Donald Judd and the National Gallery of Canada: An Enduring Relationship
The American artist Donald Judd (1928–94), a towering figure in postwar sculpture, occupies a special place in the history of the National Gallery of Canada. His monumental sculpture untitled of 1973, consisting of six parallelepiped plywood boxes, was the first work by the artist to enter the Gallery’s collection when it was acquired in 1973 from the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. At this time the artist had already agreed with the NGC's visionary curator of modern art, Brydon Smith, to a solo exhibition in Ottawa, his largest outside the U.S.A. at the time, as well as to the publication of a catalogue raisonné, the first in the Gallery's history.
By the early 1970s, Judd was an internationally established artist, dubbed by Time magazine in May 1971 as “the most influential sculptor of his generation.” He had already produced an influential body of art criticism, including a 1965 essay titled “Specific Objects” in which he theorized about new forms of art – neither painting nor sculpture. Nonetheless, the Gallery was taking a bold step with this major investment in a contemporary artist working with industrial materials and serial, compact forms devoid of expressive elements.
Judd preferred to leave his works untitled, as he felt that it allowed viewers to engage more freely with the art. To distinguish individual works, however, the Judd-NGC catalogue raisonné adopted a numbering system, prefixing them with DSS (the initials of the surnames of the three main contributors: Dudley Del Balso, Roberta Smith, Brydon Smith), a classification still in use today. Art historians have broadly divided Judd’s sculptures into three groups: stacks, progressions and bleachers. This 1973 sculpture, assigned DSS 280, can be associated with the progressions, the most complex group among the artist’s works, or it can be seen as a form of horizontal stack. It is an excellent illustration of Minimalist art, although Judd never accepted this label, considering it both pejorative and misleading.
Judd saw his specific objects as bridging painting and sculpture. In this instance, the work engages with both the floor (like a sculpture) and the wall (like a painting). With no internal braces, the boxes appear potentially unstable. However, the units are carefully aligned with, and attached to, the wall. The rather thick, 2.5 cm sheets are skillfully beveled to make perfectly angled corners. Untitled (DSS 280) also alludes to architecture by its scale and repeated negative spaces. Around the time this work was created, the artist began purchasing properties around Marfa, Texas, where he would spend his final decades installing his own work and that of a few others, carefully linking them with the surrounding architecture and natural environment.
Judd’s six units have four wooden sides: rhomboid top and bottom; plus regular, rectangular sides. In addition, the back wall of the Gallery and the open plane at the front form 72 inch (183 cm) squares to complete these six-sided parallelepipeds. Viewing untitled (DSS 280) from various angles, one begins to see unusual shapes and spaces emerge: repeated, diminishing triangles on the bases when seen at an angle, and triangular shadows inside the vertical sides. Unless viewed from the exact middle, the boxes will group themselves into two, unequal clusters, depending on the angle. The identical units are, by the artist’s design, placed 12 inches (30.48 cm) apart. Each unit protrudes the same distance into space. Although initially appearing to be a work of great simplicity, it becomes more and more complex with viewing.
The sculpture was originally constructed with five boxes, but Judd added a sixth component for the Ottawa exhibition so that the series would fill one side of the chosen room while facing untitled (DSS 279), a row of square plywood boxes. Judd attached great importance to how his art was displayed: "The installation of my own work, for instance as well as that of others, is contemporary with its creation, and the space surrounding the work is crucial to it. Frequently as much thought has gone into the placement of the piece as into the piece itself."
The base material of untitled (DSS 280) is Douglas fir that has been industrially processed into plywood. Judd favoured locally made materials, just as he was drawn to American philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce. (He was doubly incensed when a commercial gallery copied his works without authorization and used European poplar.) Plywood had the advantage of being inexpensive, able to hold its form without warping and could be accurately cut. It was unencumbered by art-historical associations. In the 1960s Judd had worked with painted plywood, for example in his red floor sculptures, while in the early 1970s he began creating larger works in plain plywood. The National Gallery of Canada’s example is his third work in this new vein. After 1975, Judd would go on to experiment with a range of industrial materials (anodized aluminum, CORTEN steel, plexiglas), enriching the vocabulary of modern sculpture. The large, unique editions in unpainted plywood are extremely rare. The Gallery's 1973 sculpture was constructed to Judd’s design by his preferred New York carpenter, Peter Ballantine. The latter was invited to build a simple plywood coffin for the artist’s funeral in 1994.
Judd was given unusual freedom to work with his curator, Brydon Smith, on selections, layouts and documentation. After the exhibition, Judd wrote to Gallery's director, Jean Boggs: “… I’ve never been involved in an enterprise so serious and well done and don’t expect to again. Most of the time, I feel used by institutions; there was none of that. The chance to make some new pieces was important. … The show looked fine and nothing was demolished. Thanks for the book and the show. I’m happy about the whole thing. Don Judd.” Judd’s general animus towards museums was well known and this unpublished letter represents rare praise indeed.
Untitled (DSS 280) is currently on display alongside American Abstract Expressionists such as Barnett Newman, whom Judd admired. There is a precedent for this placement. When the current Gallery opened in 1988, curator Brydon Smith and Canadian artist Ron Martin worked together to choose the works to be included in this high-ceilinged “American room” under the theme of “wholeness.” Martin wrote that he and Smith believed that this Judd work, and others such as Newman’s Voice of Fire, would be “in perfect harmony with the idea that a form can be reduced to a simple and clear statement.”
Prior to the 1975 exhibition, the Gallery held five of Judd's works, the same as the Museum of Modern Art. Since then, the Gallery has brought together a representative group: 14 sculptures, 2 paintings, 30 prints and drawings, and an example of his furniture, forming a highly desirable ensemble that would be impossible to create today. Visitors to the National Gallery of Canada have the rare privilege of viewing this important artist’s work in a variety of materials and forms, spanning different phases of his career.
Donald Judd’s untitled (1973) is currently on display in Room C214 at the National Gallery of Canada, and other sculptures and a painting can be seen in Room B206. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.