Donald Judd’s major ambition was to inherit the legacy of Jackson Pollock. The former’s recent show at David Zwirner certainly makes this apparent. The works in the exhibit are open box forms made of anodized aluminum that sit on the floor and are looked into from above. The pieces are accented variously with black, amber, and blue sheets of Plexiglas as well as more gray aluminum, which project either from the top or bottom of each box and span its width. Like the perspective of the painter hovering above his all-over drip canvases of 1947-50, one looks into Judd’s open boxes from a peculiar angle. But Pollock’s final works were hung on the wall. More importantly, they were made to be looked at rather than into, as they continued modernist painting’s pursuit of flatness. But this belies a deeper connection between the two. Pollock’s work was premised on absolute unity: “There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but it was.” Judd had similar aims: “It isn’t necessary for a work to have lots of things to look at…the thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting.” If Pollock used the all-over in order to realize pictorial wholeness, Judd reinvented it as the serial impulse of the repeated form, ambitiously seeking to make the painter’s insistence on unity physically (and not only optically) manifest.
Simplicity, however, is not in and of itself a value. It is rather one means among many to strong work. Many of these late Judd works, which certainly do have very little to look at, simply feel incomplete. Oftentimes, there is just very little happening aesthetically. In the least successful works, the generic gray container houses nothing but one or two other gray sheets of aluminum, leaving one to wonder if something else was supposed to happen but never did. Curiously, this ties Judd to Pollock even more fully. If the painter moved above and around only potential works of art, shifting around Judd’s all gray metallic frames, one senses possibility unrealized. If they are unified in any way, they are only so in the crudest sense, as they merely feel uniformly unfinished.
Still, the latent potential in the gray pieces seems partially fulfilled in other works, even if they are not the strongest Judds one can imagine. The best piece is intelligently placed in the front room of the gallery. Featuring each of the various colors these works employ, it shrewdly plays the reflective blue off of the amber, creating a slightly discordant yet no less resonant juxtaposition which certainly strikes one as “specific,” although perhaps not necessarily in Judd’s sense of the term. The unfamiliarity of the relationship between these two distinctly particular colored slabs of Plexiglas is refreshing and vibrant. If the colored sheets do not visually rhyme with one another, their adjacent placement nevertheless partakes of a bold attempt at completeness via its opposite: discord. Again Pollock comes to mind simply because Judd’s work demands the relationship. If the former sought unity through the seemingly chaotic drip method, Judd seeks it through the ostensibly harsh relation of blue to amber. Yet for all that is worth, these colors and the forms they take do not play well with the unsympathetic assertiveness of the gray container. It envelopes them, literally and aesthetically, so that whatever sense of unity they strive for collapses under the pressure of a dominant form. Wholeness is again compromised. In the end, with one or another of these affects repeated throughout the exhibit, Judd’s attempt at unity seems either dull or unintegrated.
It may go without saying that not all of Judd’s art fails on these accounts. Perhaps, then, the best thing these works do is point towards the retrospective potential of the artist’s other work. The aesthetic prospects of the open box form, which he was at times able to employ with dazzling brilliance, are here only latent. But this is a situation Judd openly put himself into. If a work of the utmost simplicity was not whole in its quality, it could only be potentially complete. One can’t help but feel that these late works are underripe, somehow waiting to be realized in earlier pieces.
(Cover image: Installation view, Donald Judd at David Zwirner, New York 2011. Judd Art © Judd Foundation. Licensed by VAFA, New York, NY. Photo by Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART; courtesy of David Zwirner, New York.)