A prolific artist, designer and theorist, Donald Judd’s vast body of work established him as one of the great modernists of the twentieth century.
The bold simplicity of Judd’s work is instantly recognisable. His clean lines, humble industrial materials and flat primary colour palette became a signature that spanned furniture, prints, sculpture and architecture.
Born in Missouri in 1928, Judd spent his late teens serving as an engineer in the army before earning a degree in philosophy and master’s in art history at New York’s Columbia University. He began to paint around this time, but made a name for himself as an outspoken art critic rather than an artist, championing a growing minimalist movement in his reviews and essays.
Although he shunned the term ‘minimalism’ for being too reductive, Judd would go on to become one of its leading figures. Abandoning painting for sculpture in the early 1960s, he began to develop the stacked box structures that would become some of his most iconic works. In his seminal 1965 essay, Specific Objects, Judd laid out a manifesto that rejected the age-old traditions of emotional, expressive painting and embraced a focus on geometry, material and space – an entirely new frontier for American art.
In 1968 he bought 101 Spring Street, a five storey 19th century corner building, that would be both a studio and home for his young family. Now one of New York’s few remaining cast iron buildings, it is a striking example of Industrial Revolution-era architecture. Its vast proportions proved to be the perfect backdrop for Judd’s work, enabling him to invent the radical concept of the permanent installation, now a mainstay of contemporary art.
This idea of permanence preoccupied Judd. Growing tired of the New York art scene, he moved his practice to an extraordinary new setting: Marfa, Texas. There he founded the Chinati Foundation, an ambitious mostly open-air museum that exhibited the work of his friends and contemporaries beneath endless desert skies. Alongside pieces by fellow minimalists Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain and David Rabinowitch, Marfa is home to Judd’s most monumental work: a series of 15 concrete structures that mark the border of the 340-acre property.
In Marfa his practice became more diverse, venturing into furniture design and architecture. His deceptively simple chairs, tables, daybeds and shelves were first made by hand, before being manufactured by the specialist Swiss company who continue to produce his designs to this day.
Although he was careful to keep his art distinct from his design work, the breadth of Judd’s practice is testament to his multidisciplinary genius. Reflecting this, the aim of the Chinati Foundation was a bold call to end the separation of the arts, a hopeful oasis of creativity in the Texan desert. As Judd wrote in the foundation’s 1987 mission statement, “Art and architecture – all the arts – do not have to exist in isolation”.
By Natalya Frederick
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