New York City
Donald Judd: Paintings 1959-1961
November 10 – December 23, 2021
Say the name Donald Judd, and many people will imagine an object with taut lines, sleek metallic surfaces, and often two-tone, like a 1950s sedan. The scribbles don’t occur to me. That’s part of why it was such a surprise to find 15 paintings by the artist from 1959 to 1961 on display this fall at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea that were so different from the three-dimensional constructions the artist would soon make. According to the press release for that exhibition, Judd said: “My work does not arise from sculpture; he takes out paintings by Pollock, Newman, Rothko. But when you looked at the abstractions that were on display at the West 24th Street outpost, you may have remembered, like me, the late-period canvases that Willem de Kooning painted about 20 years ago. years later. You know, the ones that are clean and understated and have a few curvy curves and markings.
This body of work by Judd has been mostly kept secret for the past sixty years. He now fills a gap in our knowledge of his career. That the patterns are monochrome is not surprising. What other colors are found under their surfaces is. This repentance that appears is just as unexpected. I’ve always thought of Judd as the kind of artist who would destroy anything with a mistake and then start over. Even the character of the lines of these paintings is unusual. A white or beige stripe will have another pigment in its center. The texture of this group of paints is also more varied than you might think. Some are crude like the initial panels that the artist inserted things into like a steel baking dish or a plexiglass oval. Others appear to stain their surfaces.
What was Judd trying to achieve with these works? It was, after all, a time of uproar and disruption in the art world. As it stands, these abstractions are different from what other contemporary painters did. These are not examples of early minimalism as practiced by, say, Walter Darby Bannard; or canvases fashioned in Frank Stella; or examples of color fields associated with someone like Kenneth Noland. They are not post-paint abstractions either. And they certainly have nothing to do with Pop art, which had already made its debut. At this point, specific objects were still waiting offstage backstage.
In the end, it is the singularity, not to mention the ambition, of this work that impresses. Judd eliminated a lot, especially the angst, which was associated with the type of art that followed in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. Within the limits he allowed himself, he tried a number of options, including ways to divide monochromatic fields, introduce original shapes, and favor a palette of red, blue, black and white. In other words, from the start Donald Judd was looking for something radically different.
With these fifteen paintings, the future minimalist set out on an unknown road to his destination. He hadn’t yet arrived. One of the fascinating parts of this show was watching Judd figure out how to do it. We know what happened next, but he didn’t. I don’t think the black panel with the baking dish or the red with the plexiglass oval ever felt that radical divorced from the context of the paintings that came before them. (Although these two works were not exhibited at Gagosian, they were shown in the recent Museum of Modern Art retrospective.)
One of the highlights was an untitled black square painting complemented in its center by another square filled with diagonal lines. From 1961 he was a key to Judd’s future. The artist only had to take one small step to transform a work like this into the kind of specific objects he famously described in the 1960s. Judd just had to insert an empty baking dish in the part of the paint that was once scratched. Sometimes the simplest action leads to the thrill of discovery.