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Sublime stillness: Donald Judd conference brings leading contemporary art scholars, Japanese architect Arata Isozaki


On Sunday, April 25, the University of Oregon in Portland will host the scholarly conference and exhibition, "Donald Judd: Delegated Fabrication - History, practices, issues and implications" at the White Stag Block. The conference is curated by Arcy Douglass and Jeff Jahn.

Although Judd was of course a legendary minimalist artist, he always had the DNA of a designer and builder as well. His boxy sculptures are always seamless, hiding all traces of their construction. They are perfect aesthetic compositions in a way that architecture can’t be because of its exponentially greater practical, functional concerns – and all the more compelling as a result. Judd’s work is for designers and design enthusiasts a kind of minimalist Platonic ideal.

The day-long conference will look at Judd as an icon of the American minimalist movement, as well as issues of authenticity and fabrication that continue to have lasting implications for artists today. In addition, the conference will explore the artist's connection to the Pacific Northwest, where he created a site-specific piece in 1974 for the Portland Center for Visual Arts (PCVA).

Headlining the conference will be numerous contemporary art scholars such as Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art and past curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Also speaking will be Judd's longtime fabricator, Peter Ballantine, and Portland Art Museum head curator Bruce Guenther. The Judd conference also just announced one of the world’s great architects will be speaking: Japan’s Arata Isozaki.

Jeff Jahn is also curating an accompanying exhibition of Donald Judd’s work from April 25 (the conference’s opening) through May 21 at the U of O's White Box gallery in the White Stag building.

Recently I asked Jeff a few questions over email about the conference.

To someone who might be an architect but doesn't know a lot about Judd, can you just talk briefly about what you see the essence of Judd from a design standpoint?

To many Judd stands for absolute integrity of thought and execution. As a designer he was his own client, which allowed his projects an enviable level of control and clarity.  His artillery sheds at Chinati show him both as a supremely nuanced architect and artist.  He renovated those buildings and others before them to show off his work to their best advantage.  His window designs for those sheds have become standard fare for galleries, medical centers and museums everywhere.  He knew how to produce a sense of sublime stillness.  If you are interested in that, get interested in Judd.

 Judd had degrees in philosophy and art history and took a very empirical approach to his designs and art so there were never any arbitrary elements. That empiricism leads to very pragmatic and workman-like solutions, including delegating the fabrication to small guild-like craftsmen.  He hated preciousness and illusion and valued directness and surprise.

His output was remarkably consistent and whether he liked the term or not he is what the world thinks of when they hear “Minimalism.”  Whether you are looking at his art, writings, furniture or his architectural renovations he was consistently direct in execution and very Spartan in detail.  It can be characterized as very unfussy, and yet unyielding in integrity. The way he achieved all this was by not being too vain in the forms and materials he used.  He avoided extra novel arty signature elements (like Gehry’s curvy Bilbao etc), and by that negation developed a very consistent and recognizable body of work, most of it with straight lines, though he did try some rounded forms occasionally.

He’s probably single-handedly responsible for the popularization of brushed aluminum for windows and other household items.  Judd also popularized Douglas Fir plywood in design circles. He used other basic materials too like Cor-ten steel, brass, copper, adobe, stainless, Plexiglas, concrete etc. Judd always used them to make people aware of space.  He distilled space and you can think of the materials and forms as filters which create a heightened awareness of space.  Judd called it "manifold space" and came across the idea while discussing Joseph Albers' work.  So there is a link to the Bauhaus, though Judd's thinking on space and materials was unique and somewhat of an parallel to that European tradition rather than a direct development of it.  Consequently the Europeans caught onto his work faster than Americans did, at first. 

Judd had a way of taking things back to basics in a fundamentally pragmatic way.  The European tradition is less pragmatic.  Also, Judd didn’t use silver or gold or the color white for furniture or art because he felt it was just too precious, which was a kind of arbitrariness.  Instead, Judd wanted the work to have integrity; he didn’t fetish simplicity for its own sake.

What made you want to do this here, now, with respect to the conference?

Well, Judd hasn’t had enough scholarly attention despite having had eight retrospectives over the years from; Ottowa, two at the Whitney and most recently Tate Modern in 2006.  There aren’t many books on Judd out there either.  Artists today are very interested in him yet their isn’t a lot of digestion.  He’s been summarized as super important yet (there are) scant amounts of detailed discussion.

When Arcy Douglass (conference director) wrote about Judd’s 1974 PCVA show for PORT in 2008 he followed up by asking questions about Judd’s process of delegating to fabricators.  The Judd Foundation directed him to Peter Ballantine who had been thinking a lot about the same issues. In fact, as a former fabricator for Judd, he had lived the question and was fascinated by the group of large plywood constructions Judd had undertaken in the 1970s (which the PCVA’s is a part of).  Peter felt the Portland piece was significant to the discussion and suggested a conference. 18 months later we have Robert Storr, Arata Isozaki, Bruce Guenther and Peter all discussing this historic aspect of Judd’s work.

Who are some architects who you think show the Judd influence strongly?

Judd’s influence is extensive and pervasive.

Obviously there's Norman Foster, Herzog & de Meuron and Brad Cloepfil.  All have completed a lot of renovations and Judd loved old buildings. He almost always worked with existing structures. What’s more, Cloepfil’s Maryhill Overlook is a rather overt adaptation of Judd’s concrete and progression pieces.  A few years ago in an interview Brad told me how he looked to Judd, Serra and Heizer’s spatial vocabulary when he was a young architect because he felt the artists were dealing directly with space in a way the architects at that time often were not.  He’s right: I completely agree with him.

In Judd’s final essay he mentions how he and Serra had developed a rigorous exploration of space.  I’d say that essay is required reading for every architect: Renzo Piano’s floors for his galleries like the Menil Collection (in Houston) and Broad Contemporary Art Museum (at the LA County Museum of Art), for example, resemble Judd’s floors at The Hague. Jean Nouvel’s Vision machine consists of thousands of multi angled windows. These look like some of Judd’s multi-angled stainless steel pieces from the late 70’s, though ultimately he’s more related to Smithson. Still without Judd, you’d never have Smithson. Judd was the guy that the next generation of Smithson, Serra, Heizer and De Maria and Hesse had to contend with.

Obviously Tadao Ando’s love of natural light and concrete has a relationship to Judd. David Chipperfield has a spartan flare for direct unfussy structures that is not dissimilar to Judd’s. Then there’s my cousin Helmut Jahn.  He makes extensive use of serial prefabricated progressions.

Then there is Rem Koolhaas.  The front of Prada in Beverely Hills is very Juddian. The entryway is like a huge 30-foot-wide Judd single stack.  Besides that, both Judd and Koolhaas are philosophical writers.  Their personal philosophies, though different, both directed their activities as designers.

We are pleased to have Arata Isozaki as a speaker at the conference.  Judd was very interested in eastern spatial and kinesthetic concepts and Isozaki will be discussing how Judd’s delegated fabrication relates to the Isa shrine.  That alone will blow people’s minds.

by Brian Libby, 2010

Published with permission of Portland Architecture

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