In 1963, when Donald Judd created his first free-standing sculptural works on the occasion of an exhibition at the Green Gallery in New York City, he decisively and definitively changed our understanding of the very nature of the medium. Never before had three-dimensional art communed so intimately with its viewers; never before had color, composition, and physical form served so successfully the same aesthetic goal. Untitled (DSS 296), created in 1973 as one of eleven total iterations of a form first executed in 1965, is a visually intoxicating manifestation of Judd’s essential artistic ambition that confronts us with its luminous beauty whilst advancing our conception of what sculpture, as commonly defined, can achieve.
Of the ten other examples of this form, executed between 1965 and 1974, five are in prominent institutional collections. The original iteration, Untitled (DSS 77) is at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Untitled (DSS 100) is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Untitled [(SS 108) is at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Untitled (DSS 117) is at Museum Ludwig, Cologne; and Untitled (DSS 286) is at Tate Gallery, London. Within this illustrious grouping, and as is consistent with Judd’s inherent drive for exploration and experimentation in his art, the individual works all share the same structure though often expressed through different types of metal; throughout his corpus, Judd variously used hot-rolled, cold-rolled, perforated, and stainless steel; galvanized iron; copper; brass and, as in the present work, brushed and anodized aluminum. Judd celebrated the intrinsic tonalities of his metallic media, never manipulating or transforming their surfaces so that they project a smooth tactility that adamantly eschews any allusion to artistic gesture. This reverence for the pure qualities of his chosen material is absolutely integral to Judd’s practice, and translates most affectingly into an utter visual immediacy felt by the viewer upon encountering one of his pieces.
Untitled (DSS 296) surges forth and transforms our environment. Projecting over two feet out into space from its wall support, and horizontally reaching more than six feet, the present work is an unequivocal declaration of the particular quality of Judd’s space, in which an economy of materials and sheer physical scale and presence reinforces the fundamental phenomenology of his work. Concerned above all with structuring the experience of his viewer, Judd arrived at his ultimate goal through the creation of a corpus of objects that transform their physical surroundings by, paradoxically, becoming inextricably bound to them. Taking this philosophical foundation of Judd’s practice into consideration, it is thus unsurprising that he felt a kinship with his Abstract Expressionist forebears, specifically Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko, who he praised for making “their work a reality not a picture of it.” (Donald Judd, “Abstract Expressionism,” Complete Writings: 1975-1986, Eindhoven, 1986, p. 41) In the early 1960s, before he achieved his mature style, Judd was a painter struggling to free his art from the forces of composition and illusionism that he regarded as adverse to the progression of contemporary art. In the urgency and immediacy of his New York School predecessors’ paintings, Judd perceived the kernels of a novel approach to visual representation.
Judd’s iconic vertical stacks and horizontal progressions establish a direct connection between the sculpture, the viewer, and the zone in which both stand. As we approach Untitled (DSS 296), we discover its shape by scanning the dynamic balance between the rounded protrusions and the recessed areas of absolute flatness, contemplating the way in which they merge into one coherent form whilst framing the space into which they extend and from which they recede. Thus we become actors in Judd’s grand artistic drama, embodying the central preoccupation of his practice, as we enter into a relationship with the physical presence of the sculpture itself. Roberta Smith distilled the stirring presence of works such as Untitled (DSS 296) when she said, “Those characteristics of Judd’s metal pieces – lightness and structural tension, self-sufficiency, an isolation which makes us focus on them individually – seem most extreme in the pieces cantilevered to the wall. Their placement seems appropriate and undramatic; they are as indifferent to the wall as is most sculpture to the floor. Yet this indifference is in itself dramatic: we are more aware of their physical placement, more confronted by them than by many of Judd’s smaller floor pieces.” (Roberta Smith in Dudley Del Balso, Roberta Smith and Brydon Smith, Donald Judd Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Objects, and Wood-Blocks 1960-1974, Ottawa, 1975, p. 28)
Before he forever altered the landscape of modern sculpture with his groundbreaking free-standing and wall-mounted works, Donald Judd received his Bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in Philosophy. His particular interest in Empirical thought, the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience, came to deeply and eternally permeate his aesthetic sensibility, which seemed always to be pursued, almost intuitively, with a scholarly methodology and an instinctive sense of history. As we approach Untitled (DSS 296) our knowledge of its supreme significance within the course of contemporary Western art history is immediately and viscerally felt through our corporeal interaction with it. This sensation, the lifeblood of Judd’s inimitable oeuvre, is brilliantly and definitively encapsulated by Roberta Smith: “At times the work seems so independent of Judd, of us, and of its surroundings, that we are brought up against the bluntness of Judd’s mind and the depth of his commitment. Judd’s non-relational order, his assertion of autonomous color and form, and the consistency of his development gave his work a kind of morality. His simplicity, like that of Newman and Rothko, developed slowly; it is hard-won and purposeful; although it is neither religious or mystical, it is similarly committed. Like theirs, Judd’s morality is embedded in the formal qualities of his work which, perceived intuitively, are instructive.” (Roberta Smith in Ibid., p. 30)
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