Judd’s Polarities

I’ve been reading David Raskin’s book on Donald Judd, and it is kind of remarkable, not least because Raskin does not pretend to the objectivity of the art historian, but clearly and openly takes a position on and with his topic. He finds Judd very convincing and doesn’t hesitate to say so—he’s an advocate for the same ideas that Judd advocated. I’m going along with them very nicely, and will explain further, but first have to admit that my personal encounters with Judd’s works have not been satisfying. I like what he says but don’t feel it in front of the art. Normally, in my experience, good criticism confirms what I already see in the work, but in this case it seems that I’m more attracted by the idea than the reality—something that Judd himself would certainly deplore.

Raskin elaborates on Judd’s famous description of Pollock’s work: “The elements and aspects of Pollock’s paintings are polarized rather than amalgamated. The work doesn’t have the moderated a priori generality usual in painting. Everything is fairly independent and specific…Most paintings seem harmonious in comparison.” He goes on to mention the paint, the color, the surface, the space and the configuration as discrete elements not integrated with each other into a harmonious whole. In Judd’s view, important art keeps the elements of which it is made separate and discreet, and this is a structural openness that enables an openness toward reality. A very attractive thought, and one I in fact expressed in the most recent post about figures and landscapes. I must have been unconsciously orienting myself toward Judd. Raskin goes through many examples of artists that Judd liked—Chamberlain, Oldenburg, Bontecue, Segal, Stella—showing


Claes Oldenburg, Soft Light Switches c. 1960

how they all have this structural separation of elements. For Judd, the soft sagging massiveness of Oldenburg’s Switches is something completely distinct from their reference to actual switches. He sees the humorous allusion to breasts or nipples but that is also to be kept apart from the sculptural form and literal meaning. The normative reading would treat the form as a commentary on the content—Judd will have none of that. For Raskin, this letting things be rather than melting them into “art,” is a step toward seeing the world as it is, and that is a further step toward making something new in the world. But though I feel that originality is a supreme value in art, the “new” is hardly extraordinary, it happens daily. Just happens. Judd’s preparation through letting-be is a movement toward normal, unspectacular, real world change. How that reflects back on art is the thing.

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