Richard Shiff is an art historian whose interests range broadly across the fields of modern and contemporary art. A prolific and cogent writer, Shiff has authored many books, including Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (1984), Doubt (2008), and Between Sense and de Kooning (2011). His approach might best be described as pragmatist, informed by the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce.
We connected via Zoom to discuss his most recent publication, Sensuous Thoughts: Essays on the Work of Donald Judd (2020). I earned my PhD in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin, where Shiff was my dissertation adviser. I also had the privilege of working as his research assistant for two years in the Center for the Study of Modernism. Our conversation addresses intuition, anarchy, feeling and thinking, the problem of expectations, and the inadequacy of language.
A retrospective exhibition of Judd’s work, organized by Ann Temkin, is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art through January 9, 2021.
Jessamine Batario (Rail): Sensuous Thoughts is a volume of 11 essays on Donald Judd, written over the course of 20 years. To me, each essay builds on the previous one, picking up from where the last one left off.
Richard Shiff: The first essay, written in 2019, is also the introduction. After that, you’re reading in chronological order. The essays represent a learning process. The later ones are somewhat better informed than the earlier ones in terms of Judd’s documentation. Especially in the last five years or so, a lot became available through the Judd Foundation; they’ve done a great job of publishing documents. And the Chinati Foundation Newsletter has terrific material over many years. They often reproduce sets of Judd’s drawings in connection with a specific project. I would have used some of the factual and documentary material quoted in the last two or three essays if I’d known about it when writing the first two or three essays. I think my general sense of what Judd was up to hasn’t changed all that much over the years, but the different essays approach it in different ways.
Rail: What is it about Judd’s work—or what does Judd’s work do for you—that keeps you coming back time and time again?
Shiff: He’s a kind of Renaissance person as he was involved with so much. He really did live a life of art in the sense that he created the world around him. Everything about his life was constructed. There are other prominent artists who have converted just about every aspect of their living into some form of art. What maybe distinguishes Judd is that his form is very public and not very private. He was building a community that was very public in Marfa, Texas. He was supporting local industry and local commerce. He was using local workers. He was committed to publications being bilingual. The land has a Mexican heritage, and Judd wanted to recognize this because he was intimately connected to the land wherever he was.
Everything that he built for himself, in terms of way of life or ideas about cooking, ideas about ranching, ideas about cultivating various forms of native vegetation—all these things were carefully considered in a logistical sense as well as an aesthetic sense. These concerns got Judd involved with architecture because that’s a profession that ideally combines all these interests. Architecture is social planning for human living. Every building in Marfa was carefully considered in terms of environmental issues—being sustainable and not disturbing the land in any way—and at the same time profoundly aesthetic. And then we think of the core of it all—the art objects that he made, which incorporate his aesthetic principles, there’s a theme that I know has appealed to me in Judd—so strong in him, though I pick it up in other artists as well—his concern not to over-compose the work that’s being produced, to keep the composition to a minimum so that the logical excellence of the work doesn’t overwhelm its emotional impact. There’s a logic to Judd, yet I find his works astoundingly emotional.
Rail: You say “emotional impact” and “logical excellence” here, but we might simply call it “feeling” and “thinking.” This seems like a binary at first, but in talking about Judd’s work and thinking about Judd’s aesthetic principles, there really is a balance between the two. Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between feeling and thinking?
Shiff: Judd was a very generative artist. He produced a lot and he managed to work in a mode that allows increased productivity without a decrease in the quality of the product. He made a statement, relatively late, in 1983—I’m paraphrasing: “If you work from A to B to C, the way most people think you ought to, going step by step in a logical way, you’ll never get to Z.” You won’t get anywhere significant because it’s going to take too long. So, you just go to Z from A right away. You skip over things. And mentally what are you doing when you’re skipping over? You’re exercising your intuition, which is not exactly something you can exercise at will, because it just happens. People know that it happens when it’s happening. I think that Judd had an unusually strong capacity to trust his intuition. Many people are intellectually overly cautious. Of course, there are people who are intellectually careless as well. And Judd, I think, was somehow incautious without being sloppy in any way. It allowed him to move fast to gain insights quickly. His thoughts are feelings. He’s left behind sketchbook notes, maybe thousands of pages, that are the barest inklings of drawings. They’re cognitive notes in visual form. Every one of them has a crystal-clear idea embedded in it. And that connection between the visualization and concept is like an A to Z moment without going through B, C, D, E, F, and trying to reconstruct the whole alphabet.
Judd believed—as many others before him have—that the Western distinction between thought and feeling is a disastrous error. It’s untrue to human nature. It’s also a very Christian idea to separate the body from the spirit, when body and spirit—in Judd’s view—are not separable and thought and feeling are not separable. That’s where the idea of “sensuous thoughts” comes in, which derives from Charles Sanders Peirce, one of the philosophers Judd studied. Peirce wrote of the sensory component of thinking. Any articulated thought would retain an emotional force and could never be considered as merely a logical structure. You can write a statement out and the thought looks logical, but the thought also has an emotional resonance of some kind. And Peirce was very good about insisting on this bond. Peirce’s categories bleed into each other all the time. He’s hardly a dualistic thinker.
Rail: He used threes. [Laughs]
Shiff: Threes, always threes. For me, it was something of an antidote to the binarism (and sometimes quaternism, when negatives were added in) of the prevailing structuralism of the ’60s and ’70s, as well as the late Hegelianism that characterized a lot of the younger writers, not so different in the nature of their thought from the previous generations of art theorists they were rejecting. It was common to take literary theory and apply it to visual analysis, but Peirce’s categories apply to both from the start. And Judd is a type of thinker similar to Peirce. He didn’t separate the verbal from the visual or the philosophical from the emotional and the sensory. His work in three dimensions wasn’t anti-painting—not a binary—but was “painting” in a different way. And it resulted from his experience as a sensing being who was thinking.
Rail: Yeah, because thought is emotional. It feels to think. A thought has an associated feeling.
Shiff: Absolutely. It’s not necessarily the case that the feeling is there because of the environment. You’re not having gloomy thoughts because there’s no sun out. The thought itself could have a gloom or a dimness to it.
Rail: Or the opposite. It could be very exciting and stimulating. The thought can make you feel good.
Shiff: You should think beneficent, fruitful thoughts, good thoughts.
Rail: I call those “brainers.”
Shiff: Have many of them.
Rail: What you’re saying reminds me of another of Judd’s statements: “a little speed is necessary.”
Shiff: Right. [Laughter] Letting your analysis move as quickly as your feeling. Judd was the master of understatement. Years ago, people never thought of him as having a sense of humor. I think people now have finally caught on to the fact that his statements can be extremely funny. And this was true of Peirce also. If you read Peirce in depth, there are truly funny remarks.
Rail: What were you introduced to first: Peirce’s writings or Judd’s work?
Shiff: Almost at the same time. I knew Judd’s art in the late ’60s, because Judd was prominent already. People either hated him or loved him because the art, in that context, appeared quite extreme. Of course, there were others of his generation who were working in a similarly provocative way, like Richard Serra and Dan Flavin. So over the years, since they all had pretty good careers, people got used to the art, but it was more of a shock to a lot of people around the time that I became acquainted with it and I was probably young enough at that point not to be shocked by anything. If you’re young enough and you don’t have years of adult experience behind you, it’s not easy to be shocked because you don’t have conventions that are going to be upset, or principles that you think you’ve established. I’m not sure I had been concerned about Judd as a thinker in those years. I only knew that his objects, what he was doing, was interesting.
And I became acquainted with Peirce. I probably knew who he was from my undergraduate education, but I don’t recall that I ever read Peirce during those years. William James was more of a hero in the 19th-century Cambridge context that Peirce grew out of. I began reading Peirce in the 1970s because of a chance encounter with a graduate student from the philosophy program who said, “I think Peirce is the hardest.” This was intriguing. Peirce isn’t that hard, but you have to get used to it. It’s like getting used to Judd. So, I started reading Peirce and thought his writing was smarter than most contemporary philosophy. Kept reading it, still read it.
Rail: The problem of expectations is another theme running through these essays. In “Specificity,” you wrote, “The problem Judd perceived was that art was a category of object and all categories set up expectations. You can’t see the specific quality of an object, if you first identify it as art. You only see the qualities that art is supposed to possess.” Then later, in “Every Shiny Object Wants an Infant Who Will Love It,” you stopped me in my tracks when you wrote, “You can be trapped by what you expect of yourself.” Relating art and its viewing subjects, you also wrote that Judd’s work “offers a chance to be out of ourselves.” What do you mean by that?
Shiff: Think of what people might have said, or some people might still say, about Judd’s art. They might say, “Well, I don’t think it’s art.” Maybe they think that it’s merely fabricated or it’s too simple or something. Whatever. “It looks like a piece of metal. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s art.” The reply to that would be, “Okay. But it’s too good to ignore, isn’t it?”
Who cares whether it’s art or not, you’re looking at it. It’s got your attention and there’s something to be learned from it. So, if we go through life with such a clear sense of who we are, what our standards are, what truths we hold dear, and so on and so forth, we’ll never grow or expand or be able to see value in things that are outside of that formation. And identity can be a terribly pernicious notion in this respect. Maybe it can be beneficial under certain circumstances, but if it becomes an external qualifier for yourself, well then you’ve excluded many kinds of experience as a possibility—or at the least, you’ve excluded a fantasy life. Possibility counters fixed identity. Maybe that’s a way to think about the issue, because a lot of art has external motivation and conveys a message which could be expressed in some other form, but not with the same possibilities, expansiveness, suggestiveness. If the work of art can introduce you to an unknown world—to you, therefore, an unreal world, a fantasy world—and if your sense of self or sense of identity is not so rigid as to prevent you from entering that fantasy world, then you learn something from it, just as the artist themself may have learned through the process of creating it.
Rail: How much of Judd's self do you think is in his work? Didn't he say he wanted himself to be removed from his work?
Shiff: Judd and so-called Minimalist artists in general, let’s say they’re anti-Expressionists. Their suggestiveness has little to do with identity, much more to do with human experience and perception. The last thing Judd is doing is expressing masculinity; whether he’s masculine or not, that’s just not in his work. I know people say this about Richard Serra’s work because it’s big and it’s heavy. And, metaphorically, you can make this argument, but with Judd, you can’t even make it metaphorically because the works are hollow. They have insides, and by our silly metaphoric conventions, that’s supposed to be a female thing, not a male thing. At any rate, I don't think Judd lacked an ego or denied himself a personality, but it’s not in the work. There’s an effort being made for the work to stand on its own, like a second nature or even a first nature of experience. And that’s not the same as a modernist idea about a work being formally self-sufficient, which has a different lineage.
But Judd’s ideas are characteristic of his generation really, including ideas that generated performance art and other unconventional modes associated with those who started working in the ’50s and ’60s. They’re not involved with personal expression in the way that a more conventional modernist artist is concerned with the indexical touch. You can tie the touch into expressionism. You don’t have to, but you can. But with someone like Jasper Johns, approximately Judd’s age, touch doesn’t lead into Expressionism, it’s the reverse. Yet touch is still there when Johns makes a mark. Judd wasn’t making marks, and Dan Flavin wasn’t making marks. Richard Serra isn’t making marks. Even when Serra makes those paint stick images, they’re filtered through a screen or they’re made with a coarse block of pigment. These are artists whose techniques eliminate the finesse of the cultivated hand as something inessential that introduces a lot of unnecessary cultural baggage. It’s a wonderful thing, the finesse of the hand. But if you have a cultural situation where the finesse of the hand is being maligned as an over-refined, elitist gesture, then Judd’s kind of art becomes an antidote to the cultural malaise.
Rail: This absence of the hand reminds me of your discussion of Roland Barthes’s idea of the death of the author relative to Judd. You quote Barthes: “It is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach … that point where only language acts … and every text is eternally written here and now.” Is that “here and now” what you were comparing to Judd? And in terms of language, you’ve written a lot on Judd’s writing, from his own statements to his early criticism of other artists. Can you discuss Judd’s writing style?
Shiff: The sense of “here and now” is very strong in Judd. The sense of doing something at a particular moment in a life for the here and now. It’s anti-expressionistic on one end and anti-ideological on the other end.
Judd can be extremely elliptical. You’ve probably noticed there are places in my essays where I’m quoting him, and I fill in the missing words that I think a typical writer would have used saying the same thing to make it clearer. Judd’s reviews are funny in a Peircean kind of way. There’s this line, “Thermometer has one.” Judd’s talking about Jasper Johns, and it’s the work titled Thermometer (1959), which consists of a real thermometer set along the midline of a small canvas, looking like a Barnett Newman zip. On either side are stenciled numbers, calibrations. There are the below zeros and the zero and the above zeros. So, it’s a thermometer and it’ll give you the temperature in the room, wherever the work is. And Judd just starts off with, “Thermometer has one.” What kind of a sentence is that?
Rail: That’s syllepsis, right?
Shiff: Yes, or some degenerate form of syllepsis since so much has been left unsaid. But Judd had this laconic inclination. He’s also keeping these reviews concise because he had a word limitation. This would explain why he would say only, “Thermometer has one.” Saved him about 10 words. When he’s talking about something more complicated, as he does in the “Specific Objects” essay, his concision can get hard to follow. He’s extremely elliptical. And also, there are jokes in there. And you have to catch them.
Rail: Speaking of writing about other artists, let’s talk about them. This book is a collection of essays on Judd, but it’s not just about Judd. You also discuss the artists he wrote about, as well as other artists who you find to have something in common with Judd. So actually, there’s a cast of characters here that includes Lee Bontecou, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, Bridget Riley, and Richard Serra. And these are not all artists that, as you say, Judd himself would have liked. Can you talk about Judd in this larger context?
Shiff: Maybe the person who is most like Judd, in single-mindedness and in building a life around art, would be Bridget Riley. And he referred to her only once—positively, as a point of comparison. He was reviewing somebody else, and he referred to Riley doing it better or something like that. But her art, like his, entails a radical dissociation of the self from the art. You know, it’s not about Bridget Riley’s feelings. It’s about the feelings that you get when you look at Riley’s work. It’s not about Donald Judd’s feelings about concrete or land, it’s the feeling you get when you are in the land in Marfa, looking at or walking through the 15 sets of concrete blocks.
Judd had a personal relationship with Richard Serra and it had its ups and downs, but Serra also is a very single-minded, very devoted artist who has maintained a unique way of making art. Frank Stella shows up a bit, but primarily because of Judd’s involvement with Stella early in his career. They were like-minded artists, and friends. And then Judd became dissatisfied with the direction of Stella’s work. I like Stella all the way through, so I’m okay with his art, but Judd wasn’t, and one can understand why. Stella appeared, from Judd’s perspective, to regress from the boldness of the works that he produced when he was in his twenties to work that he produced later, which is like a very abstract, very dimensional version of Baroque painting. That’s the way Judd would see it. And he would say, “Well, Baroque painting is fine, but we don’t need somebody making it now.” Judd had no complaints about the art of the past. But he had complaints about people who he thought were building on the art of the past in the wrong way, not getting beyond it, redoing it in some fashion rather than reaching beyond. And so he and Stella stopped talking to each other. But Stella is a somewhat younger member of Judd’s generation and an important figure in what was happening during what we could loosely call Judd’s formative years.
It’s possible that Judd’s formation had as much to do with his reading as with looking at things. He’s an artist for whom thinking was really important. He became frustrated with his own painting and experimented to make the painting more physical, more dimensional, which is something Stella did too. This is why Judd liked the early Stella. Stella used what were considered radical stretcher bars at the time because they were four inches thick. It made the work stand apart from the wall rather than looking like a window into the wall. It became a point of critical discussion—painting as an object, painting as sculptural. Judd did something analogous in the very early ’60s. He made strange painting objects with textured paint and, in one case, he inserted a metal baking pan into the center. Because the pan is face up, you have an inverted space inside the painting that makes the whole thing dimensional. Judd experimented with texture and relief, gradually leading him to make objects that were wall pieces in very high relief rather than the conventional low relief. The example of Bontecou was important to him in this respect.
In “As It Feels,” I mentioned Per Kirkeby, whom Judd probably would have had no interest in. He would have regarded Kirkeby as an expressionistic painter.
Rail: You even compare Judd to Mark Bradford.
Shiff: Yes, especially because of the way Bradford was working at the time, with Field of Miracles from 2010. He’s also a very experimental artist and very much oriented to tactile experience. Whatever he’s doing, it can happen fast. I don’t think I said this in the essay, but he’s probably an A to Z person, rather than an ABC person. In his social interest he may be an ABC person because he’s very careful about thinking how to do a social intervention, but in the studio, the artwork is highly intuitive, skipping over the intermediaries. And in Field of Miracles, he took what started as a relatively small kind of object that you could make with pieces of inked paper, malleable like newsprint. You dip it in water, tear it easily by hand. You can layer it and it just sticks together. Technically these paper works are collages, made from this newsprint with just the black ink, which if you wet it and rub it enough, becomes lighter in tone and so you get gradations, grays. And what I liked about Bradford’s piece when I saw it in London was that he had taken a whole wall and filled it with these variable units—rather like a Judd.
Field of Miracles is not as big as the Judd piece at Gagosian on 21st Street, but it had a similar perceptual impact. It seems to me that Bradford often works in the spirit of Judd in this additive way without letting the composition become over-refined. The refinement is in the relation to the materials, just as in Judd the refinement may be to the plywood itself, the sense of the wood, the proportions that he uses, the way something will be leveled, the way parts are joined. It’s all aesthetically meaningful, and Bradford has a sense like that, of putting things together to make a greater whole without losing the interest of all the perceptible elements.
Rail: Can we talk about Judd’s politics? You didn’t focus on it in any of these essays, but you alluded to it.
Shiff: Right. I didn’t focus on it. And in part because those are primarily exhibition essays related to specific bodies of work. However, the art and the politics fit together. I didn’t want to ignore the political factor, which is a big part of Judd’s life. It subtly creeps into the essays.
Rail: When Judd talks about it, he makes distinctions between being American and being European. And Americanness is associated with democracy, in Judd’s case, localized democracy. And you’ve said in the past that Judd was an anarchist, or perhaps a libertarian. Can we call these belief systems, or ideologies?
Shiff: Yeah, you can, under certain circumstances, call anarchism an ideology, but of course it—
Rail: [Laughs] It’s an anti-ideology.
Shiff: Yeah, it’s doing everything it can to not be an ideology. If I had to categorize him—and I don’t like to categorize people politically anyway, because it does the same thing as giving them an identity—he’s more of an anarchist than anything else.
Barnett Newman called himself an anarchist. And Newman and Judd are similar, but Judd was a lot more coherent politically than Newman was. Newman was a person of extremes and Judd is not so extreme, much more of a pragmatist politically, trying to figure out what you can do and what you can’t do, and letting go of the stuff you can’t do. Politics for him is local. For him, what’s good about American democracy is that, in principle anyway, it’s local. This was true in his political involvement with the movement to stop the expressway going through lower Manhattan. And in Marfa, he was very concerned with the local community and the economy of the place. But he owned three ranches outside of Marfa, and each one more remote than the last. He liked being out where he could feel political freedom, political independence in a very obvious way.
Rail: How would you relate his politics to his art making?
Shiff: His art doesn’t dictate to you what you should think. When art has a message, it’s dictating to you what you should think. The message could be, “I, the artist, feel this and you should feel it too,” or it could articulate a political statement. Neither is the case with Judd.
Rail: It’s like artistic anarchy.
Shiff: Yeah, in a sense, this is why he didn’t approve of the collective term, “Minimalism.” He didn’t want to be called a Minimalist because this was to imply that his art had to have something in common with other people who were called Minimalists.
Rail: I have one last question for you, and it returns to the title of Sensuous Thoughts, and the relationship between feeling and thinking. Oftentimes in these essays you’re talking about the inadequacy of language. So what does it mean to write about Judd’s work, when the work is not so much about anything, not about meaning per se but about experience, about what it’s like to be in front of it?
Shiff: That’s a very central question for me, whether I’m writing about Judd or other artists, though maybe especially with Judd because Judd faced this himself as a writer. What I try to do in my essays is to stop short of providing a formula for understanding the artist or the work. At some point, I try to keep the language more evocative than explicative. I think ideally a reader should want to see more of the work after reading the essay, as opposed to feeling, “Okay, now I understand this.”
I think that visual art—and I suppose we could say the same with music—takes advantage of its own mode of communication, as opposed to translating something else. Communication doesn’t lend itself to being translated into or captured by another medium of communication. If I say this, the obvious rejoinder is, “Well then, aren’t the poets right?” Because they’ll just write a poem and attach it to illustrations of the visual work, and you have a book presenting two art forms—make of it what you will. It would be like Samuel Beckett and Jasper Johns in what is really a very beautiful book, Foirades/Fizzles (1976), with images by Johns and text by Beckett. Johns was asked if he would contribute visual material to some Beckett writing and he agreed to do it. I don’t know whether this condition was explicit or whether he just did it this way, but his imagery has nothing to do with the writing. Because it would be presumptuous on his part to refer to Beckett’s writing—it’s so purely writing. So Johns produced visual images that are very visual, in response to writing that’s very “writing” (or literary). And there’s no connection except that the two appear in the same book. You could ask: Then why write about the visual? Why produce critical writing or even historical writing? Why do it at all?
Rail: Yeah, so why are we here?
Shiff: It’s genuinely a critical exercise, or it should be. There’s a little bit of art history in these essays, but the book is more of an extended form of art criticism. It’s a genre which has existed for quite a while, but not forever. The kind of writing that we tend to think of as art criticism is more of the Baudelairean type, which is commentary on art that often drifts off into dealing with other things. That’s certainly true of Baudelaire who didn’t stay very close to the art he was addressing. But some writers stay close. I stay relatively close. My writing isn’t poetry, and it isn’t a legalistic document either. It’s something in between. It represents a possibility that language has in our culture. Maybe it didn’t always have this possibility.
For me, it’s a personal challenge because I enjoy encounters with the art so much. One way I respond is to make little drawings of aspects of works, little visual thoughts. But then it’s another challenge to take those little visual thoughts and weave them into a conceptual framework, to weave them into some Peircean categories, or weave them into some remarks that Judd made about Bontecou, or the use of the word “polarity.” Why was Judd using that word when he did? What did it accomplish? This becomes a conceptual problem derived from visual observation but suited to verbalization.
Polarities in general interest me because the extremes, the polar ends to polarities, tend to be unrealizable (other than the geographical ones). When Peirce talks about the absolute origin of the universe or of life, he can’t locate it. It’s like a line that needs a point at its end, but the point doesn’t exist. And at the other end of the same line, he’s got absolute stasis or death—another missing point. He manages to fudge the whole thing by invoking the concept of infinity. Something which is infinitely far away is ungraspable with standard geometry, so Peirce doesn’t need to represent its “point.” He needs only to represent the middle of the bar, which is where we are, here and now.
Rail: Somewhere between a powder of feelings and a gelatinous mush.
Shiff: Or like a petrification, a totally solidified opposite of powder. It’s like the powder coming back together and forming a chalky stone. So, art criticism is in the middle somewhere, and we don’t need to deal with absolute truth or beginnings and ends. I don’t care where this comes from or where it’s going, because I’m dealing with a situation that I’m faced with now. And it might be just some objects in a room. An exhibition. And that’s the situation.