One of my favorite museums is the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, located right here in Washington, D.C. It houses a piece by Donald Judd, an artist I adore, who created many sculptures similar to the one in the Hirshhorn.
Labelled by many as a Minimalist sculptor, Judd was a New York City-based artist (he actually studied at Columbia after transferring from William & Mary) who focused on simplicity and precision. He wasn’t at all interested in abstruseness; as you can see, this piece is plainly comprised of ten geometric boxes made of Plexiglas and brass. There’s no other material…no paint, no wires, nothing else but these unadorned boxes. Untitled isn’t supposed to carry some kind of metaphorical nor symbolic meaning; it simply just announces, “This is me! I am an object!” It’s straightforward.
Why, then, are Judd’s seemingly basic pieces installed in museums such as the Hirshhorn and the MoMa if they don’t carry any profound message that the viewer deduces and instills in him a feeling of discovery? Of course, this question naturally leads to a lengthy discussion of what art is, but I’m not going to dig into that because then we’d be here forever. But to me – and to many others, including the curators of the Hirshhorn and the MoMa – art doesn’t have to tell a story or have some kind of moral to be considered art (hello, Duchamp!). It isn’t a betrayal of art to simply intend to exist as is, without any element of surprise.
So, I find Judd’s geometric sculptures beautiful because of their use of space. Three dimensionality is severely stressed – almost aggressively because of the work’s rigidness. Space is very real. There are no illusions: it is sculpture, not a painting, and its purpose is to play with space. The lines are clean and hard, which is especially emphasized by the use of industrial material, and clearly divides the space into segments. The use of Plexiglas also enables the viewer to see inside each box, creating additional, new space inside the boxes.
The entire sculptural area is also used to highlight the colors and materials. In fact, the gaps between the boxes become part of the sculpture itself: the red Plexiglas surfaces reflect off one another, casting light and shadow onto the walls, and from certain angles creating a column of color. I also see this column as extending continuously throughout the length of the sculpture, so it’s as if an uninterrupted pillar of red exists, despite the presence of boxes. Space is broken up by the boxes, but it’s also one continuous space of light and shadow. Paradoxical!
In sum, Untitled plays with space, and it interacts with itself. In that sense, it’s sort of producing some kind of frozen movement, rigid as it is while creating verticality and tossing light and color in the air. Nicely done, Judd.