Donald Judd and the Blooming of Reality

The art and architecture of Donald Judd, from Soho to Marfa.

David Raskin, Donald Judd, and Marianne Stockebrand, Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd (both Yale Press, 2010)

If only I were, I feel in this moment, someone who could see all this as if he had no relation to it except seeing it — contemplate all of it as if he were the only adult traveler who had today reached the surface of life! If only I hadn’t learned, from birth onward, to give accepted meanings to these things, if only I could see them in the expression they have separate from the expression that has been imposed upon them. If only I could understand the human reality in the woman selling fish independent of her being a fishmonger and know that she exists and sells. If only I could see the policeman the way God sees him. If only I could notice everything for the first time, not apocalyptically, like the revelation of the Mystery, but directly, like the blooming of reality.
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 1914–1934

Traversing Lisbon’s Baixa district at dawn, as it awakens, Fernando Pessoa longs for a transcendent consciousness — a consciousness that would arise from the fullness of his experience of the place. Some works of art and architecture prompt a comparable awareness — an almost ineffable sense of a dynamic, reciprocal connection of the particular to the general, of personal experience to the larger world. For me, the works of Donald Judd spur such feelings, especially in the places where he installed his work permanently, such as 101 Spring Street in Soho in New York City and in the west Texas town of Marfa. Over the last half dozen years, I have become intimately familiar with Judd’s home and studio on Spring Street, as my firm has led the preservation of the building, including Judd’s modifications, for our client the Judd Foundation. It was at Spring Street in the 1970s that Judd’s approach and work evolved to encompass the surrounding spaces. Here the reciprocity between context — the 19th-century cast-iron structure — and content — Judd’s precise inhabitation within — became a new totality; a complete experience that makes being in the present more fulfilling. With notable economy of means, through the adaptive reuse of the existing architecture, Judd merged art and life on his own terms.

Two recently published books, David Raskin’s Donald Judd and Marianne Stockebrand’s Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd, offer revealing insights into the worlds that Judd created — his fusing of art, architecture and environment — at 101 Spring Street and in Marfa. The books are very different, but equally engaging. Raskin’s scholarly monograph situates Judd within the art historical context of the latter half of the 20th century; with detailed information geared toward specialists (one-third of the book consists of footnotes and bibliography), Raskin weaves together the philosophical, aesthetic and political dimensions of the work to make an eloquent case for Judd’s enduring significance. Stockebrand catalogs the history and collection of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa — the permanent art installations begun by Donald Judd in the 1970s, which he continued to work on until his death in 1994 and which now comprise works by other major artists, including Dan Flavin, Richard Long, Roni Horn and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Stockebrand’s book is a hybrid; with written descriptions, plans and diagrams of the works in the collection, compelling photographic documentation, concise critical essays and a relevant sampling of Judd’s own texts, the volume provides multiple points of access for a lay person, collector or scholar. Together the analysis of Raskin and the large-format heft of Stockebrand prompt reflection upon Judd’s legacy, and upon how architecture might gain from Judd’s art the capacity for a more vital connection to our world today.

“… the space and time that is created by the existing things …”

My work has the appearance it has, wrongly called “objective” and “impersonal,” because my first and largest interest is in my relation to the natural world, all of it, all the way out. This interest includes my existence, a keen interest, the existence of everything and the space and time that is created by the existing things. Art emulates this creation or definition by also creating, on a small scale, space and time.
— Donald Judd, “Art and Architecture,” 1983

When I first encountered Judd’s site-specific Untitled (Topographical Sculpture), a work from 1970, it appeared to be an inert rectangular solid resting on a gently sloping lawn. But as I moved closer I began to observe details that revealed more complex relationships within the piece and between the piece and the site. Because the top edge of the box was slightly below eye level, I saw that the box was open (there was no top surface), and a slightly smaller, open box was set within the outer box. Also, while the top edge of the outer box was level, the top edge of the inner box sloped, following the grade of the lawn. When I walked beside and around the piece, I became part of a dynamic interaction between the straight and angled top edges of both boxes as the shifting spaces implied between them continuously changed through the parallax of my moving vision.

My experience contradicted, in some respects, the given hierarchy of container (outer box with level top edges) and contained (inner box with sloped top edges). Far from the static form I first perceived, the work created a zone that became charged by my eye, and that changed as I shifted my prospect. Further, the stainless steel plate of both boxes had a dull reflectivity — conveying both physical presence and immateriality — which added yet more layers of connection and complexity between the art, the site and the ambient daylight. The sculpture came alive for me; it was not an object to which I reacted, but rather an instigator of a new reciprocal relationship between itself and me.

David Raskin uses the term “disparity” to explain the apparently contradictory aspects of Judd’s art, such as those I observed while exploring Untitled (Topographical Sculpture). One of several key words and expressions that Raskin deploys to convey the unique implications of Judd’s work, disparity suggests how the work stimulates an active connection with person and with place. For Judd, this trait — disparity — is intrinsic to the structure of his art even as it extends to the experience of viewing it. The multiple characteristics of his sculpture, which change with our vantage point, are intentional — part of Judd’s ongoing effort to directly shape perception, in a manner that cannot be simply or immediately or completely understood. Art and viewer are thus intertwined; and as Raskin argues, “This type of aesthetic experience concentrates the sensual complexity of reality.”

Sometimes this engagement of art with viewer occurs through proportional relationships; sometimes it results from the intersection of contrasting shapes and materials. For example, Raskin cites the simultaneous transparency and reflectivity of the colored Plexiglas that forms the sides of Judd’s (Untitled) DSS 58 — which upsets our expectation of static dependency between the art and its site, which is the floor on which it rests. In a close reading of (Untitled) DSS 145, Raskin identifies the visual dynamic of its multivalent proportional relationships; while the ratios of solid and void are precisely calibrated, the rhythmic combination makes for an indeterminate, absorbing, active visual experience. “Judd’s works of art polarize their durable and ephemeral properties to greater and lesser extents,” writes Raskin, “and this particular example [DSS 145] suggests that they also bind our intelligence and intuition.” Art and observer comprise a totality in which the work’s significance is continuously created from our comprehension of it. As Raskin concludes, “Disparity is a method that helps keep the universe emergent.”

Richard Shiff’s “To Stop the Heart,” one of several essays in Stockebrand’s Chinati, also focuses on Judd’s life-long effort to unite thought and perception, which originated in Judd’s intense awareness of certain proportional relationships through direct visual and spatial experience. As an example, Shiff cites Judd’s notes about the dimensions of Rossi the Architect Street in St. Petersburg, Russia: “the dimensions of the street are 22 m by 22 m by 220 m, numbers that stop your heart as some sights do.” Shiff writes:

The heart-stopping dimensions, however rational and reproducible, did not feel formulaic or conventional. As Judd perceived them they became his own single-minded intuition. Whatever embodies a simple intelligence appeals directly to the intellect and is likely to occupy it. Such a thought or feeling is self-sufficient, demanding no identification with source or tradition. Simple geometry is direct in this way — a collective property, a common sense. Like an emotion shared by those who share an experience, we assimilate any sufficiently direct thought, any such intelligence, feeling it as much as reasoning it.

In summarizing Judd’s use of proportional relationships, Shiff notes: “What these ratios actually provided or facilitated is the crux. To put it Judd’s way, the numbers produced space — space to be lived. They brought sensory, intellectual experience into the present and held it there. Using simple ratios directly and obviously, Judd avoided the indirectness that he understood as having undermined so much contemporary practice.” Shiff contrasts Judd’s work with more representational art and architecture, which can seem very generalized and therefore devalued. He argues, for instance, that “when a symbolic manifestation of culture has been broadly accepted, whether the pyramid worldwide or plastic paneling across Texas, it becomes increasingly nonspecific, ever vaguer in both sensory effect and signification — weak in feeling, weak in thinking.” Shiff broadens this argument to encompass the work of Claes Oldenburg, an artist whose work Judd owned and installed at 101 Spring Street and whom he commissioned to create a piece at Chinati. As Shiff notes, “Judd was particularly impressed by those of his contemporaries who managed to reverse this degenerative process.”

“… the space surrounding my work …”

The installation of my work and that of others is contemporary with its creation. The work is not disembodied spatially, socially, temporally as most museums. The space surrounding my work is crucial to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as into a piece itself. The installations in New York and Marfa are a standard for the installation of my work elsewhere. … The interrelation of the architecture of 101 Spring Street, its own and what I’ve invented with the pieces installed there, has led to many of my newer, larger pieces, ones involving whole pieces. … The fine installation of early pieces in the National Gallery of Canada was possible because of the installation of early pieces in the south room of the east building in Marfa.
— Donald Judd, “In Defense of My Work,” 1977

Only a few years after he moved into 101 Spring Street, Judd began to focus increasingly on projects in Marfa; still, he continued to make modifications to the building for the rest of his life. Given its expansive glazed facades, inhabiting Spring Street must have been like living in a fishbowl — even back in the ’70s, when SoHo was still a district of rundown 19th-century industrial buildings, desolate when compared to today’s trendy neighborhood. Unlike Manhattan, the tiny town of Marfa provided a place for contemplation, as well as a larger canvas. At Spring Street and throughout Marfa, where Judd installed his work — at Marfa Judd’s work is not only at the Chinati Foundation but also in the dozen or so buildings in town that he renovated — we can more acutely perceive the qualities described by Raskin and Shiff. Here the interaction between the works and the viewer happens in large interior spaces and in entire buildings and even extends out to the high plains of west Texas.

Controlling the terms of the work’s reception, in particular its site parameters — such as the dimensions and materials of a space, as well as elements like windows and doors — was for Judd a way to more precisely shape experience, including the sequence of movement and views. The permanent installation, he wrote, was “a considered, unhurried measure” of the work. 1 For Judd this strategy also facilitated the process of creating art; living in close contact with the work over time allowed Judd to understand and test its subtle formal and material aspects. For artist as much as audience, direct visual interaction was necessary to relate to the art just as Judd intended, gaining intuition from direct experience over time.

Judd’s permanent installations in New York City and Marfa represent the convergence of his artistic aspirations and political beliefs. In his chapter on “Citizen Judd,” Raskin relates the artist’s work to his political activism. In New York City Judd participated in a group called Citizens for Local Democracy, and he was active in opposing Robert Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway — today widely acknowledged as an example of ill-conceived, large-scale government planning. Judd’s purchase in 1968 of 101 Spring Street — located in the historic district that would have been bulldozed for the expressway — was among other things an act of preservation that reflected the value he placed on both the building and its context.

This turned out to be prescient, for the U.S. preservation movement was then gaining momentum. Judd was opposed to the war in Vietnam, and helped raise money for the War Resisters League. He believed that local governments, more than centralized bureaucracies — which he saw as callous — more fully embodied the best potential of democracy. This Jeffersonian political ideal had an artistic parallel in Judd’s effort to posit a local order through permanent installations attuned to specific sites, in contrast to more broadly determined, trickle-down symbolic representation, as noted by Shiff. In addition, Judd put into practice his political convictions through the reclamation of several buildings in Marfa, including Fort D.A. Russell (now the Chinati Foundation), and also of the surrounding landscapes, where he created permanent installations. Rather than an explicit political protest or critique, these installations can be seen as affirmative, concrete manifestations of Judd’s vision for a transformed reality that was urbanistically, politically, culturally “…conceived in relation to the material world, all of it, all the way out.”

Marianne Stockebrand’s and Rob Weiner’s essays about individual works comprise the substance of Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd, describing the creative process that unfolded over years in the making, selecting and installing of the pieces. The detailed background information, graphic analysis and photographs of Judd’s “Artillery Sheds with 100 Works in Mill Aluminum” and “Freestanding Works in Concrete” are especially notable. Together with Judd’s own text, “Artillery Sheds” (1989), and additional diagrams found later in the book, this information provides remarkably direct access into his empirical methodology. I learned that the “100 Works in Mill Aluminum” took shape over four years, concurrent with large-scale modifications to the decommissioned military structures, including new windows and roofs.

Judd worked iteratively: the pieces were built and installed in batches, with no master plan. The pieces are sited to accentuate their formal diversity in relation to each other, rather than grouped typologically or chronologically. (An aside: early on the “Freestanding Works in Concrete” had problems with construction quality, and I had to smile when reading Judd’s terse prose adapted to the format of a punch list: “The biggest concern is the uneven length of the slabs and the corners not being square. Second is the chips and scuffs caused by careless handling. Third is the large cracks.”) Stockebrand and Weiner also describe the stylistically and conceptually diverse works that share space at Chinati with Judd’s art; they identify underlying themes in works by artists such as John Chamberlain and John Wesley and help us understand what attracted Judd to them. Chinati is filled with full-page photographs that capture the physicality of the art and the awesome presence of the west Texas sky.

How might architecture today encompass the intensity of Judd’s art? It is important to distinguish Judd’s engagement with the viewer (per Raskin, Shiff and others) from the appearance of his work. For architects, this is difficult because Judd so consistently operated in our purview. He employed contemporary materials like aluminum and plastic, and used industrial finishes, all to create furniture, interiors and buildings with precise dimensional tolerances. In some respects Judd practiced like an architect, especially in his reliance on fabricators to execute his art. And Judd’s approach to adaptive reuse was the prototype for what has since become the ubiquitous museum and gallery aesthetic: the exposed concrete floors and the reveals between floor and wall; battleship gray hollow metal doors and steel stairs; plain white walls; exposed sprinkler pipes; porcelain lamp holders with incandescent bulbs, and so on.

But instead of interpreting Judd prescriptively, Raskin and Stockebrand expand his legacy by describing the art of Judd’s diverse contemporaries — art with which he affiliated conceptually and that he decided was worthy of owning, installing and preserving in perpetuity. Raskin concludes with examples of work by other artists who continue to make new work based on comparable ideas, such as Anish Kapoor’s “blatantly family-friendly” Cloud Gate, in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Though very different from Judd’s art, Cloud Gate is relevant here, as Raskin explains, because it similarly “keep[s] experience in transition” rather than being “an intermediary between self and world.” This vitality keeps the effect and affect of the Judd’s work fresh.

Great architecture, like great art, is understood directly by mind and body; it participates with the user in a continuous feedback loop. For many architects, however, design remains a one-way process — a simple translating of concepts into form; as such it assumes a paradigm of representation by which the building’s appearance will communicate ideas to the user. As Judd put it, in “On Architecture” (1984): “Everything is to be read; nothing is to be appreciated.” But when narrowly conceived in this way, architecture forfeits its potential to create an openness and depth of experience akin to what we feel in Judd’s work.

I would argue that it is better to acknowledge that a work of architecture, like Judd’s art, is a tangible, durable thing that produces both lasting and ephemeral effects. Architecture is partly given: crafted, predetermined and static; it is also understood temporally through use and experience at multiple scales, from individual perception to social organization. It is relational in terms of specific conditions like program, site, sun and climate, which occur simultaneously and which also change over time. Works of architecture that can somehow acknowledge and encompass these qualities and conditions will in turn possess the power to respond to evolving perceptual and cultural parameters. This seems to me the “blooming of reality” — which Judd brought about through his work — to which architects might aspire.

Editors' Note

See also “101 Spring Street,” a brief essay by Donald Judd, and a selection of photographs of the building by Elizabeth Felicella.

  1. See Donald Judd, “On Installation,” 1982.
Adam Yarinsky, “Donald Judd and the Blooming of Reality,” Places Journal, May 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Alicia

    05.06.2011 at 08:54

    The depth of understanding here brings a smile to my face. Thank you.

  • Donlyn Lyndon

    05.09.2011 at 17:26

    The closing paragraph of Adam Yarinsky’s article is exhilarating. Re-read it as an Agenda.

    Yes, architects and designers should turn their attention to opening ways for people experiencing art and architecture to engage the world around them and draw it into themselves for nurture.
    The penetrative insight that he and the authors he reviews have made show how works that at first may seem obvious or impenetrable can, with engaged awareness, yield important insights about new ways of looking at the world and our work within it. They show what can be achieved by sustained attention and open awareness and acknowledging the observer as part of the action and the setting as part of the work

    These insights have grown from particular forms of access; access to the works themselves, to the archives related to their creation and to the education, technical skills and funding required to make such fine, carefully honed observations. The specialness of all this leads us to a level of understanding that cannot be and is not expected to be an every day occurrence.

    Extending these attitudes into the larger culture, making more of the world susceptible to attention and to multiple ways of being absorbed and understood - and, frankly, played with - remains the great challenge. To open such a world of observations to larger numbers of people within the places we build will involve being open to what others bring to their perceptions. Imaginative attention can then draw things and the actions they incur into significance.

    Learning how to induce and sustain thoughtful attention for the qualities of our objects, our cities, our places, buildings and landscapes, requires various modes and levels of exploration, both rigorous and joyous, thoroughly informed, fresh, vital, deeply reflective and seldom dismissive.

    I’m reminded of Mayor Joseph Riley’s recent exhortation, at the National Mayors Summit on City Design in Chicago, that Mayors and the planners, architects, artists and engineers who design parts of the city need to “stop thinking that they are designing objects and instead realize that they are designing opportunities....opportunities in peoples’ lives.”

    Opportunities for fresh personal insights, for community understanding, for urban performance, for providing lasting economic value and for nurturing human well being across the spectrum; these are some of the “Opps” that come to mind as worthy of design. To develop these requires strong, determined, caring attention from those who set out to make things that matter; things that can help others become active in creating their own lives within a “blooming of reality”