The Beautiful Void
Judd conference in PDX
By Suzi Steffen
Painting’s a retro, impossible activity; factories aren’t workshops; and grad students will travel from just about anywhere to just about anywhere in pursuit of theory.
That’s some of what I heard/learned at the April 25 “Donald Judd: Delegated Fabrication: History, Practice, Issues and Implications” conference. The conference, at the UO’s White Stag building in Portland, pulled together artists, art historians, arts journalists and architects for a day that turned into more of a four-person lecture than the interactive symposium organizers had envisioned.
Judd, a writer and artist, was born near my hometown of Kansas City, Mo., and ended up in N.Y., part of that art boomtown in the 1950s. He was a painter then, but, as panel member and conference organizer Peter Ballantine said, he was a little late for the Abstract Expressionist movement. Indeed, Judd’s theoretical leanings made painting unworkable after a while.
That’s what Judd thought, anyway, and listening to Ballantine (who worked with and for Judd as a fabricator of three-dimensional objects — what some who aren’t art history purists might call sculpture) talk about it brought me back to the thrilling, painful, theory-drenched days of art history graduate school. Actually, Judd created his theories in art history grad school after studying philosophy as an undergrad.
Ballantine said he had wanted a smaller conference and to have a symposium like those he experienced as an undergraduate student. From the dais at the front of the room, he said that he envisioned panel members on the same level as the attendees and more participation from everyone who came. “You have just as much to say,” he said to the audience.
Then Ballantine spoke for an hour and a half about Judd’s decision to abandon painting. For those who love looking at paintings, no doubt the Minimalist sculptors and theorists like Judd seem a bit kooky. Ballantine spat out the words “spatial illusion,” or the condition to which many pre-Impressionist painters aspired — and which Abstract Expressionist painters found ridiculous. Those artists, whether they were “action painters” like Jackson Pollock or “color-field painters” like Mark Rothko, weren’t trying to fool viewers into seeing anything but paint on canvas. Ballantine said that Judd eventually felt that any mark on a canvas was an illusion.
Judd moved to something that he wouldn’t call scupture — it’s not on a pedastal or a base at all; it’s often tailored for specific rooms — and that he didn’t necessarily construct himself. He used industrial techniques and hired “fabricators” like Ballantine to help create his wooden and steel boxes.
Other panelists hardly got a word in before lunch; the only one who spoke much was Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art. Storr noted that “it wasn’t new” for an artist not to make his own work (all of the panelists were male, and all of the references to “artists” or “an artist” during the conference used masculine pronouns). Storr talked about artist workshops starting in the Renaissance, though others said that Judd’s method of making art — having small factories and “fabricators” like Ballantine create it — was quite different from artist workshops.
The idea of the artist as an heroic individual “is a very 19th-century idea, which began with the concept of the avant-garde,” Storr said. As Ballantine (and Storr) spoke in the morning, a large image of Judd was projected behind the panelists. One questioner in the back row said, “You’ve got Judd hanging like Christ or something behind you — I know you can’t see it, but he’s looming over you,” before continuing with her question.
Another questioner asked, “If quality or authenticity doesn’t exist in the artist’s touch, drawing or materials, where is Judd in this work?”
Storr answered, “Maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe we’re not looking for Judd.”
Yet the conference originally was meant to mark, and put back in the historical record, a 1974 Judd piece at the Portland Center for the Visual Arts (PCVA). Portland’s Arcy Douglass worked with Ballantine to get Storr and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, along with the Portland Art Museum’s Bruce Guenther, to the conference. The piece at the PCVA didn’t make it into a 1975 catalog raisonné, and in addition, panelists said, no good images of it exist. Ballantine said that photography “is terrible for Judd pieces,” and he added, “There are so many things wrong with photography.”
Read more about the Judd exhibition, in great detail, in a wonderfully thorough post by Douglass at http://wkly.ws/j2 at the portlandart.net archives. In that piece, Douglass wrote, “When Judd was using plywood for his sculpture, I am not sure that he realized that he was using the quintessential Portland material. … Judd liked plywood because it was a far as possible from a material that might normally be associated with sculpture.”
Part of Judd’s ethos was a rejection of pictorial form and illusion, and Minimalist fans tend to take that on as gospel.
I met a graduate student who flew to Portland from Latvia for this conference. We talked about other Minimalist artists, and we slid over to Jo Baer, who produced some of the most stunning depictions of the famous Minimalist void before she took up figurative painting again. “I don’t understand why she returned to that,” the grad student said. “The void is so beautiful.”
See a roundup of conference tweets by Lisa Radon, Victor Maldonado, the Judd Conference organizers and me at http://wkly.ws/j4. Lisa Radon should have a piece up about the conference by the time this paper goes to press at www.ultrapdx.com An exhibit associated with the conference is up at the White Box Gallery in the UO School of Architecture and the Allied Arts’ White Stag building through May 21.