“Specific Objects” by Donald Judd

A lot has been said about this particular essay, and for good reason. It serves as Donald Judd’s observations (as I understand it, the text is often misinterpreted as a manifesto for his specific branch of minimalist, Modernist art rather than a description) of the work he has found interesting, these pieces which are “neither painting nor sculpture.” It’s difficult to understand what he means without seeing such a work, so here is an image of one of Judd’s pieces, Untitled, created four years after the publication of “Specific Objects: “

Judd's *Untitled*

Judd's Untitled, 1969

True to its description, it bears few to no resemblance to painting or sculpture. It shrugs off the hand of the artist, the interpretation of the viewer, the spatiality suggested by a painting’s frame. It sits there, in all three-dimensions, and just commands your attention. As Judd says,

Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of the problem of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors - which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present. A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.

I think one of the things that really stood out to me about this essay was the lucidity with which Judd speaks about the media on which he and his fellow artists work. It’s very cool to hear a discussion on the limitations of a medium like painting:

Almost all paintings are spatial in one way or another. Yves Klein’s blue paintings are the only ones that are unspatial, and there is little that is nearly unspatial, mainly Stella’s work. It’s possible that not much can be done with both an upright rectangular plane and an absence of space. Anything on a surface has space behind it. Two colors on the same surface almost always lie on different depths.

Except for a complete and unvaried field of color or marks, anything spaced in a rectangle and on a plane suggests something in and on something else, something in its surround, which suggests an object or figure in its space, in which these are clearer instances of a similar world - that’s the main purpose of painting.

Of course, Judd’s purpose in naming these attributes is to thoroughly subvert them in order to challenge traditional understandings of form and to create new, interesting work. “The disinterest in painting and sculpture is a disinterest in doing it again,” he says, “not in it as it is being done.”

There are plenty of other pieces out there written by people more knowledgable about art history than myself, so I won’t use this post to discuss Judd’s impact on art history. Instead, I think it would be interesting to refer back to another essay I read previously for this series, Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory.”

In “Thing Theory,” Brown discusses an idea of how objects that we are familiar with become things. Designers, somewhat obviously, make objects. Any object which is designed to perform a function does so by the will of its creator. When that object breaks down, becomes obsolete, or otherwise is no longer viewed as being able to serve that function, it loses its status as an object and becomes a thing.

Certain things are things to some people and not to others. A child looking at a typewriter may not recognize it or understand it as a tool for writing. To the child, the typewriter is a thing. To an older person who may have used a typewriter in the past, it is still recognized as an object.

It’s interesting to see then that even though these works being described to us as referred to as “specific objects,” they fall very much in line with Brown’s definition of things. In fact, both essays mention the work of Claes Oldenburg, in reference to his three-dimensional pieces of scaled-up objects, like a clothespin or typewriter eraser.

I think what makes these specific objects especially powerful, aside from Judd’s point on the power of three-dimensional space, is their immediate status as things. As we view each thing in its entirety, we are immediately confronted with its thing-ness. As opposed to traditional art (e.g. a painting depicting a scene, a statue of a person), where we may first attempt to interpret or understand it, this thing confronts us with its cold indifference and asks us to think about our relationships not only with the object but also with art.