of Morris’ work is instructive to the extent that it reveals the values that attach to a description of the commonplaces of form.” After considering the very language as material construct, meant for the functional naming of things, I go on to say: “What I want to propose is that quality plays a decisive role in determining the calculated neutrality of work in Minimalist objects.” And here the very number of elements that comprise a sculptural entity reveals some judgmental weaknesses, as where the extent of the vertical stacks merely fill up existing wall space, inconsequentially. The concept of many can lose intellectual force once situated in actual space.
The former essay, “Box, Aspects of: Donald Judd,” cross-examines the works of Judd himself, especially with regard to the crucial decision to allow the box to stand for all sculpture. All modernist sculpture, being volumetric rather than massive, favors the box as the eloquent statement of that proposition. “What was the question to which the morphology of the box was an answer?” I repeatedly ask, in order to extrude the content of the form that we take for granted. Judd’s writings set an example of the so-called self-evidence of the thing under investigation. In this sense, Judd is a great studio companion, as he will rouse the critic in you.