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Mathematical Proportions and Openness of Form

Discover three works by Donald Judd
Installation view, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris Pantin, ‘Monumental Minimal’, 17 Oct 2018 – 27 Apr 2019
  Nov 24, 2020

Donald Judd (1928–1994), a titan of American post-war art, first came to public attention in the mid-1960s for his distinctive use of industrial materials – including aluminum, concrete and plywood – in rigorously geometric constructions, which sought to emphasize the purity of materials ‘for themselves, for the quality they have’. He radically broke with the history of sculpture when he eschewed the artist’s hand, emotive content, and traditional media, instead fabricating serial geometric abstractions from industrial materials.

Guided by a combination of intellect and instinct, he reduced visuality down to its pure constituent elements: form, color, material, and volume. Judd is widely viewed as a leading figure in Minimalism, though he was famously resistant to categorization and denied an affiliation with any particular movement.

Judd, who also studied philosophy at Columbia University while training at the Art Students League, was deeply concerned with the fundamental ways in which we experience not only sculpture but, ultimately, the world around us. He radically transformed notions of the ‘visible’, developing a rigorous visual vocabulary that emphasizes simple, mathematical proportions and openness of form.

Judd’s work is currently subject of a major US retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (on view until January 9, 2021). During TEFAF Online New York 2020 (November 1-4, 2020), three exhibitors also presented works by the artist.

“Untitled” (1988) belongs to one of Judd’s principle and best-known bodies of work – the ‘stacks’, which he first created in galvanized iron in 1965. Together with his ‘boxes’ and ‘progressions’, these formed the artist’s essential vocabulary of forms that he would revisit and reconfigure throughout his career. Judd had abandoned painting in the early 1960s, recognizing that ‘actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface’.

He similarly avoided defining his creations as sculptures, choosing instead to call them ‘three-dimensional works’. Rejecting traditional categorizations, Judd sought to create an art form with no pictorial illusion, symbolism or narrative content beyond the formal properties of the works themselves, which were almost invariably untitled.

Judd varied the materials and proportions of his stacks, such as through the introduction of Plexiglas, but the fundamental form remained the same: a vertical progression of identical geometric units alternating with empty spaces. The precise, mathematical proportions of the box forms, as well as of the intervals between them, are central to the work.

“Untitled” (1977), a work composed entirely of brass, exemplifies Judd’s revolutionary new ideas. Its simplicity, precision and purity matched with the intrinsic quality of the luscious metal – a material typically used in manufacturing – questions the idea of authorship. The end result, however, is an object of startling physical presence.

Looking like a space-age apparition materializing on a blank wall, the work maps out the logic and dimensions of our reality with such precision, geometry and unusual accuracy that, ultimately, it seems to hover on the borderlines between concept and actuality. In doing so, this work’s apparently cold and rational materialization of alternating form and space takes on a strange aura of apparent mystery and magic.

Judd’s contemporary, Robert Smithson, famously called this quality of Judd’s work, an ‘uncanny materiality’ – something that Judd himself firmly rejected. Wary of the unaccountability of all mysticism, Judd argued that any sense of the ‘uncanny’ in his work came from his works’ articulation of what he called the usually ‘invisible’ elements of art; ‘space and color’. By making these basic elements an equal and essential part of his work, as in the sensual use of brass and other metals in his ‘Progressions’ or the see-through colored Plexiglass of his ‘Stacks,’ Judd believed that he was making visible an entire area of art-making that had previously been hidden.

A mature example of a progression sculpture, “Untitled” (1988) is a three-dimensional, wall-mounted work made from anodized aluminum colored with a jewel-like, lustrous green. The sculpture stretches over three feet long in total, its impressive scale a testament to Judd’s mastery of the form and material.

Fabricated from industrial materials and often brilliantly colored, the progressions feature positive and negative space — in either rounded or square units — alternating across a horizontal bar. At first glance, the proportions of solids to voids in each work might read as irregular. However, Judd in fact employed mathematical series, like the Fibonacci sequence, to exactingly determine proportionality in each work. The artist said that the use of math in the progression sculptures “made it possible to use an asymmetrical arrangement, yet to have some sort of order not involved in composition. The point is that the series doesn’t mean anything to me as mathematics, nor does it have anything to do with the nature of the world.”