It is easy to default to the same few adjectives that are repeated over and over to describe the work of Donald Judd. Judd’s art has a reputation for being rigorous, deliberate, and austere, but this represents only part of the story. His objects are sculptural calculus, enthusiastically exploiting an iterative process that, when done right, is equal parts George Foreman and George Balanchine. Judd’s work balances brawn and graceful circumscription, and while it is not necessarily ponderous, his art seldom blinks.
Visitors to the recently installed Donald Judd: The Multicolored Works at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis’ Grand Center may be surprised, then, when words like “light,” “fun,” and “loose” creep into the conversation. Curated by Marianne Stockebrand, director emeritus of the Chinati Foundation, and on view until January 4, 2014, The Multicolored Works show takes a focused look at a specific aesthetic inquiry, feverishly pursued over the course of a late-career, and exceptionally busy, five-year period.
The 53 pieces included in this installation were fabricated between 1984 and 1989 and their provenance is immediately identifiable. From the outset, the systematically diverse wall-hung boxes signal that this is unmistakably the work of Donald Judd. Playing against type, though, the enameled aluminum assemblages feature repeating modules in a dazzling array of color.
Judd was never shy about using color. His earliest objects were wood and metal painted cadmium red. His stacks featured luminous metals and vibrantly hued Plexiglas. Even his milled aluminum work, which initially appears monochromatically silver, takes on a kaleidoscopic quality as its diffused surfaces reflect and distort whatever, or whoever, is nearby.
There is nothing subtle or coincidental about the use of color in the pieces currently on view at the Pulitzer. Judd wrote about this work in 1993, commenting that he “wanted to use more and diverse bright colors than before… I wanted all of the colors to be present at once. I didn’t want them to combine. I wanted a multiplicity all at once that I had not known before.”
The quantity and consistency of the wall-mounted pieces eliminates any sense of hierarchy. There is no dominant scale, no prevalent tone and no one object (intentionally) evocative of any other. The work is conceptually uniform and the installation, rather than the individual objects, comes across as a single piece. In this limited language, Judd created a sprawling, albeit rigorous, patchwork of fantastically unexpected color combinations.
It is evident that the show was installed with great affection, and perhaps just a touch of cultivated obsession. With few exceptions, every piece hangs at a single height and the head of every slotted screw holding the components together is rotated to exactly 90-degrees. Only a few pieces stray from this otherwise shared datum. Of these exceptions, there are two types: distracting and definitive.
Without explanation or obvious cue, two of the long wall-mounted objects were installed much higher than the rest of the work. These pieces act as something of a disruption and, in such a fastidiously installed show, they feel like a step outside the proscenium without clear motive.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is an assemblage the size of a freight truck and spectacularly colored. In contrast to the consistent scale represented in the rest of the gallery, this five-foot-by-24-foot piece is a welcome surprise, an exclamation in a relatively even monologue. It is a bold reminder that Judd works big and that his art can be both meticulous and visceral. This massive piece feels like an inevitable climatic conclusion, as if the long series of willful decisions regarding material, dimension, color, constructability and installation of the wall pieces served only as precursor to this single ecstatic object.
Tucked into a narrow lower level corridor, the show includes a collection of sketches, collages, and notes on yellow legal paper. These informal documents provide visitors with a peek into Judd’s analytic working process. The inclusion of scribbled handwriting and torn color samples adds a touch of messy humanity to the precisely finished pieces in the galleries.
Donald Judd: The Multicolored Works is installed in a sympathetic context. Tadao Ando designed the Pulitzer building and the spare architectural details in the galleries clearly correspond to Judd’s lean assembly of modules. The museum’s smooth concrete finishes and broad expanses of glass are the antithesis of the loud colors throughout the installation.
Blue Black, by Ellsworth Kelly, hangs at the end of building’s largest gallery space and is one of only three permanently installed pieces at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Visitors could be forgiven for thinking that the Judd pieces and the refined surface of the 28-foot-high Kelly painting were planned and produced together.
Richard Serra’s exceptional Torqued Spiral, named for Joseph Pulitzer, defines the Pulitzer’s courtyard. Its listing walls and shifting sections may induce bouts of vertigo and, in playful opposition to the bright range of colors and relentlessly orthogonal forms inside, Joe’s sinuous Corten walls feel nearly baroque.
Judd, like Serra, believed strongly in the importance of permanently installed art. The Multicolored Works at the Pulitzer exhibition is lengthy, but the work will come down in early January.