The Minimalist Who Wasn’t

I always thought Donald Judd’s work was intimidatingly austere, until I discovered the plenitude at its core.

Image above: Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, 1982–1986, as installed in Marfa, Texas. (Photograph by Alex Marks. Donald Judd Art © 2020 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York.)

Bringing my toddler to the Donald Judd retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art when it opened last winter forced me to recognize the ways Judd’s objects resemble playground equipment: the diagonal ladder of red-painted wood with its single purple rod, or the red-enameled iron tube that slyly evoked (at least to my toddler-adjacent eyes) an empty kiddie pool. When we visited shortly after the show opened in February, my daughter wanted to climb on all the objects—or up them, or through them, or over them. The objects. I had trained myself not to call them sculptures, because Judd himself hadn’t thought of them that way. And neither did my toddler! She wanted to crawl through the silver aluminum boxes lined with blue Plexiglas, to bang her tiny fists against a green-lacquered galvanized-iron slab. The one thing she didn’t want to do was stay in her stroller.

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Eternally intimidated by the stark, imposing presence of Judd’s pieces, I was surprised to discover their fragility—that they are easily damaged, and have often been poorly protected. In an essay about Judd’s vexed relationship with museums that appears in the exhibition catalog, Ann Temkin, the show’s curator, writes:

Once his works entered the public realm, their flat tops and boxlike forms were often read as invitations to rest an elbow or set down a purse. Their rectilinear structures tempted children and adults alike, whether to squish their bodies between elements of a wall progression, climb inside a channel piece, or crouch beneath a single stack. Unbeknownst to most visitors, the surfaces of the materials they were touching—Plexiglas, aluminum, galvanized iron—were as fragile as parchment and often irreparable.

As my daughter and I made our way through four huge rooms—displaying work that spanned the three decades of Judd’s career, which found its footing in the mid‑1960s and ended with Judd’s sudden death in 1994—I cringed at the thought of her splintering one of his plywood boxes with her tiny blue Velcro-fastened sneakers. Yet something about Judd’s art also made me want to see its perfect lines dented, its stillness disrupted, its self-possession rattled; his work often made me feel inadequate and uncomprehending, vaguely excluded.

When Judd emerged as a central figure in the downtown New York art scene in the late ’60s, people celebrated his art and were confounded by it. He broke away from abstract painting to start creating three-dimensional objects that were embraced by many critics as part of an emerging minimalist movement. One crucial milestone in his career was his appearance in the 1966 “Primary Structures” group exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, along with his contemporaries Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris, often understood as “minimalist” as well. (The poet John Ashbery’s review in ARTnews was titled “Young Masters of Understatement.”) But Judd himself always rejected the term minimalist, which seemed like another form of minimalism: His art was so minimalist that even the label was excess weight. If you clung to that category, you had already missed the point.

I’ll confess, however, that minimalist was the word I reached for the first time I stood in front of his art—an installation of 15 plywood boxes at Dia: Beacon labeled, simply, Untitled (1976). Its refusal of a title (most of his work is untitled) struck me as yet another act of withholding. The installation seemed elusive and aloof, as if it were responding to my hunger to understand its meaning with a reticence close to silence. These boxes weren’t figurative. They weren’t narrative. They weren’t embellished. They weren’t even pretty. What were they, exactly? They were made of blond wood with a visible grain. Some were closed. Some were open. Others had recessed tops, like little roof decks, which made me picture tiny people lounging on top of them for summer barbecues, eating tiny hot dogs, and plunging into tiny hot tubs. Tiny hot tubs! I knew this imagined landscape wasn’t the “right” reaction to be having.

I couldn’t look at these plywood boxes without feeling reprimanded by the hypothetical specter of a more sophisticated eye than mine—a viewer who could appreciate Judd’s art better, who didn’t crave the entry point of narrative or figurative representation. The people satisfied by Judd’s spare boxes were probably also people who might eat a single peach for dessert while listening to obscure electronica; I’m someone who wants to inhale an entire carton of ice cream while being flooded by the swelling riffs of a cheesy pop song. I’ve always felt tainted by this desire for excess in all forms, for naked sentiment and surging sugar and the aesthetic comfort food of legible stories. Which is all to say: I was convinced that I had failed Judd’s work by looking at it and feeling nothing, or by assuming that feeling something was the only way to have a meaningful experience with art.

In retrospect, I wonder if my conviction that I’d somehow failed Judd’s work stemmed from an oblique kind of transference—from the way I experienced his work as the artistic equivalent of an aloof father figure, detached and opaque. I was alienated by what felt like a particular maleness at its core; its simplicity felt like withholding because it brought me back to my childhood dinner table, where I sat across from my father trying to decode his spare, inscrutable utterances—always grounded in logic and precision, rather than sentiment. It was as if Judd’s art had become another impassive male face in which I was hunting for an aperture; as if I needed to devote myself fully—all my intelligence, all my stamina—to understanding what lay behind its impenetrable facades. My stubborn focus on emotion was missing the point.

When asked by the critic Bruce Glaser in 1964, “Are you suggesting an art without feeling?,” Judd replied that he was specifically resisting a certain “kind of feeling,” by which he meant an artist’s “particular feeling at the time.” Judd’s work was instead invested in the formal existence of the object itself. “Already convinced that representational art was a thing of the past,” Roberta Smith wrote in her obituary,

he became increasingly sure that even abstract art could not presume to describe human emotion. Instead, he began to believe in the autonomy of the art object, namely that the object’s purpose was not to serve as a metaphor for human life, but to have a strong formal life of its own, something he frequently called specificity.

At MoMA, my daughter’s eagerness to touch Judd’s work—to bang it, climb it, crawl beneath it—was attuned to this “strong formal life.” Driven by primal material curiosity, she was spellbound by the visceral force field of his art, undistracted by a search for embedded meaning or latent feeling, an unwitting, squirming disciple of his famous pronouncement that “a work needs only to be interesting.” While I’d understood his work as stiflingly serious, she approached it with playful desire, sensing that it might want to give us something, that the art and its witnesses (the two of us!) might be engaging in an experiment together.

This tension—between understanding Judd’s art as reserved minimalism, and pushing back against that framing to excavate its exploratory vitality—recurs across the long arc of critical responses to his work. Critics love disagreeing about Judd, and they particularly love disagreeing about the question of his restraint. Early in his career, his work was featured in a group exhibition at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet exploring “space, silence, stillness, even emptiness and negation as means of expression,” and many critics saw his breakout 1968 solo exhibition at the Whitney as a high-water mark in the rising minimalist movement. But even then others balked at the label; the critic Elizabeth C. Baker praised an “over-all quality of sumptuousness” at the Whitney solo show, disputing the popular misunderstanding of Judd’s work as “baffling, impassive, harsh”; the critic Hilton Kramer called him a “closet hedonist.”

The very layout of the retrospective enacts a version of this ongoing critical dispute. Toward the start of the exhibition, viewers encounter the younger Judd’s spare, iconic objects, his emerging vocabulary of forms—his boxes on the ground; his “stacks,” consisting of boxes installed vertically against the wall, at even intervals between floor and ceiling, some made of galvanized iron painted with sea-green lacquer, others made of stainless steel and fitted with yellow Plexiglas; and his “progressions,” mounted objects with appendages arrayed according to numerical sequences (a purple-lacquered aluminum rod, for example, with angular attachments made of cold-rolled steel). But in the last gallery, viewers are faced with Judd’s more outrageously colorful works from the ’80s and early ’90s: multicolored objects made from enameled aluminum, their rectangular patchworks of deeply saturated hues—tangerine, cobalt, teal, flame—held together by visible bolts. The “chromatic and material exuberance” of these later works, as Temkin writes, “emphatically contradicts the ‘Minimalist’ label that Judd had always rejected.”

Even as I assured myself that I would come back to the retrospective on my own—without the soundtrack of my toddler begging to get out of her stroller, and the distracting suspicion that we were distracting everyone else—I also understood that my daughter was teaching me something about Judd’s objects. She was training me to see the shimmer of their energy, the rough or polished or bolt-studded texture of their surfaces, the ways their stark lines vibrated against the white gallery walls.

When I spoke with Judd’s son, Flavin—now the artistic director of the Judd Foundation—he described his father’s art as committed to creating an experience of intensified presence. This sense of purpose was grounded in Judd’s awareness of the bounded nature of life; how precious and limited it is, how in this finitude it deserves and repays our attunement. Judd’s insistence on noticing—as a way of being in the world, and a daily practice—was also part of what it meant to grow up with him as a father. Flavin told me that “Don” (as both his children call him) was constantly urging them to pay closer attention to the world. It’s precisely what Judd’s art asks of us.

The Donald Judd retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art spanned a career that took off in the mid-1960s and ended with the artist’s death in 1994. (Installation view of Judd © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph by Jonathan Muzikar. Donald Judd Art © 2020 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York.)

When Flavin was a young child growing up at 101 Spring Street—the five-story cast-iron building in New York’s SoHo warehouse district that Judd converted in 1968 into a studio space and home—he didn’t notice his father’s art so much as he experienced it as an essential feature of his domestic landscape. Flavin joked to me that before he and his younger sister, Rainer, even learned to walk, they learned, “Don’t walk through the art.” And a few years later, as a 6-year-old, Flavin started drawing plans for objects of his own—not boxes, as his father made, but triangles. It was a way of accessing the art without touching it, perhaps.

The critic John Canaday once claimed that Judd’s work exemplified art “that rejects all connection with life of any kind,” but Temkin, in her introduction to the retrospective’s catalog, emphasizes the precise opposite—that Judd was “an artist deeply involved in the interrelation of art and life.” Flavin believes that for his father, making art, navigating daily life, and raising his kids were all informed by what he calls the same “philosophical stance”: a commitment to stripping away everything but the proximate—all the obfuscating myths and stories and abstractions—and a desire to pay attention to the world and to cultivate that attention in others. In Judd’s creative practice, this meant he wanted to dispense with much of the Western art tradition; in raising his kids—one named after an artist, the other after a dancer—this meant he took them not to church, but out into the desert, to look at the rocks and the stars.

Flavin described his father’s philosophy as infused with the ethos of a midwestern farmer, which Judd came by naturally. He was born in his grandparents’ rural farmhouse in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, in 1928, and believed in being efficient and practical: making use of things, not wasting anything. He also believed in respecting preexisting structures and materials, taking his cues from what he found. When he decided to leave his Spring Street property more or less intact, it was an aesthetic decision to respect the integrity of the space. “I thought the building should be repaired and basically not changed,” he wrote years later, and emphasized that leaving the place alone had been “a highly positive act.” For certain geniuses, the source of their brilliance lies in a gift and compulsion for reinvention and self-transformation, but for Judd, there was a striking constancy. He agreed with prior versions of himself more often than he didn’t.

Judd had initially moved to Manhattan to study art history and philosophy at Columbia, after serving with the U.S. Army from June 1946 until November 1947, mainly stationed as part of the Engineer Corps in Korea, where he was assigned to a unit that helped build an air base and a boiler plant. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, he supported himself as an art critic, devoting his own work mainly to painting, and as the 1960s got under way, he started making the three-dimensional objects for which he became famous. In 1973 Judd began to purchase property in Marfa, Texas, seeking an alternative to the “harsh and glib situation within art in New York.” He was determined to create permanent installations of his work, because he felt most temporary gallery exhibitions did the objects a great disservice. Judd was drawn to West Texas because “there were few people and the land was undamaged,” and he chose the town of Marfa “because it was the best looking and the most practical.” After he and his wife, the dancer Julie Finch, separated in 1976, Judd brought Flavin and Rainer, then 9 and 6, to live with him in Texas, fighting for primary custody at the Presidio County Courthouse.

The gleaming surfaces of this installation, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, reflect the shifting moods of the Texas sky. (Permanent collection, the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photograph by Douglas Tuck, courtesy of the Chinati Foundation. Donald Judd Art © 2020 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York.)

Flavin told me that Judd was “the only single father in Marfa making lunch for his kids every day,” though his exacting artistic sensibilities were present even in this daily act of parenting; he asked his kids to keep their milk cartons on the floor rather than the table, because he couldn’t stand their design. “In Marfa our friends were cowboys and Border Patrol agents,” as Flavin put it, and in the same 2016 interview, Rainer described the powerful impact of the vast Texas landscape on her childhood psyche: “The fishbowl quality of the sky over hundred mile vistas became a teacher of sorts, giving me the simultaneous feeling of being both little and independent.” This was a far cry from SoHo, where Flavin remembered “ducking under the loading docks on the way to school, the smell of Scotch and machine oil, laughter echoing through empty streets from open loft windows.” But as opposite as Marfa and SoHo were, Rainer said, “one thing in common was a feeling of being a pioneer. They were both village-size with few stores, one post office … Both had a slightly abandoned, transitional quality.” In Marfa, they spent many weekends at the Ayala de Chinati ranch, where, Rainer recalled, “we’d sit by the fire and talk. It developed in me a wondering type of thinking, free to ask questions. Some parents take their kids hunting or to Disneyland. Driving to the land, making fires, and talking was his gift.”

The more I learned about Judd as a dad, the more I began to question why I’d responded to his work as if it were the aesthetic equivalent of a distant father. I began to wonder, in fact, if I’d been misunderstanding its simplicity all along—if I’d been reading restraint as withholding, when perhaps it was a form of offering. A 2015 visit to Judd’s home in downtown Marfa, a compound called La Mansana de Chinati, only deepened this sense that I’d been missing something crucial about the ethos of care that connected his life and work. La Mansana, known informally as “The Block,” struck me as an architectural embodiment of the continuities that had mattered most to him—between his artistic vision and his daily life, between daily living and daily making, between being an artist and being a father.

Judd created the Block from a cluster of three neglected buildings that he enclosed with an adobe wall. Two were warehouses that he salvaged from disrepair—broken windows, leaky roofs—and over time converted into hybrid spaces meant for living, working, and permanent art installations. He turned what had once been the offices of the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps into the home he shared with his kids, describing it as having “the necessary domesticity” (though he removed its bathroom to make the interior layout more symmetrical, and built a freestanding adobe bathhouse nearby).

At first glance it didn’t look like a home that had ever been inhabited by children. The space was uncluttered and intentional—as if living were something that could happen without making a mess, as if one’s whole life, day by day, could become a kind of art object in its own right. But Judd had raised his children there. They’d lived in symmetrical rooms at the base of the stairs, their doors covered in stickers: mighty short horns of marfa and (more mysterious) wormy packages. Each bedroom had a closet accessible only by ladder. On one side of the house, Judd built a concrete swimming pool and a shaded pergola, and “on the other side of the building, in line with my daughter’s room,” he wrote in an essay about the Block, “is an alley of green grass and seven plum trees with purple leaves.” By way of explanation, he wrote only, “She wanted a yard.”

at Chinati—the old cavalry fort on the outskirts of Marfa in which Judd placed a series of permanent art installations—I finally experienced Judd’s artistic vision in terms of abundance rather than reticence, as a plenitude I could feel in my nerves and my marrow. The compound invited me to surrender myself not only to the installations but to their entire world: the old barracks and warehouses, the desert beyond, the dry wind—all under blue skies so bright, they made my eyes ache.

Arguably the beating pulse of the entire compound is an installation—housed in two converted artillery sheds—that comprises 100 boxes made of mill aluminum, whose gleaming surfaces reflect the Texas sky in all its shifting moods. As I stood among them, the glinting lines and angles of the boxes conveyed the precision of their construction and their subtle variations. Some had open walls; some were entirely closed; some were sliced in half by partitions. But the effect of the entire installation was more sweeping, far less tightly controlled, almost dizzying.

These aluminum boxes weren’t just boxes. They held the weather itself: clouds swollen with rain, or a horizon painted by the burlesque of sunset. They were cubes made of sky; their faces carved the light into radiant squares. At the time, I was reading a biography of the writer Jean Rhys that described how she hated the “parceled up” landscape of England—the soggy countryside scored by walls, the ocean itself segmented by jutting wooden piers. Judd’s installations revealed ways of carving up the world that could hold its infinitude rather than stifling it. That’s what these boxes felt like, slices of infinitude, as if light were a creature, and this was one of its natural habitats.

The boxes were more dynamic than they appeared, expanding and contracting with changes in the temperature—almost as if they were alive, only in a way we couldn’t see, could barely even recognize. Their sublimity lay on the other side of all my attempts to summon them with language—these habitats of light, cubes of sky, sustained by quiet, metallic respiration. “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees,” the poet Paul Valéry once said, and those boxes made me forget their names. They brought my sight to life. They asked me to see absence in terms of presence.

Amid Judd’s aluminum boxes, I started to entertain the possibility that the meaning of his art wasn’t something that resided just beyond my grasp, but something that lay in the grasping itself. Perhaps the sense of yearning I felt whenever I looked at Judd’s art wasn’t a sign that I was failing to encounter it. Instead of expressing Judd’s “particular feeling at the time,” these boxes made room for another kind of feeling instead—the energizing vertigo of figuring out how to approach beauty without the comfortable framework of a story line, of allowing it to speak to me subcutaneously, beneath the figurative skins of sense and symbolism.

Perhaps all the people who have tried to climb inside Judd’s installations—squish themselves under stacks, or between slabs—are seeking some kind of footing, too. Straining to form a relationship with the art, without quite knowing how. Perhaps the yearning to understand Judd’s art that I’d pathologized as a symptom of my daddy issues was better understood in terms of another kind of father figure. Judd’s objects don’t, of course, represent God, a misinterpretation that would almost certainly make Judd roll over in his grave. But the hunger they produce reminds me of what it’s felt like to yearn for God, when some part of me leans toward something beautiful that I can catch only in glimpses—the flash and flare and flicker of the sky in all those aluminum boxes, light coming off them like daggers.

Standing among those boxes, surrounded by their luminous surfaces, I was immersed in an experience so encompassing, it felt like being held. A guiding sensibility had arranged all their visual scales—the work, the buildings, the landscape—so I could experience them in concert. The art was nurturing mother and demanding father at once, caring for me by holding me in the grip of this awe.

In the end, I never returned to the Judd retrospective at MoMA—never got to wander alone among its objects. With the arrival of the coronavirus, the museum closed, and the exhibition catalog arrived in the mail just before I got sick myself. If Judd’s work was all about intensified physical presence, how could I possibly experience it in the pages of a catalog? The only thing that felt more stingy than a Judd box in a gallery was a photograph of a Judd box in a gallery. But Judd’s work ended up feeling strangely suited to the constrictions of quarantine, which—among other things—heightened my awareness of my immediate surroundings. If Judd’s work was a lesson in finding plenitude in what I’d mistaken for scarcity, then quarantine was another version of this lesson: finding more richness than I’d believed possible in this stripped-down life.

My daughter would sometimes pull the heavy catalog off the coffee table and place it on the hardwood floor, saying, “Baby climb book!” and “Baby climb mountain!” Sometimes she would hastily turn its glossy pages, muttering, “Pictures, pictures, pictures.” Looking through the catalog with her, I found myself drawn to an installation (Untitled, 1976–1977) composed of 21 stainless-steel units, all shallow boxes of the same dimensions but detailed slightly differently. Some were open, others closed; some had thinner or thicker rims. This series of boxes started to remind me of our days: all the same in their contours and their constituent materials, but varying a bit in their particulars. During quarantine, robbed of any narrative arc, I considered with deepened urgency the possibilities of variation as a different form of scaffolding, another source of momentum. Our days had no story line anymore, only a series of subtle changes.

Donald Judd at his exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, in London, in 1970. (Photograph by Richard Einzig / Whitechapel Gallery Archive. Donald Judd Art © 2020 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York.)

In quarantine, I had to give up on the ideal of a pristine experience of Judd and settle into this partial, child-mediated engagement instead. This surrendering felt like another version of admitting to myself that what I’d always understood as an “ideal” creative practice—the artist as someone liberated from the drudgeries of daily living, someone who didn’t spend her days being served wooden cups of make-believe tea—was actually an impossible, unforgiving, and ultimately inaccurate vision.

When I interviewed Flavin—over the phone during my daughter’s nap, on a quarantine day without child care—I asked him whether he believed that his father’s life as a parent had shaped his life as an artist. I was desperate for him—really, for anyone—to tell me that being a parent meant you could make art that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I needed to believe that all this boiled zucchini, all these hours spent putting diapers on stuffed animals, all these dropped teacups were not obstacles to art but rather engines of it. I wanted to believe in a version of the creative impulse that lived with mess and disorder and chaos and distraction, rather than depending on their absence.

But Flavin was resistant to the idea. His father’s art had a trajectory of its own, he told me. Parenting hadn’t influenced the art-making; they were simply two practices inspired by the same philosophical stance, he insisted more than once. Still, I wondered if there were times when the system hadn’t fit together so cohesively. When I asked Flavin whether he and his sister had ever made a mess when they were kids, he said, “Of course we did. All the time.” And I found it oddly reassuring to discover a photograph from the Spring Street days that showed Flavin watching television with his mother. I wondered whether these kids had ever found it exhausting to be raised by a father with such a demanding, rarefied conception of attention.

In a joint interview with Rainer and the filmmaker Joshua Homnick that Judd sat for in 1993, the year before he died, he kept dismissing things that didn’t matter—success, money, society—until Rainer asked him, “What do you think there should be a belief in? Don’t you think there should be a belief in something?” Judd insisted, “I’m afraid it’s a here-and-now situation. Or afraid and not afraid. It’s pretty clear that nothing at all lasts forever. So why should people be upset about it?” Judd wasn’t upset about it. He found grandeur in the concrete facts that others embellished with myth: “Do you know we are all second-hand anyway, as an astronomical fact? … We are all made of other suns, long gone. So think about that.”

For Judd, the knowledge that we are made of suns was enough. The existence of a box was enough. His art came from this belief in the sufficiency of the abundance already surrounding us—an abundance that deserves our attention, and to which we will all inevitably return. When Homnick asked him, “What [do] you believe metaphysically will happen to you personally when you die?,” Judd replied simply, “Bones on the land. Bones and rocks.”

As this issue was going to press, MoMA announced its reopening, and the continuation of the Judd show through January 9, 2021.

This article appears in the October 2020 print edition with the headline “The Beating Pulse of Donald Judd.”