The writings of Donald Judd are triumphantly matter-of-fact. The sculptor, who died in 1994 at the age of sixty-five, was decisive even about his second thoughts and doubts. “Cocksure certainty and squirming uncertainty are both wrong,” he once wrote. “It’s possible to think and act without being simple and fanatic and it’s possible to accept uncertainty, which is nearly everything, quietly.” In the essays that he published over more than three decades, he turned even his equivocations into dictums as he explored subjects that included not only art, architecture, and the art world, but also urban development and national affairs.
What rescues even Judd’s most sweeping pronouncements from crackpot irascibility is the easy, pungent power of his prose. He arranges relatively simple nouns and verbs (and a minimum of adjectives) in sentences and paragraphs that have a plainspoken, workmanlike beauty. Judd’s direct, unequivocal writings are a perfect match for his sculptures, with their precisely calculated angles and unabashed celebration of industrial materials such as plywood, aluminum, and Plexiglas. This fiercely independent artist belongs in a long line of American aesthetes who embraced an unadorned style, including figures as various as Ernest Hemingway, Barnett Newman, Virgil Thomson, and Walker Evans.
Reading Judd’s prose two decades after his death, you will experience, amid the overheated and gaseous atmosphere of the contemporary art world, an invigorating blast of cold, clear air. Donald Judd Writings, although not the first collection of his prose, is the first to span his entire career. Edited by Flavin Judd, the artist’s son, and Caitlin Murray, the book includes, in addition to previously published work, selections from notes that Judd made over the years. All the way through, you hear the voice of a man who was never afraid to say no. It was not the refusal of an outsider, however, at least not in his earlier years of writing and exhibiting. Judd’s no is that of the dedicated avant-gardist—the man who leads the charge. This no is fundamentally positive and celebratory—a cry for the new.
Judd believed that the search for the new involved, both in his own work and the work of his contemporaries, a rejection of the conventions of painting and sculpture in favor of new forms, which were often aggressively curious or idiosyncratic and startlingly sized or scaled. Judd refused to favor either representational or abstract images. He was an enthusiast for Claes Oldenburg’s oversized quotidian objects, Lee Bontecou’s shaped canvas convexities, Lucas Samaras’s bedecked and bejeweled boxes, and Dan Flavin’s fluorescent geometries. He gathered these variegated works by his contemporaries under a singular rubric when he titled one of his most famous essays “Specific Objects” (1964).
Although Judd had a great deal to say about many varieties of art, architecture, and design, he…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.