Judd’s Boxes: “Plainspoken Geometries” Speaking Out, Still

Donald Judd in Marfa
“There is no vocabulary for a discussion of space in art…It is made by thought,” Judd wrote. “This is new in art, not in architecture of course.” (Photo: Chinati Museum)

Readers, you know we love Marfa, the quirky town in West Texas sixty miles from the Mexican border, Marfa, where artists and ranchers, shopkeepers and railroaders are anything but square.

Today, March 1, a retrospective of the art of Donald Judd—who made Marfa his home, studio and gallery for the last seventeen years of his life—opens at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It will explore

…the remarkable vision of an artist who revolutionized the history of sculpture…and emphasize the radicality of his approach to art-making and the visual complexity of his work.

Just coloured boxes isn’t it? many say about Judd’s iconic art.

Let’s start with his signature boxes, the mill aluminum ones we saw in Marfa in former artillery sheds that are now the Chinati Museum.

Unlike the sculptures he made in New York that brought him wealth and fame, there’s no Harley Davidson Hi Fire red, 1958 Chevrolet Regal Turquoise, Peaceful Blue or Cream Yellow Chartreuse here—he left the untitled display of 100 aluminum boxes at Chinati unadorned. Yet sumptuous with colour. The aluminum shimmering with optical multiplicity from desert light shining through gridded windows on both sides reflecting the blue of the morning sky, the red of faded-brick walls, the ochre of desert grassland.

Arranged in three rows across the sheds’ cement floors, each box is 72 inches long by 51 inches wide by 41 inches high—each one geometrically unique.

Some are self-enclosed and impenetrable; others are wide open.

Some are divided in half vertically; others are bisected horizontally.

Some are sliced so shadows form in their inner absences; others cut diagonally to create an interplay between positive and negative spaces.

As Kyle Chayka writes

The unique configuration of each box createsa continuing rhythm, a sense of movement throughout the rooms like the rippling of waves.

It is a sensory experience of space, scale and time.

Alongside us on the tour were Teresa and Paul, friends who are both architects. Clearly, they (and Magellan) have a much better grasp of the math behind the architectural complexity of Judd’s work, the way he developed space as a part of art.

As I understand it (well no, I only know its beauty, but here’s what I’ve read about the math), Judd created illusory optical effects with the spaces between units: Spaces= d (the depth of each unit) + h+w/2 (the unit’s height plus width divided by two.) The inherent scale is 59-63 inches off the floor to create a “polarity between its generality (the whole composition) and its particularlity.”

Chinati doesn’t allow interior photos. It doesn’t matter. You could photograph the same box all day long and depending on the sunlight and shadows, each would reflect a unique variation of plane, line and volume.

Together, the boxes radiate clarity. Delight in seeing how he toyed with symmetry. Energy from the expanse of light. Kyle Chayka says

Their emptiness in all its variety is a suggestion not of absolute control but absolute freedom, an opportunity to confront the world as it stands before you.

And how did the art of Donald Judd, a man from Missouri, end up in a defunct army base in Marfa?

As a young army engineer, Judd had ridden the train through Marfa in the 1940s. After WWII, he studied philosophy and worked towards a master’s in art history. He took night classes in art and wrote art criticism for major American art magazines. And began creating art. In 1968 he bought a five-storey cast-iron building in Soho for an art studio for himself and his friends and a home for his wife and two children Flavin (named for his friend, the artist Dan Flavin, whose work is also displayed at Chinati) and Rainer.

Judd believed in the role of place in art—in the need for permanent installation—he hated the idea of art being “jerked around” from gallery to gallery.

He also believed in the interrelationship of living and working and the preservation of existing architecture.

He saw that art, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote, was becoming subordinate “to waves of academically trained artists, curators, and critics; prestige-mongering dealers; celebrity collectors and patrons.” Of the $100-million cost of Bilboa Guggenheim, Judd said, “A hundredth of this to a couple of good artists would do infinitely more; the discrepancy is enormous.”

In the late 1960s, Judd travelled through Arizona and New Mexico searching for a place that would allow him to work in place and on a large scale, saying

I chose the town of Marfa (pop. 2,466) because it was the best looking and most practical.

In 1986 when he set up his Foundation in Marfa, Judd wrote that its purpose was to preserve his work and that of others in spaces he considered appropriate. “It has been a concern second only to the invention of my work. And gradually the two concerns have joined and both tend toward architecture.” Minimalist art (though Judd hated that term) in a maximalist non-museum environment.

In 1971 Judd rented a small house in Marfa and two large buildings downtown between the highway and railroad tracks. Over the next six years he returned to Marfa almost every year, buying up unused buildings dirt-cheap: banks, airplane hangers, a supermarket. His efforts were assisted by The Dia Art Foundation, which bought a lot of the old army base buildings for Judd’s art. Its successor, the Chinati Museum, houses the art of Judd and his contemporaries in twenty different buildings over four hundred acres. The Judd Foundation, separate from Chinati and located in downtown Marfa, has been managed by Judd’s children since the artist’s death in 1994 from Non-Hodgkins Lymphatic cancer.

A few days after seeing the aluminum boxes, Magellan and I returned to Chinati to see the first work Judd created at Marfa, 15 untitled works in concrete, (1982-86). Outdoors, it borders the property’s north-south, line stretching for more than a kilometre.

We were alone in the field; you don’t have to be in a tour group to see these. Well not exactly alone. Rabbits, birds, lizards and an antelope were exploring Judd’s art, too.

I look forward to what Kyle Chayka and Peter Schjeldahl will say about the MoMA exhibition. Until then, let’s circle back to what they said in the past, Peter first.

Thus the preeminence of Judd, whose involvement with design and architecture and whose loyalty to simple beauty transcended not only Minimalism in particular but the art world in general.

Minimalism requires a new definition of beauty, one that centers the fundamental miracle of our moment-to-moment encounter with reality, our sense of being itself. Any attempt at elegance is extraneous. Judd left another note in his diary that winter: “A definition of art finally occurred to me. Art is everything at once.”


UPDATE: September 17, 2022, in Montecristo, Summer 2022,  “Object Lessons” by Fiona Morrow on visiting Marfa to see Donald Judd’s work and Houston fro Mark Rothko’s.
UPDATE: August 12, 2022, Hilarie Sheets’ article in The New York Times: “What Would Judd Do?”
UPDATE November 10, 2021, Ben Lerner’s description of this work in his book 10:04: “All those windows opening onto open land, the reflective surfaces, the differently articulated interiors, some of which seemed to contain a blurry image of the landscape within them—all combined to collapse my sense of inside and outside…”
UPDATE MARCH 12, 2020: Peter Schjeldahl has a review, “The Shape of Things,” in The New Yorker (March 9, 2020) of the Donald Judd retrospective that opened at MOMA Match 1. He says “I was benumbed, as usual, by this last great revolutionary of modern art” and calls Judd’s influence on our art “beyond large, engulfing.”

Chayka, Kyle. “The Longing for Less: Living With Minimalism.” London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. You can read a brilliant excerpt about Judd from Kyle’supcoming book in ARTnews, “Art Becomes Retail Surprisingly Quickly:’ How Marfa Went From Donald Judd’s Anti-Commercial Escape to a Mecca of Luxury Minimalism.”

To see Judd’s aluminum boxes at the Chinati Museum, you must book a tour through them. The concrete boxes you can visit on your own.

Greenberger, Alex. “Following delay due to construction MoMA dates Donald Judd retrospective for 2020.” ARTnews. April 25, 2019.

Judd, Donald. Donald Judd Spaces. New York: Judd Foundation & Prestel, 2020. Just announced.

Judd, Donald. Donald Judd Writings. New York & London: Judd Foundation, David Zwirner Books and Thames & Hudson, Ltd., 2016. The big/little vermilion-red book of Judd’s words.

Perrotter, Tony. “Donald Judd’s Private Retreat.” Wall Street Journal. March 29, 2017.

Schjeldahl, Peter. Let’s See, Writings on Art from The New Yorker. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2008. Peter’s article is called “Light From Juddland: Flavin at Marfa.” Whose art at Chinati did we prefer: Judd’s, Flavin’s, Irwin’s? Geometrically that’s a circular question that could go around, and around, and around.

Stockebrand, Marianne. Chinati The Vision of Donald Judd. New Haven: The Chinati Foundation, 2010. A gorgeous off-table book second only to tripping to Marfa in person.

4 Responses

  1. Is it architecture vs art?
    Is it architecture as art?

    Indeed the light is key to all forms of art and architecture, without which, there is nothing.

    Seeing as both require nature to provide lighting, I will have to be with nature.

    Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, some see it, some do not.

    Structure has a certain beauty for some, abstract is yet another endeavour, perspective is often lost within the human mind, there can be no right or wrong, just opinions all.

    When viewing art and architecture can we ever visualize the artists true vision and meaning of their output, I hope not.

    “Dreamers all”

    1. The last line about these sculptures in the essay in the Chinati book (by Marianne Stockebrand) says just that: “And one realizes that not only the forms but also the distances between the elements in each of these works are a function of light.”

  2. Fascinating works in a very unique location and setting.

    Daring stuff that can be overlooked as crude and trivial; but is anything but..

    The only tension I have is in he concrete boxes” relation to the landscape..

    1. The Chinati book describes them as curving, “oriented toward the Chinati grounds…which reveals their potential for an interplay of light and shade more dramatically from the distance than close up” and that “Embedded in a carpet of yellow grass, they run parallel to and well below the horizon line, which here and there is crowned by majestic mountains.”

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