Donald Judd Writings (Judd Foundation/David Zwirner Books, 2016) at once resembles a brick and a bible. With compact, cuboid dimensions and containing over a thousand thin, silky pages, this exhaustive collection is itself a cheekily “specific object.” Judd’s son Flavin shared in its design and suggests in an introduction that we view his father’s writing as a “tool for future use.” In a similarly terse and declarative tone to his father’s, Flavin concludes, “ideas are tools and this is a toolbox,” which encapsulates Judd’s ideology of practical, clear, and empirical description. Judd retrospectively and speciously declared that he wrote criticism in the 1950s simply out of a mercenary’s need for a part-time job that offered flexibility.1 Obviously, this remark was glib—his writing served as an instrument for self-understanding and discursive scaffolding for his own art.
As an artist writing about art, Judd demonstrated that art could be seen solely as physical and material fact, arguing against the long European tradition of illusionism. I took on this insight wholesale and verbatim in my earliest paintings after graduate school, employing thick stretchers and particularities of metallic paint surfaces to exaggerate the objectness of a painting in the face of the circulation of digital images of paintings. Judd’s ability to shrewdly and economically encapsulate a judgment into matter-of-fact description inspired my own development as a writer. His strong position was helpful as an agitant to bland, position-less criticism—which is not to say that his literalism was necessarily right or wrong. Today, amid the recent distorted reporting of fake news stories on social media platforms, Judd’s forceful stance is ever relevant. In the art world, an internet echo chamber promotes writers who do little more than restate press releases and previous reviews.2
In soliciting responses to Judd’s new volume, I invited artists who employ writing as an examination and contemplation of their own work in the context of other relevant ideas and artworks. I asked: How have Judd’s essays, reviews, and complaints informed your perspective, and which of Judd’s specific ideas, threads, and themes have had a lasting impact or have you been critical of? In this way, their writings provide both a mirror for reflection and a bridge across medium, time, and language. Ideas can be digested and expressed differently across varying forms. The verbal and visual can function as a symbiotic organism of absorption, expression, and possibility—one thing illuminates the other without hierarchy and by internal obligation. This polyvocal communication of artist-writers is urgent and vital to the creation and observation of new thought and form.
Judd’s rich thought goes beyond art to engage in questions of citizenry, activism, politics, and history. Since the shocking results of our recent election cycle, I’ve been exploring Judd’s writing on activism in the 1970s, where, conflicted, he admits to the political implications of the artwork he had wished to make in isolation from the turbulent political climate of his day.3 In fact, during this time he had also marched in an anti-Vietnam protest alongside Ad Reinhardt, organized artists against Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway, and advocated for a Jeffersonian model of self-governing townships.
I thought about these parallel histories as I marched in the solidarity of protest toward the president-elect’s tower the night after the election, with Judd’s collected writings in my backpack and fresh on my mind. I’m hopeful that stronger cultural and political engagement will follow and that those actions—even while being fragile gestures of beauty, urgency, and magnanimity—will generate new aesthetic forms. As Donald Judd wrote in 1970, “If you don’t act, someone else will decide everything.”
- The rent for Judd’s SoHo loft was $100 per month and he made $180 writing, which left plenty of time to make artwork. Today, New York rents and the means of income available to young artists and writers could not be more different.
- Particularly striking are recent blog articles that re-present a digest of reviews about a particular subject, as with most recently the 2015 Forever Now show at MoMA.
- This tension between politics and aesthetics in the life and work of artists, which I am also intensely feeling now, was also expressed by Philip Guston in 1977: “So when the 1906s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”