In 1961 Donald Judd wrote a letter to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) on behalf of fellow artist Yayoi Kusama. Such letters, meant to be included with applications for visas or residency permits, can be rote exercises. Judd could have noted Kusama’s exhibition history and vouched for the Japanese-born painter’s professional reputation. Instead, he took the opportunity to plunge the border-control bureaucrat reviewing the file into the kind of aesthetic debate then raging among the artist residents of Manhattan’s cold-water lofts.
At the time, Judd was a thirty-three-year-old artist and critic with a degree in philosophy and a skeptical attitude toward art, the art world, and the world in general. In his letter, he dismisses the majority of New York artists as imitators working in the “manner” of the Abstract Expressionists. Kusama was one of the few artists who managed to avoid this “confusion and repetition.” Her work was “grave, dignified, cool, and tough.” He describes several of her abstract paintings, including a new one displaying a “powerful net of cadmium yellow medium strokes.” Judd assures the government that his colleague was on the cusp of achieving something historic: “an advance in painting” equal to that of Jackson Pollock’s generation.
Self-possessed, argumentative, urgent in tone, and threaded with closely observed formal descriptions, the letter is typical of Judd’s writing about art; only the format sets this text apart from the many exhibition reviews he published in the late 1950s and early ’60s. It’s easy to imagine an INS agent trying to absorb the argument at hand, eyes glazing over. If any line of Judd’s set off alarm bells for the authorities, however, it might have been this: “Miss Kusama . . . is not especially American, nor any longer obviously Japanese, and remains only international, transcending conspicuous and obsolete traditions.”1 As written, Judd’s point is about aesthetic tradition. But he’s also celebrating the transcendence of national difference in an appeal to the agency assigned to police borders and regulate citizenship. Whether his reader in this case caught the potential irony likely mattered little to Judd: the kind of advances he advocated in the work of others, sought in his own art, and described in his voluminous writings implied a notion of progress in which nationalism itself was obsolete.
The INS letter is included among the nearly 1,800 close-set pages of reviews, essays, statements, notes, and interviews published in Writings (2016) and Interviews (2019) by the Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books. These volumes supplement the 2015 reissue of Judd’s collected writings, originally printed in 1975, with newer texts and previously unpublished ones. Writing was integral to Judd’s art, and language was the tissue with which he connected his work to the social world. The geometric objects he fabricated in wood, metal, plexiglass, or concrete—he mostly avoided calling them sculptures and rejected the term “Minimalism”—appeared to many early observers to be mute and impersonal. One interlocutor in a 1964 interview channeled the critical rabble bemoaning that there was “so little that you can say in terms of verbalization. . . .” “So little that they can say,” Judd responded. Judd had plenty to say, both about his own art and the work of his peers. The INS letter is only the most literal example of Judd’s inscribing his pronouncements about progress in the arts within a political context. “I object very much when my work is said to not be political,” he offered in a 1987 interview with Flash Art, “because my feelings about the social system are in there somewhere.” Whether or not viewers could perceive these feelings in front of the work, Judd articulated them at length, often expressing contempt for the government, for large-scale social movements, for capitalism, communism, religion, and other grand “metaphysical schemes” that he felt anesthetized people and left them devoid of purpose. Whatever irony was latent in his letter to the INS evolved into a full repudiation of the US government by the time of the Gulf War, a cataclysm Judd decried as an act of imperial aggression. As his own travel through a rapidly internationalizing art world accelerated over his career, the unease he felt with being cast as an American artist intensified.
Yet his art is, in many ways, thoroughly American—or at least it has looked the part to many observers over the years. Critics around the world argued that his exhibitions, and those of other New York artists, were cultural beachheads for American imperialism. Art historian Anna C. Chave has argued that his steel and wood boxes, like the work of other Minimalists, embody the martial qualities and power dynamics of American society.2 Beginning in the 1970s, Judd effectively carved out an enclave for himself and his work near the southern border in Marfa, Texas. But even this act of quasi-retreat played into another American trope: that of the rugged individualist and anti-government recluse living on the frontier.
These contradictions fuel the alienation evident in Judd’s writings. Even at the pinnacle of success, with his own foundation behind him and factories in the US and Europe producing his art and a line of furniture, Judd continued to profess profound disillusionment. At the same time, the sheer quantity of written material that he preserved and organized for publication—a project he began in his lifetime—attests to a certain degree of satisfaction, at least in his own thoughts and work. It might be a little flippant to point out that Writings and Interviews—hefty bricks of thin paper stock—look and feel like Bibles. But if they are akin to scripture, the books of Judd are nonetheless motley and heterodox: ante-Nicene, to be sure. There are era-defining manifestos bound together with tangents, rants, and scattered diary-like entries with reflections on family life—all of it carefully introduced and cross-referenced by Judd’s son, Flavin, and Caitlin Murray of the Judd Foundation.
Judd synthesized expansive readings in history, philosophy, and literature to make broad statements about art and politics. He also analyzed Nixon’s tax plan, complained about lamp design, complained about a low-flying helicopter to the Texas Attorney General, and mocked the Swiss air force. He wrote letters to art critics and collectors, letters to his attorney, and letters to the editors of art magazines pointing out their unending stupidity. The interviews feature interlocutors ranging from critic Lucy Lippard to painter Jo Baer to elementary students at a school in Marfa to an Icelandic communist to lifestyle reporters who clearly test the patience of their subject. Channeled through these diverse contexts and filtered through variations in texture and cadences, Judd’s consistently cantankerous voice leaves a vivid impression. Judd can get in your head. Readers can find themselves turning over Juddisms, noting the repetitions and changes in emphasis, wondering in any given situation, WWJD?
The self-regard implicit in the archival project is also reinforced by Judd’s feelings of persecution. Judd saw himself as an artist under siege, surrounded by frauds who were determined to get everything about his art wrong. He wrote with the self-awareness that he was becoming a historical figure, and he wanted to set the record straight. “Writing is a further attempt to maintain my work and control what happens to it, to maintain my integrity, my momentum, against others’ distortions,” he noted in 1986. “It’s depressing to think that what has been written about contemporary art will remain as the record.” Judd launched his own foundation before he turned fifty and released the first comprehensive volume of his writing two years prior. He worked for two decades to secure funding to build and staff ideal, permanent presentations of his work at properties in Marfa and New York.
The Judd retrospective now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York could offer a serious outside assessment of Judd’s work and legacy, testing the critical bulwark that he erected. While most artists would regard a MoMA retrospective as a great honor, it’s certain that Judd would have approached the project with a sense of unease. He referred to the museum as an “indifferent institution” in a 1970 text, and grew more polemical later in life, deriding it as “a relatively moderne, fascist building . . . and a fascist context.” Venues already exist for seeing Judd’s work exactly as he intended—he built them. An exhibition organized apart from the Judd complex is an opportunity to reexamine the work of an artist who thought deeply about his place in history and who wrote with an eye toward the social flux around him, taking in what he could from a vantage he claimed to be limited but which proved wide enough to note great shifts: the rise and fall of nations, the progress and decline of the arts.
In the early 1960s, Judd began to perceive that an important cultural break was occurring. “Although I admire the work of some of the older artists,” he wrote in one short statement from 1965, “I can’t altogether believe its generality. Earlier art is less credible.” For Judd, credibility was a key aesthetic category (he used the term everywhere), referring both to art that unified material, color, surface, form, and space, as well as to the link between an artwork and its time.3 He proposed a model of artistic progress that was deceptively simple: a shift from the old to the new.
Progress in art is not much talked about. The best artists act on belief in progress. Other artists seem to believe that art merely changes and that all art anywhere and anytime is equal. The more obtuse believe this makes it possible to paint in any style, regardless of origin or period. This evades the central difficulty of understanding and doing something now.
Judd’s critical project in the early years was to identify artists who were confronting this central difficulty and doing something credible. Most of these artists worked in the US, but Judd didn’t equate the new directly with America, even though he squarely linked the old with Europe. Published in Arts Yearbook in 1965, “Specific Objects” is sometimes described as a Minimalist manifesto, but it actually says little directly about Judd’s own work. Instead, it is a shortlist of good artists: Kusama, Lee Bontecou, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, Larry Bell, and Dan Flavin, among others, who join Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and, above all, Jackson Pollock. Judd observed qualities in their work (flatness, color, unity) that he could take up in his own, and likewise pinpointed components that could be jettisoned (illusionism, mannerism, figuration, painting in general, anything that smacked of Europe). In “Specific Objects” and throughout his criticism of this period, he hammered out his definition of credibility in a steady rhythm of declarative sentences. Subject, verb, object—all as specific as possible. An artist he deemed worthy received moving praise, usually in superlatives. Bontecou—“one of the best artists working anywhere”—made relief works expressing a “primitive, oppressive, and unmitigated individuality. It is credible and awesome.”
Despite a reputation for precision and Hemingway-esque directness in language, Judd could sometimes hedge with “pretty much” and “to some extent” peppering otherwise sharp and self-assured comments. Exactly how much meaning in painting and sculpture isn’t credible? “A fair amount,” Judd writes in “Specific Objects.” These inexact phrases lend an impression of knowledge being created and tested. The interviews and panel discussions of the early period, whether friendly exchanges or all-out fights, are exciting because they share this provisional aspect. Strong interlocutors like Lippard and Barbara Rose press Judd for clarification and precision: about the nature of illusion in his art, about his proclamation that painting is dead, about his claim that his work isn’t reductive at all but actually more complex than older art. Judd became more self-assured the more he sparred. Among the interviews are raw moments of discovery: it is defensible to say that painting is over; it is justifiable for an artist to have his work fabricated; his use of space is new.
As he became more adept at defending these positions, Judd also became less generous toward other artists who couldn’t defend themselves—or wouldn’t do so on his terms. “There’s no avant-garde because there’s no rear guard that amounts to anything,” he said in 1966. “So there’s just the people that are good, and then there’s –” Judd was impatient with anything he deemed middling. In one interview he estimated there were a total of twenty-four artists who mattered among any generation. This partly explains his frustration with the umbrella term “Minimalism,” as it lumped him together with artists whom he regarded as inconsequential. He reserved special scorn for Anne Truitt (praised by Clement Greenberg, who cites her as an influence on Judd), Robert Smithson (“just a sophomore”), and Robert Morris (“a really bad artist”). It should be noted that these artists’ work sometimes resembled Judd’s own, and they were also among the most fluent writers of their generation, each verbalizing an aesthetic program with as much verve as Judd.
Judd viewed 1946–66 as a period of invention and discovery, when great artists made work suited to the time. But this period was followed by an almost complete betrayal, one instigated in part by the failure of critics and art institutions to understand the significance of what had happened and to secure the gains that had been made. In texts he wrote from the late 1960s on, Judd deepened and defended his established positions while attacking everything else. “I haven’t written anything in quite a while; I have a lot of complaints.” So begins his screed “Complaints: Part I” (1969), which he followed with “Complaints: Part II” (1973). Together, they describe ignorant art critics pumping up middling artists with articles published by clueless editors who offer false versions of history for know-nothing curators to regurgitate in bureaucratic museums catering to a complacent public ignorant of art. That’s the gist, anyway.
As a form of address, the complaint can be entertaining (Judd would have been great on Twitter). But the venting often falls short of criticism or analysis. A catalogue of personal slights reveals little about widely shared problems. In the early 1980s, he published a two-part piece in A.i.A. titled “A Long Discussion Not About Master-Pieces but Why There Are So Few of Them.” It’s not clear if the title is a deliberate echo of Linda Nochlin’s famous ARTNews essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), but both aim to explain how social realities informed aesthetic production. For Judd, the central problem hindering the arts at the time was one of category confusion. He scorns the “small idea” that “art should be democratic,” contending that “politics alone should be democratic. Art is intrinsically a matter of quality. A commitment to democracy in politics is included in the synthesis that is very good art.” A society with a mediocre (“democratic”) culture had allowed the actual political outlets for democracy to stagnate. This misalignment produced retrograde art with an overall trajectory of decline that obviated “Master-Pieces.”
In explaining why there hadn’t been any great women artists, Nochlin documented historical barriers that women faced to entering the profession. She revealed these barriers for the purpose of dismantling them in the future. Judd’s pessimism, by contrast, was an outgrowth of a scattershot skepticism, a mistrust of ideology. For all his complaints, he offered few solutions to the structural problems that tormented him. A disposition to oppose everything led to a vague sort of anarchism: anti-government, anti-bureaucratic. He wrote against inheritance taxes and school busing for racial balance, seeing these policies as coercive.
Underlying all of his complaints is a mistrust of teleological systems. “Basically, I’m an absolute empiricist, coldhearted, not religious, not metaphysical,” he affirmed. “I’m very much against those grand schemes of history—Christianity or Marxism or any grand scheme—because I don’t see much sign of it,” he said in another interview. What he did see were abrupt shifts, from old to new and new to old. “Things one way or another do change,” he continued, “and I think that art has to be new, just as people are new. Going backward is not change.”
This backward slide was nowhere more evident than in postmodern architecture, whose advocates proudly rejected the progressive values of art that Judd celebrated, offering instead “debased appearances of the past, not even ideas of the past.” By the 1980s, Judd perceived a cultural and political situation that was completely out of joint: the abandonment of real democracy on the one hand, and the rise of an unthinking application of pseudo-democratic ideas to art and architecture. The symbolic encapsulation of this disaster was having to view the credible art he had made in the 1960s in the absolutely “incredible” confines of the postmodern museum.
Judd could take responsibility for Judd. He could make art, build a physical and institutional context for his work, and observe and critique the world around him, but he often professed feeling powerless to do much beyond that. “Visual art is the most disenfranchised activity; its disenfranchisement is becoming total,” he lamented in a 1987 statement. But this belief in his own powerlessness was more than a complaint; disenfranchisement could also be an effective coping mechanism, a way of creating distance from a society he viewed as antithetical to his art.
As critics like Irving Sandler touted the “triumph” of American painting, Judd began rejecting the label “American artist.” He professed puzzlement at nationalism in general in a 1970 symposium: “I never understood how anyone could love the United States, or hate it for that matter; I’ve never understood feelings of nationalism. Ask what your country can do for you.” Over the decades, however, Judd’s reading list grew and diversified (he was voracious), and he drew upon a range of thinkers to explain exactly how someone could hate the US as it launched the Gulf War. “One hundred and seventy years ago Simón Bolívar said that the United States would destroy all freedom in the name of freedom,” he wrote. “Or as Simon de Montfort said of the Albigensians: ‘Tuez-les tous! Dieu reconnaîtra les siens!’”4
Over the same period, Judd found himself implicated in the government’s deeds by critics like Max Kozloff (“whose writing I couldn’t bear to read”) and Serge Guilbaut, whose scholarship correlated the rise of New York City as a cultural capital with postwar US hegemony in the West. Judd resented the association. By conceiving of art as a small, marginal activity within a society that was indifferent to it, he maintained a kind of protective alienation.
This isn’t to say that Judd was detached. He participated in the antiwar movement of the 1960s and was effectively radicalized by the Gulf War, which he called the American “invasion of Arabia.” He made antiwar posters, including one based on a photograph of Spanish graffiti, and devoted an exhibition catalogue essay to denouncing what he believed was a world-historical catastrophe that brought together all of his thinking on art, the social world, and history. The Gulf War was a searing manifestation of how debased the US had become: “The consequence of a fake economy, which is the military economy, is a fake society. One consequence of that is fake art and architecture. As the enforcing bureaucracy grows omnipresent and omniscient, real art and architecture shrinks.”
The key question addressed in Judd’s later writings is how one can go on making real art amid this devastating fakery. The temptation to drop out completely, to leave the art world, must have been intense. “I’m for secession . . . leaving totally,” he said in one interview. “You declare your own state. I would love it.” He did find a remote outpost in Marfa, building a complex that includes a ranch and a former military base renovated for the permanent display of his work and that of other artists he supported. He also self-consciously distinguished his move there from the narratives of frontier conquest. “‘Destiny’ is a manifest myth, another excuse for cheating someone, say Mexico.” Judd did not conceive of Marfa as virgin land; true to form, he started complaining early on about bad development and mismanagement by county-level bureaucrats. After initially attempting to settle his family in Mexico, he developed an ambiguous notion of the border, referring to the entire region by what he believed to be its Aztec name, Chichimeca. Judd understood himself to be entangled in history, just as he was alienated from the present.
The fact is, he didn’t drop out, despite his pessimism. “The reason for doing nothing is always wrong. So is any argument for isolation or ignorance” he wrote to himself in one 1986 note. He didn’t have to stay engaged. His exquisite objects, produced in Texas, New York, and Switzerland became exceedingly valuable. Yet instead of drifting off comfortably, he remained constantly antagonistic, skeptical.
He continued writing until his death in 1994, often revisiting fundamental questions of color, form, and space. His last published essay, “Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular,” feels like the synthesis of this work, an essay that weaves together color theories, personal history, and thoughts on empire, along with a revised idea of progress, one more suited to his experience than the one he floated back in the 1960s. “Art does not change in one line, not from A to B to C, but from V to 5 to L. But it does change,” he argued before expanding the point: “Civilizations, like art, do not change in a line; it’s best to avoid the word ‘progress.’”
“Progress” is best avoided in the arts because it doesn’t just happen: artists like Kusama and Judd make it so. And Judd’s writings are worth reading because he looked at the world in total despair and his historical legacy with total trepidation. But he continued to make art and to protest. “You have an absolute contradiction and you have to live with it,” he said in a 1991 interview in Cologne:
I continue because I like art. For me, it’s life. And I think that’s really the only source of art. But I can’t give up searching for reasons. It’s nice to feel that there is a future. But you never see it happen.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this essay from Donald Judd, Writings, eds. Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray, New York, Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books, 2016; or Donald Judd, Interviews, eds. Flavin Judd and Caitlin Murray, New York, Judd Foundation and David Zwirner Books, 2019.
2 See Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts 64, January 1990, pp. 44–63. The most complete examination of Judd’s art and political philosophy is in David Raskin, “Specific Opposition: Judd’s Art and Politics,” Art History vol. 24, no. 5, November 2001, pp. 682–706.
3 For an insightful discussion of Judd’s use of this term, see Robert Slifkin, The New Monuments and the End of Man: U.S. Sculpture Between War and Peace, 1945–1975, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2019, pp. 163–189.
4 Complete Writings includes the translation from the French of this line attributed to the 5th Earl of Leicester in the thirteenth century: “Kill them all! God will know his own,” p. 731.