Artists Retrospective

‘What You See Is What You See’: Donald Judd and Frank Stella on the End of Painting, in 1966

Frank Stella, Damascus Gate: Variation 1, 1969–70, acrylic on canvas. KUNSTMUSEUM BASEL/MARTIN P. BÜHLER

Frank Stella, Damascus Gate: Variation 1, 1969–70, acrylic on canvas.MARTIN P. BÜHLER/KUNSTMUSEUM BASEL

Frank Stella and Donald Judd are both having moments right now. There’s an exhibition of Stella’s paintings and drawings at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, in Basel, and on October 30, Stella will have a retrospective that will open at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, before traveling to the Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth in April 2016. Meanwhile, last month, MoMA announced that it will hold a Judd retrospective in 2017.

In 1966, in a Q&A with Bruce Glaser that was later edited for the September 1966 issue of ARTnews by Lucy R. Lippard, Stella and Judd spoke about how there was nowhere left to go with painting. Anything new, they said, had already been done. There was nothing to be done, except for more hackneyed formalism. In a way, Stella and Judd’s arguments seem even more perceptive today, as everyone debates the state of contemporary painting. They foreshadow, in a sense, the “zombie formalism” debate that has been raging recently, and while many have a more positive outlook on painting today than Stella and Judd did at the time, their arguments feel remarkably contemporary. Their conversation follows in full below. —Alex Greenberger

“Questions to Stella and Judd”
Interview by Bruce Glaser
Edited by Lucy R. Lippard

The following discussion is the first extensive published statement by Frank Stella, a widely acknowledged source of much current structural painting, and Donald Judd, one of the earliest exponents of the sculptural primary structure, in which the artists themselves challenge and clarify the numerous prevailing generalizations about their work.1

Bruce Glaser: There are characteristics in your work that bring to mind styles from the early part of this century. Is it fair to say that the relative simplicity of Malevich, the Constructivists, Mondrian, the Neo-Plasticists and the Purists is a precedent for your painting and sculpture, or are you really departing from these early movements?

Frank Stella: There’s always been a trend toward simpler painting and it was bound to happen one way or another. Whenever painting gets complicated, like Abstract-Expressionism, or Surrealism, there’s going to be someone who’s not painting complicated paintings, someone who’s trying to simplify.

Glaser: But all through the twentieth century this simple approach has paralleled more complicated styles.

Stella: That’s right, but it’s not continuous. When I first showed, Coates in The New Yorker said how sad it was to find somebody so young back where Mondrian was 30 years ago. And I don’t really feel that way.

Glaser: You feel there’s no connection between you and Mondrian?

Stella: There are obvious connections. You’re always related to something. I’m related to the more geometric, or simpler, painting, but the motivation doesn’t have anything to do with that kind of European geometric painting. I think the obvious comparison to my work would be Vasarely, and I can’t think of anything I like less.

Glaser: Vasarely?

Stella: Well, mine has less illusionism than Vasarely’s, but the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel actually painted all the patterns before I did—all the basic designs that are in my painting—not the way I did it, but you can find the schemes of the sketches I made for my own paintings in the work by Vasarely and that group in France over the last seven or eight years. I didn’t even know about it, and in spite of the fact that they used those ideas, those basic schemes, it still doesn’t have anything to do with my paintings. I find all that European geometric painting—sort of post-Max Bill school—a kind of curiosity—very dreary.

Donald Judd: There’s an enormous break between that work and other present work in the U.S., despite similarity in patterns or anything. The scale itself is just one thing to pin down. Vasarely’s work has a smaller scale and great deal of composition and qualities that European geometric painting of the ’20s and ’30s had. He is part of a continuous development from the ’30s, and he was doing it himself then.

Stella: The other thing is that the European geometric painters really strive for what I call relational painting. The basis of their whole idea is balance. You do something in one corner and balance it with something in the other corner. Now the “new painting” is being characterized as symmetrical. Ken Noland has put things in the center and I’ll use a symmetrical pattern, but we use symmetry in a different way. It’s non-relational. In the newer American painting we strive to get the thing in the middle, and symmetrical, but just to get a kind of force, just to get the thing on the canvas. The balance factor isn’t important. We’re not trying to jockey everything coming around.

Glaser: What is the “thing” you’re getting on the canvas?



Stella: I guess you’d have to describe it as the image, either the image or the scheme. Ken Noland would use concentric circles; he’d want to get them in the middle because it’s the easiest way to get them there, and he wants them there in the front, on the surface of the canvas. If you’re that much involved with the surface of anything, you’re bind to find the symmetry the most natural means. As soon as you use any kind of fussiness which is the one thing that most of the painters now want to avoid. When you’re always making these delicate balances, it seems to present too many problems; it becomes sort of arch.

Glaser: An artist who works in your vein has said he finds symmetry extraordinarily sensuous; on the other hand, I’ve heard the comment that symmetry is very austere. Are you trying to create a sensuous or an austere effect? Is this relevant to your surfaces?

Judd: No, I don’t think my work is either one. I’m interested in spareness, but I don’t think it has any connection to symmetry.

Stella: Actually, your work is really symmetrical. How can you avoid it when you take a box situation? The only piece I can think of that deals with any kind of asymmetry is one box with a plane cut out.

Judd: But I don’t have any ideas as to symmetry. My things are symmetrical because, as you said, I wanted to get rid of any compositional effects, and the obvious way to do that is to be symmetrical.

Glaser: Why do you want to avoid compositional effects?

Judd: Well, those effects tend to carry with them all the structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition. It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain. When Vasarely has optical effects within the squares, they’re never enough, and he has to have at least three or four squares, slanted, tilted inside each other, and all arranged. That is about five times more composition and juggling than he needs.

Glaser: It’s too busy?

Judd: It is in terms of somebody like Larry Poons. Vasarely’s composition has the effect of order and quality that traditional European painting had, which I find pretty objectionable . . . The objection is not that Vasarely’s busy, but that in his multiplicity there’s a certain structure which has qualities I don’t like.

Glaser: What qualities?

Judd: The qualities of European art so far. They’re innumerable and complex, but the main way of saying it is that they’re linked up with a philosophy—rationalism, rationalistic philosophy.

Glaser: Descartes?

Judd: Yes.

Glaser: And you mean to say your work is apart from rationalism?

Judd: Yes. All that art is based on systems built beforehand, a priori systems; they express a certain type of thinking and logic which is pretty much discredited now as a way of finding out what the world’s like.

Glaser:Discredited by whom? By empiricists?

Judd: Scientists, both philosophers and scientists.

Glaser: What is the alternative to a rationalistic system in your method? It’s often said that your work is pre-conceived, that you plan it out before you do it. Isn’t that a rationalistic method?

Judd: Not necessarily. That’s much smaller. When you think it out as you work on it, or you think it out beforehand, it’s a much smaller problem than the nature of the work. What you want to express is a much bigger thing than how you may go at it. Larry Poons works out the dots somewhat as he goes along; he figures out a scheme beforehand and also makes changes as he goes along. Obviously I can’t make changes, though I do what I can when I get stuck.

Glaser: In other words, you might be referring to an anti-rationalist position before you actually start making the work of art.

Judd: I’m making it for a quality that I think is interesting and more or less true. And the quality involved in Vasarely’s kind of composition isn’t true to me.

Glaser: Could you be specific about how your own work reflects an anti-rationalistic point of view?

Judd: The parts are unrelational.

Glaser: If there’s nothing to relate, then you can’t be rational about it because it’s just there?

Judd: Yes.

Glaser: Then it’s almost an abdication of logical thinking.

Judd: I don’t have anything against using some sort of logic. That’s simple. But when you start relating parts, in the first place, you’re assuming you have a vague whole—the rectangle of the canvas—and definite parts, which is all screwed up, because you should have a definite whole and maybe no parts, or very few. The parts are always more important than the whole.

Glaser: And you want the whole to be more important than the parts?

Judd: Yes. The whole’s it. The big problem is to maintain a sense of the whole thing.

Glaser: Isn’t it that there’s no gestation, that there’s just an idea?

Judd: I do think about it, I’ll change it if I can. I just want it to exist as a whole thing. And that’s not especially unusual. Painting’s been going toward that for a long time. A lot of people, like Oldenburg for instance, have a “whole” effect to their work.

Stella: But we’re all still left with structural or compositional elements. The problems aren’t any different. I still have to compose a picture, and if you make an object you have to organize the structure. I don’t think our work is that radical in any sense because you don’t find any really new compositional or structural element. I don’t know if that exists. It’s like the idea of a color you haven’t seen before. Does something exist that’s as radical as a diagonal that’s not a diagonal? Or a straight line or a compositional element that you can’t describe?

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