The actual medium of Judd’s oeuvre is not sculpture, but space. His particular feel for the sensuousness of three-dimensional form is apparent even in his early paintings, which started as figurative interiors and urban scenes and developed from there into mostly monochrome, abstract paintings with a distinctly spatialized surface—achieved with the visible inclusion of sand and wood chips, for example, or with minimal sculptural inventions using such commonplace materials as wire mesh.
Mirroring his critical and theoretical engagement with contemporary art in the early 1960s (which resulted in his legendary 1964 essay “Specific Objects,” for example) the artist began to create three-dimensional objects that he considered neither painting nor sculpture. He had these objects fabricated to his precise specifications, employing such industrial materials as Plexiglas, plywood, aluminum, copper, brass, or steel plates. The works pursued a reduced geometric vocabulary that was repeated in variations of so-called “boxes,” “stacks,” “progressions,” “bullnoses” or “channel pieces.” Without a pedestal, they were placed directly on the floor or attached to the wall and their immaculate surfaces emphatically highlight the absence of a traditional “artistic” hand. Mostly monochrome or two-tone, their shades of grey, silver, bronze, gold and brown derive from the materials used. Other, sometimes contrasting hues, emerged through the use of high gloss motorcycle paint, Plexiglas tinting and aluminum anodization. Each of these objects had a unique presence and conjured specific spatial and atmospheric experiences.
Judd’s objects amounted to a radical break with the art historical sculptural tradition—a tradition that, despite its efforts at abstraction, still clung to the anthropomorphic ideal. They are the product of his conviction that every kind of “subject matter” or “content” springs from ideological generalizations. In their rigorous pursuit of non-descriptive parameters and refusal of any hierarchization into principal and secondary forms, they fathom the limits of the sculptural. Although the artist did not consider them “sculptures,” they initiated a monumental shift in the contemporary practice of sculpture.
Judd’s relocation to Marfa, Texas in the 1970s signaled a sustained expansion of his artistic practice. Though the fabrication of his iconic objects continued, his focus shifted to site-specific installations in public space—works for which he refined his formal language and also made use of materials including concrete. The 1980s saw an increased emphasis on architecture, and his practice broadened again to include the design of iconic furniture. The artist’s sculptural objects see a veritable explosion of color during this period, with surfaces that combine several bright hues.
Donald Judd’s work is far from his only contribution to contemporary art. His Marfa-based Chinati Foundation (1987) forged the path for an artist-led exhibition practice as a critical alternative to the museum institution. The extraordinary influence of this model continues to this day.