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Making a place for art: beyond the material and formal lessons that have inspired generations of architects, and recognition of his influence on loft living and the regeneration of redundant buildings, Tate Modern's retrospective of Donald Judd reveals his masterful command of the forgotten spaces in between.

'The space around my work is critical to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as into the piece itself [...] somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be.' Donald Judd, 1987


For an artist known for his disregard of curators, allowing few, if any, to decide where and how to exhibit his work, what would Donald Judd think of Nicholas Serota's current exhibition at Tate Modern? Would this be another instance where in Judd's view a curator devalues art through a temporary and inappropriately sited exhibition? Or, has Serota--a long-term admirer of Judd's work--succeeded in making a suitable place for Judd's art?

Judd's work has consistently played with ambiguity when articulating subtle qualities of scale, proportion and interval. Solid is played off against void, interior against exterior, and natural finishes against synthetic colours. However, an underlying ambiguity that remains less easy to define, is that of his work's site specificity. Are Judd's pieces in fact specific at all? In the tradition of chickens and eggs, which came first for Judd, the space he occupied or the pieces he created, or is there a direct and necessary reciprocity between the container and the contained, which would help to justify Judd's two self-built permanent art-spaces at Marfa and Spring Street as more than his manifest inability to trust curators? Complex issues perhaps--but nevertheless pertinent when preparing to put on a show of this size.


If Judd's work was specific, Serota's task would have been impossible. To create a temporary exhibition in a purpose-made gallery, without the opportunity to collaborate with the artist himself, would seem to go against everything that Judd had been working toward. As indeed would the absence of sufficient natural daylight and any recognition of the exhibition space's determining structure. (Two key components of Judd's installation work.) Fortunately, however, ambiguity saves the day, as in a lecture entitled 'Art and Architecture', Judd himself recognizes that art is simultaneously particular and general, in recognition perhaps that Marfa and Spring Street represent the particular 'portions' of his work.

So his wider work should not be considered specific, but instead as standards. Pieces, individual and collective that if sited carefully can measure the light and space in which they are placed. And, while it seems trite to quote Corb--who defined architecture as the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light--for architects the associations are obvious and unavoidable.


So, with minimal remodelling, 11 rooms in Tate Modern have been configured with tailored proportions and axial apertures to house 40 of his works. With only one room being denied a connected view, serving as an entrance space to contain four of Judd's earliest relief paintings, the major spaces lead visitors through a collection from 1961 to 1993, the year before Judd's death.

As a chronological arrangement it is clear that his work was not linear in its evolution, and for the hundreds of architects who will visit this exhibition there is something for everyone. While some observers will attempt to unpick subtleties of proportion and rules of Fibonacci sequences, others will be more interested in Judd's constant oscillation between materials and details, which throughout his career shifted seamlessly between rough cut wood, stainless steel, copper, plywood, Plexiglas, brass, douglas fir, cor-ten steel, anodized and cnamelled aluminium and cold rolled steel. For me, it was the impact of his work on the spaces that was most profound (if, that is, you ignore the irritating surface mounted floor battens, fixed to deter careless wandering; intrusions that send surprisingly distracting shock waves through this spatially charged environment).

What would Judd have done had he been commissioned to tackle the Turbine Hall in Tate's ongoing and highly successful Unilever Series? How would he have chosen to measure the scale, volume and light of this vast powerhouse? In response to this proposition, Serota speculated by suggesting that perhaps more than any of the previously commissioned Unilever artists, (including Louise Bourgeois, Juan Munoz, Anish Kapoor and Olafur Eliasson), Judd would have broken the hall down to identify its specific and individual component places, responding to bridge, ramp, wall, floor and ceiling, with a large, complex and repetitive collection of pieces; a series of general pieces that would together create a very particular place. While it is a shame this will never happen, what we have now--through the mindful stewardship of Serota is an unmissable opportunity to see Judd's work adding, for a brief moment, a new place in the history and destiny of Tate Modern.

Donald Judd, curated by Nicholas Serota, at Tate Modern, London until 25 April 2004
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Author:Gregory, Rob
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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