Donald Judd spoke as if he’d been edited. His phrases were clipped and succinct. Longer thoughts were built incrementally, via sentences beginning with ‘And’. He avoided adverbs that gave colour over quality: ‘completely’ and ‘simply’ might do, but ‘brilliantly’ or ‘sweetly’ were cut. Most of his statements were in the present or perfect tense: the imperfect wash of events was divided into blocks and put in a tidy line. He didn’t use the subjunctive mood. Things happened, or had, or not.
A paragraph of Judd’s speech – in transcription, as given by Donald Judd Interviews, a new volume from David Zwirner Books and Judd Foundation – can be treated like much of his art. Think of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, and the ‘100 untitled works in mill aluminium’ (1982–86) in the old artillery sheds. Arranged in square columns and rows, each work has the same dimensions – 104 by 130 by 183 cm – but the interior of each is unique, altered by dividers that vary the gifts of space. There isn’t a sequence to the works; only their circumstance, the building, determines how they’re laid out. One thing leads to another and nothing clears up anything else. Since this is rural Texas, and aluminium reflects the sun, the 100 works are literally eye-catching. There’s no need for the figurative here; Judd had no interest in what his art ‘meant’. After 900 pages of his tidy talk, you forget that the verb exists.
Judd’s first exhibition was in 1957, and he died in 1994. Throughout this near half-century, he continually talked and wrote while doubting the value of both. He would clam up at questions that dug for meaning, even from clever friends. On a 1966 panel with smoothies like Larry Poons and Robert Rauschenberg, he disappears for an eight-page stretch. You strain for his thinking while he’s gone, but all you know is that speech seemed improper just then. An eighth-grade student from Marfa asked him in 1978 why he didn’t like interviews. ‘I think,’ Judd replied, ‘that the person looking at the work should think about it and figure it out for themselves and not ask me, “Why?”’ But he kept sitting for interviews, even as he ceased to write freelance reviews in the 1960s, which were collected recently in Donald Judd Writings (2016), another sizeable book. Only created things could show which choices not to make.
Judd’s value to critics is in the economy of his style. He’s elegant, and pleasurable, if slightly risky to read; tranches of Judd may cause the mental equivalent of shortness of breath. Redundant syllables don’t exist. He was expert at subtraction and contemptuous of those who were not. Like a perfect Wittgensteinian – by whom and on whom he owned dozens of books – he didn’t distinguish between sloppy writing and the ‘second-hand ideas’ therein. ‘What’s now written about art is horrible,’ he said in 1992, ‘and has been for a number of years.’ Rosalind Krauss was a ‘Greenberger’ at best, an ‘intellectual Rice Krispie’ at worst. Art magazines, he believed, were ‘never very good’. He understood that he seemed ascetic, and that this would curtail his reach. ‘I think partly I’m a secret,’ he said to Regina Wyrwoll shortly before his death, but added, without pride, ‘partly people are a little afraid of me.’
And so, walking alone, he denied himself short-cuts in exemplary style. To him, for instance, ‘expressionism’ was representation, just of a weak and cowardly kind – ‘a distortion of the picture’. (This is a man who quit painting when he detected ‘anthropomorphism’ in his use of curves.) By these lights, Pollock was ‘not an expressionist’, abstract or otherwise: ‘his dripped paint is a phenomenon, itself new […] completely opposed to the old confusion of nature being what it is felt to be.’ Nothing ‘expressive’ at all: dispel the second-hand aura of categories, and you’re forced to examine the artist afresh. Whether you like Judd’s opinion or not, it shows how to challenge those writers who cheat you with phantom ‘schools’ – here are many possible draughts of air in many rooms shut up too long.
Becoming Judd would be exhausting, but his example is precious by the dose. Few critics have no need to test the units of their phrases, their levels of colour, or inference, or snap. If an expression could be tightened, that was Judd’s wish, and these books are an eloquent proof. With his own works – not ‘sculptures’, just ‘three-dimensional’ – little more than description would do. They were what they were, that’s all, a stance that gave a viewer the liberty to feel as they felt. Judd was never a dictator, then – he was a performing editor. As with ‘classic’ or ‘romantic’, he hated being labelled ‘doctrinaire’. ‘I’m an absolute empiricist,’ he offered to Catherine Millet instead. ‘Coldhearted, not religious, not metaphysical.’ It’s a tight and rigorous path, but a little discipline brings order to life.