Donald Judd: Untitled, 1965

Judd Foundation, Marfa, Texas

One of the surprises of visiting the Judd Foundation confronts the visitor at the entrance to the West Building of La Mansana de Chinati. Untitled (1965, 56 x 127 x 94cm) in brown enamel on hot rolled steel is positioned lengthwise relative to the doorway and at a distance of about fifteen feet. The so-called ‘floor box’ is carefully placed to be the first work viewed, and of course, it goes without saying that Donald Judd himself installed the work as well as the nine other ‘firsts’ which fill the space. Just beyond it, for example, there is the first floor box to contain a Fibonacci progression: Untitled (1964). And beside this yet another floor box that constitutes the first example in the artist’s corpus of materials subcontracted out to Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties Incorporated: Untitled (1964). Evidently Judd had the brass sidewalls of the piece fabricated by the Bernstein Brothers while he and his father built the red enamel drip tray, which constitutes the tabletop.

Donald Judd: Untitled (1965)
Donald Judd: Untitled (1965)

In any case, with a high strip of windows on the wall opposite backlighting Untitled (1965), the momentary effect upon entering the building is of seeing in black and white. The staging is highly calculated to say the least, right down to the step up and back down to floor level necessary to cross the threshold from outside to inside. What strikes one as so curious about the work and its placement is how supremely unaesthetic it all is. I would not hesitate to characterize it even as an object to be disregarded and bypassed for other more interesting works—the red coloring of the two other floor boxes are both real temptations for the eye. The brown colour is the main motor here. In addition to making the work extremely difficult to see, one cannot help but condemn the artist for his poor choice of palette. The tabletop itself concentrates these problems. Unlike the sidewalls, which pick up the stable values of the concrete floor, and take on a uniform hue that one wants to call true to the material nature of the hot-rolled steel that Judd uses in this work for the first time, the horizontal surface of the recessed table top refuses to settle down into a homogenous brown. The high-gloss finish catches all manner of stray light. It is mottled and darkened by shadows, glare from the ceiling bounces off it, and, last but not least, it showcases a dazzling array of natural light that floods in from the opposite strip of windows. This play of shadow and light is supremely distracting and strikes one as not properly of the work. However, in contrast to the darkly shaded inside surface of the two-inch inset that frames the flat, it is clear that the mobile play of pink, blue, and white light is intentional. The rigidity and stability of the two inch rim quarantines the play of reflections, puts the incidental nature of reflection in specific tension with the intrinsic qualities of the brown surface coat, and even brings to a focus the possibility that looking at the table top is the work’s primary purpose. Despite the relative simplicity of Untitled (1965), especially in comparison to Judd’s earlier floor boxes, there is a complexity of effects that is not only dazzling, but which has gone completely unnoticed in the literature. One just cannot fail to note that there is a transparency that inheres in the light brown colouration, that the dark brown of the inside rim takes on the characteristics of an appliquéd strip, and that the coloured highlights take their place on the recessed surface of the tabletop as an illusionistic focal point. Untitled (1965) provides nothing less than an analytics of surface effects.

Judd’s basic trajectory away from painting toward work in three-dimensions is well known. What Untitled (1965) makes perspicuous is also his difficult, even cryptic, return to painting—one might call it his return to modernism in a minimal way. The crucial experience in face of this object—and, we should add, in face of the other two floor boxes in the West Building— is focused in and on the tabletop. In the encounter with Untitled (1965) specifically, the beholder looks into as well as onto the surface of the recessed tabletop as one would a death’s-head in an open coffin (an effect even more pronounced in the wall-mounted progression Untitled [1964] in brass and blue lacquer on galvanized iron). The image appears as the most fragile and coveted of things. Recessed to a depth of two inches relative to the rim it takes the form of a precious thing once lost, here Donald Judd: Untitled (1965) conjured back to life, and now miraculously held as if in cupped hands. The anthropomorphic character of the combined illusion and support is precise; the image only appears as a function of the safety and distance provided by the rim and the obdurate sidewalls that make up the minimalist cube. The illusion of depth on, and, impossibly, as surface, the illusion of a positive world of color—of pastel pinks, turquoises, and whites—conjured out of and as the color brown, is breathtaking.
The upshot of all of this amounts to a fairly dramatic rereading of Judd’s practice, which I will not go into here, other than suggesting four telescoped points. 1) Relative to existing Judd scholarship, all of which uses the artist’s famous text, ‘Specific Objects’ (1965), as a primary point of departure, a very different picture of Judd’s minimalism emerges from confronting his actual works. 2) In a work like Judd’s Untitled (1965) we see a particular moment in the development of a very tense relationship between what we can call the ‘inert support’ and conversely the ‘localized illusionistic surface.’ 3) If in 1964-65 this ‘inert support’ is a distinct modality of the object, describable in objective terms and separate from an aesthetic mode of reception keyed to ‘localised illusion,’ within a year these terms will become impossible to disentangle from one another. The principle reason for this being that if this tension was intrinsic to the object in 1964-65, it will in a very short time, undergo an expansion to the extent of ultimately embodying the relationship between the object and the mis-en-scène of the gallery, with the object serving as inert support for the illusionistic activation of surrounding space, and vice versa. 4) In its largest sense Untitled (1965) amounts to one attempt in a string of attempts to reinvent the notion of a medium, a project Judd will return to again and again and again. Marfa tells us this and much more.