Artists Retrospective

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

Frank Stella, Gran Cairo, 1962, alkyd on canvas. WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK; PURCHASE FROM THE FRIENDS OF THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF ART 63.34/©2014 FRANK STELLA/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK

Frank Stella, Gran Cairo, 1962, alkyd on canvas.©2014 FRANK STELLA/ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK/WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK, PURCHASE FROM THE FRIENDS OF THE WHITNEY MUSEUM OF ART

Glaser: Another problem. If you make so many canvases alike, how much can the eye be stimulated by so much repetition?

Stella: That really is a relative problem because obviously it strikes people different ways. I find, say, Milton Resnick as repetitive as I am, if not more so. The change in any given artist’s work from picture to picture isn’t that great. Take a Pollock show. You may have a span of 10 years, but you could break it down to three or four things he’s done. In any given period of an artist, when he’s working on a particular interest or problem, the paintings tend to look a lot alike. It’s hard to find anyone who isn’t like that. It seems to be the natural situation. And everyone finds some things more boring to look at than others.

Glaser: Don, would it be fair to say that your approach is a nihilistic one, in view of your wish to get rid of various elements?

Judd: No, I don’t consider it nihilistic or negative or cool or anything else. Also I don’t think my objection to the Western tradition is a positive quality of my work. It’s just something I don’t want to do, that’s all. I want to do something else.

Glaser: Some years ago we talked about what art will be, an art of the future. Do you have a vision of that?

Judd: No, I was just talking about what my art will be and what I imagine a few other people’s art that I like might be.

Glaser: Don’t you see art as kind of evolutionary? You talk about what art was and then you say it’s old hat, it’s all over now.

Judd: It’s old hat because it involves all those beliefs you really can’t accept in life. You don’t want to work with any more. It’s not that any of that work has suddenly become mad in itself. If I get hold of a Piero della Francesca, that’s fine.

I wanted to say something about this painterly thing. It certainly involves a relationship between what’s outside—nature or a figure or something—and the artist’s actually painting that thing, his particular feeling at the time. This is just one area of feeling, and I, for one, am not interested in it for my own work. I can’t do anything with it. It’s been fully exploited and I don’t see why the painterly relationship exclusively should stand for that.

Glaser: Are you suggesting an art without feeling?

Judd: No, you’re reading me wrong. Because I say that is just one kind of feeling—painterly feeling.

Stella: Let’s take painterly simply to mean Abstract-Expressionism, to make it easier. Those painters were obviously involved in what they were doing as they were doing it, and now in what Don does, and I guess in what I do, a lot of the effort is directed toward the end. We believe that we can find the end, and that a painting can be finished. The Abstract-Expressionists always felt the painting’s being finished was very problematical. We’d more readily say that our paintings are finished and say, well, it’s either a failure or it’s not, instead of saying, well, maybe it’s not really finished.

Glaser: You’re saying that the painting is almost completely conceptualized before it’s made, that you can devise a diagram in your mind and put it on canvas. Maybe it would be adequate to simply verbalize this image and give it to the public rather than giving them your painting?

Stella: A diagram is not a painting; it’s as simple as that. I can make a painting from a diagram, but can you? Can the public? It can just remain a diagram if that’s all I do, or if it’s a verbalization it can just remain a verbalization. Clement Greenberg talked about the ideas or possibilities of painting in, I think, the After Abstract-Expressionism article,2 and he allows a blank canvas to be an idea for a painting. It might not be a good idea, but it’s certainly valid. Yves Klein did the empty gallery. He sold air, and that was a conceptualized art, I guess.3

Glaser: Reductio ad absurdum.

Stella: Not absurd enough, though.

Judd: Even if you can plan the thing completely ahead of time, you still don’t know what it looks like until it’s right there. You may turn out to be totally wrong once you have gone to all the trouble of building this thing.

Stella: Yes, and also that’s what you want to do. You actually want to see the thing. That’s what motivates you to do it in the first place, to see what it’s going to look like.

Judd: You can think about it forever in all sorts of versions, but it’s nothing until it is made visible.

Glaser: Frank, your stretchers are thicker than the usual. When your canvases are shaped or cut out in the center, this gives them a distinctly sculptural presence.

Stella: I make the canvas deeper than ordinarily, but I began accidentally. I turned one-by-threes on edge to make a quick frame, and then I liked it. When you stand directly in front of the painting it gives it just enough depth to hold it off the wall; you’re conscious of this sort of shadow, just enough depth to emphasize the surface. In other words, it makes it more like a painting and less like an object, just by stressing the surface.

Judd: I thought of Frank’s aluminum paintings as slabs, in a way.

Stella: I don’t paint around the edges; Rothko does, so do a lot of people; Sven Lukin and he’s much more of an object painter than I am.

Glaser: Do you think the frequent use of the word “presence” in critical writing about your kind of work has something to do with the nature of the objects you make, as if to suggest there is something more enigmatic about them than previous works of art?

Stella: You can’t say that your work has more of this or that than somebody else’s. It’s a matter of terminology. DeKooning or Al Held paint “tough” paintings and we would have to paint with “presence,” I guess. It’s just another way of describing.

Glaser: Nobody’s really attempted to develop some new terminology to deal with the problems of these paintings.

Stella: But that’s what I mean. Sometimes I think our paintings are a little bit different, but on the other hand it seems that they’re dealign with the same old problems of making art. I don’t see why everyone seems so desperately in need of a new terminology, and I don’t see waht there is in our work that needs a new terminology either to explain or evaluate it. It’s art, or it wants to be art, or it asks to be considered as art, and therefore the terms we have for discussing art are probably good enough. You could say that the terms used so far to discuss and evaluate art are pretty grim; you could make a very good case for that. But none the less, I imagine there’s nothing specific in our work that asks for new terms, any more than any other art.

Glaser: Meyer Schapiro once suggested that there might be an analogy between, say, a Barnett Newman with a field of one color and one simple stripe down the middle and a mosaic field of some Byzantine church, where there was a completely gold field and then a simple vertical form of the Madonna.

Judd: A lot of things look alike, but they’re not necessarily very much alike.

Stella: Like the whole of the field. What you mean by a field in a painting is a pretty difficult idea. A mosaic field can never have anything to do with a Morris Louis field.

Judd: You don’t feel the same about a Newman and a gold field because Newman’s doing something with his field.

Stella: Newman’s is in the canvas and it really does work differently. With so-called advanced painting, for example, you should drop composition. That would be terrifically avant-garde; that would be a really good idea. But the question is, how do you do it? The best article I ever read about pure painting and all that was Elaine de Kooning’s Pure Paints a Picture.4 Pure was very pure and he lived in a bare, square white loft. He was very meticulous and he gave up painting with brushes and all that and he had a syringe loaded with colorless fluid which he injected into his colorless, odorless foam rubber. That was how he created his art objects—by injecting colorless fluid into a colorless material.

Judd: Radical artist.

Stella: Well, Yves Klein was no doubt a radical artist, or he didn’t do anything very interesting.

Judd: I think Yves Klein to some extent was outside of European painting, but why is he still not actually radical?

Stella: I don’t know. I have one of his paintings which I like in a way, but there’s something about him . . . I mean what’s not radical about the idea of selling air? Still, it doesn’t seem very interesting.

Judd: Not to me either. One thing I want is to be able to see what I’ve done, as you said. Art is something you look at.

Glaser: You have made the point that you definitely want to induce some effective enjoyment in your work, Frank. But the fact is that right now the majority of people confronted by it seem to have trouble in this regard. They don’t get this enjoyment that you seem to be very simply taken aback by its simplicity. Is this because they are not ready for these works, because they simply haven’t caught up to the artists, again?

Stella: Maybe that’s the quality of simplicity. When Mantle hits the balls out of the park, everybody is sort stunned for a minute because it’s so simple. He knocks it right out of the park, and that usually does it.

1. This discussion was broadcast on WBAI-FM, New York, February, 1964, as “New Nihilism or New Art?”, one in a series of radio programs on art produced by Bruce Glaser; Dan flavin also participated in the program, but his few statements are omitted here. Supplementary statements made by Judd in December, 1965, are included in this revision.
2. Clement Greenberg, After Abstract Expressionism, Art International, v. 7, no. 8, 1962.
3. Yves Klein’s exhibition, Iris Clert Gallery, Paris, April, 1958, consisted of an empty, white-walled gallery
4. Elaine de Kooning, “Pure Paints a Picture,” ARTnews, v. 56, no. 4, Summer, 1957, p. 57, 86-87.

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