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Hedonist Theater

It looks really good. It looks really good. It looks really good.
Would that it were not my job to come up with something more than that to say about the current Dan Flavin/Donald Judd exhibit at the Menil Collection and the new permanent Flavin installation at the museum's Richmond Hall. Both Flavin and Judd were artists of such overwhelming certainty that any verbal response seems to flounder by comparison. Although the exhibit, "Aspects of Color," is highly rational -- dry, even -- loveliness and harmony are its salient characteristics, so much more so than historical importance, theory, strategy and debate that such things seem altogether inconsequential among Judd's boxes and Flavin's fluorescent lights.

It makes perfect sense to show Donald Judd and Dan Flavin together, although not too close together -- each of the two alpha males gets three rooms to himself. The two lived contemporaneously (1928-1994 and1933-1996, respectively), were friends (Judd named his son Flavin), and in the '60s, together with a handful of other artists, ushered in what was identified as a movement and was called minimalism, although Judd and Flavin resisted both tags. In his art criticism, Judd liked to refer instead to "the best new work," as in, "Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture," which he wrote in his definitive 1965 essay "Specific Objects." Or, as he declared two years later in his blunt, Hemingway prose, "most of the best artists" shared an affinity for "the large scale and its particular nature; bright color; use of new materials; three dimensions."

Judd needed a state the size of Texas as a site for his ideas. He spent the last two years of his life perfecting permanent installations of contemporary art in Marfa, Texas, where an extensive Dan Flavin piece will soon occupy several barracks of an old army fort that Judd transformed. As Judd saw it, his own work was not sculpture because it was not sculpted; it was not a container for expression, representation or even gesture. Rather, what you see is what you get. "A black hole does not allude to a black hole," Judd said. "It is one." Judd and Flavin broke new ground by using industrial, mass-produced materials: Plexiglas, stainless steel and anodized aluminum for Judd, whose work was made to spec in a factory; fluorescent lights in ready-made colors and sizes for Flavin, who simply made a diagram anyone could follow. Thus, you have the artist as captain of industry; minimalists took pride in ordering their art by phone.

Entering "Aspects of Color," the viewer is confronted by a murky dark-green Plexiglas Judd box (all of his works are untitled) that stands about four feet high. It appears to have a steel box floating weightlessly inside it, but a side view reveals that the steel is part of a hollow armature for the Plexiglas. Though manufactured, this geometric object seems dredged up from some geological deep, with a crystalline logic intact. It sits directly on the floor, a placement which Judd piquantly claimed to have invented as a way of asserting the objecthood, rather than the arthood, of his boxes.

Judd decried the pictorial and the illusionistic, and this exhibit makes the case that for him and Flavin, color defined volume rather than mood. But nothing is illusionistic if not the green box, and nothing is composed if not the surrounding wall-mounted boxes, open like little stages made of various colors of aluminum and divided by walls or panels of Plex.

The next two rooms, as well as the hall outside the exhibit, contain Judd's cantilevered wall boxes. In each, ten boxes, again of Plex and metal, are stacked evenly from floor to ceiling like skyscrapers outfitted with hovercraft technology (except the hallway piece, where the arrangement is horizontal). In one, the boxes have tops and bottoms of shiny copper and sides of deep purple Plexiglas. In another, steel sides flank yellow Plex tops and bottoms, creating an interior space that is visually available but physically off-limits. I am chagrined by how easy it is, in describing these pieces, to fall into the flatly descriptive writing style of Judd himself. Yet, as critic Rosalind Krauss pointed out early on, such descriptions (how tall, what color, etc.) do nothing to illuminate the beauty of Judd's works. The boxes are as much about reflection and refraction, shimmer and frisson, as they are about repetition; where the copper reflects itself, its color grows more intense, and the hall-of-mirrors effect produces the illusion of looking up through the column of boxes.

Despite his control, Donald Judd has been called a hedonist, and the piece in the next room illustrates that point. This box, which measures almost 25 feet in its largest dimension, is one of several gargantuan works that Judd made in the last decade of his life, and it articulates in a final-word kind of way many of his work's key qualities. First, this is the "Don Judd, Colorist" to whom Flavin dedicated several works. The box is made up of 85 rectangular metal panels in nine bright enamel colors, bolted together in no order, but so that no two like colors are adjacent. The distribution is unsystematic, yet thoroughly even, following the classic rule of the anticompositional grid: Nothing is permitted to dominate, and there is no chance of an expressive slip-up.

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