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Before the Boxes

Donald Judd proves there's life after bad painting

A car on the road to Marfa bears the bumper sticker "I image JUDD." Here in Texas, Donald Judd is widely known because of his Marfa outpost-turned-pilgrimage site. Almost ten years after his death from cancer, the artist still exists as a kind of poster boy for minimalist art, even though he shunned the term. Mention his name and people with the scantiest art background say, "Oh, yeah, the box guy."

But those quintessential minimalist shapes did not spring fully formed from the artist's forehead like Athena. How Judd's ideas and objects evolved is the subject of the Menil Collection exhibition "Donald Judd: Early Work, 1955-1968."

Judging by the first gallery of the show, Judd started with some really mediocre painting. Why did he hang on to all this stuff -- sentimentality or ego? There is a nude with a stumplike head, some banal brushy abstractions and a few above- average charcoal drawings. The process of becoming an artist means sorting through media and imagery and concepts, eventually honing in on those things that resonate with your point of view.

Looking through the 20-20 lens of hindsight, it's possible to see Judd's concern with pure geometric forms slowly asserting itself. The awkward nude by the 22-year-old Judd is intriguing for its emphasis on the solid angularity of the door and window frames -- the only things painted with real conviction. The 1952 charcoal drawings feel more structural and satisfying, their emphatic marks delineating stairwells and windows and figures with equanimity. Here Judd evidences his fascination with space divided. The abstract Welfare Island (CH 813) (1956) has a satisfying formal arrangement of linear black and white elements. But the work doesn't show any real engagement with the medium of paint -- just a matter-of-fact covering of the surface with pigment.

The second gallery of the exhibition presents later works from the early '60s. In these, Judd has mixed sand and wax into the paint to give it a greater physicality. But while many of the canvases feel dated, Untitled (DSS 23) (1961) retains a contemporary power 40 years after its making. Its matte black, highly tactile surface has an exaggerated thickness, emphasized only by the paint. Here Judd is moving toward object-ness. The painting feels less like a painting than a slab, an object. Inset into the center of the large rectangle, like a premonition, is a small metal rectangle (actually a baking tin). It emphasizes the thickness of the surface, and nods to Frank Stella's shaped canvases, which debuted in 1960.

Judd, who studied philosophy and art history, also worked as a critic for various art magazines. In 1964 he published his seminal text, Specific Objects, in which he championed work that was contained unto itself and referred only to itself, work that was neither painting nor sculpture but autonomously three-dimensional. He included everything from Stella's shaped canvases to Claes Oldenburg's soft sculpture in the "specific object" camp. "The main thing wrong with painting," he argued, "is that it is a rectangular plane placed flat against the wall. A rectangle is a shape itself…it determines and limits the arrangement of whatever is on or inside of it." Judd's point was that whatever was applied to a canvas should respond to and reinforce its original shape -- illusionism be damned. It was a de facto minimalist manifesto, and Judd's own work was a prime example of the ideas he was advocating.

In his first 3-D constructions, Judd used painted plywood to construct boxlike forms, interrupted by slick, brilliantly hued Plexiglas and vividly lacquered aluminum. A square of red plywood is overlaid by another triangle of wood, creating a steplike effect with the facing edge of the "step" made of violet Plexiglas. Viewed from the right angle, the triangle seems to levitate.

But in this and other painted wood works, the grain of the wood shows, and some pieces have split owing to time and humidity. There is a sense in these works of trying to force nature into exacting geometry. But the juxtaposition of the industrial and the natural was not the point -- Judd was simply using wood to fabricate objects that were more about color and shape and space. The natural flaws and characteristics of the material were at odds with his ultimate objectives.

The next series of works was executed in sheets of galvanized iron. Although they are industrial and more neutral, the sheets have a flecky galvanized patina that is distracting and calls to mind farm sheds and water tanks. But it is in this material that Judd first made the wall-based series of cantilevered slabs that were to become a hallmark of his work.

Judd really found his material of choice in stainless steel. It was sleek and neutral and elegant. True, it had industrial associations, but they were the kind that evoked precise manufacture and engineering. Judd put those associations to the service of art.

In Untitled (DSS 130) (1968), it's clear what a boon the material was to the work. The six cubes mounted on the wall have the dull, authoritatively fabricated sheen of stainless steel. They are crisp forms, the steel functioning as a fairly neutral material. The sides are created from sheets of amber Plexiglas. View the piece straight on and the metal squares dominate; view it from the side and the light passes through the series of cube interiors, creating a feeling of infinitely repeating space.

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