Inspiration from Donald Judd

When you attend architecture school one of the first classes you are required to take is art history. As a young student I sat in the lecture hall looking at slide after slide of artwork from medieval to modern times. Most of it was mind-numbing because it looked just like every other one I had just seen. One of the very first artists that struck a chord with me from those classes was Donald Judd. He resonated with me because his work was radically different than anything else that we had been seeing.

I can still remember the first time I saw a piece of Judd’s sculpture on display during an undergraduate field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Many of my classmates were observing and appreciating modern art for the first time. Minimalism was a term that Judd shunned throughout his career but what struck me was the clarity and purity of the geometric forms he used in his sculptures. All of our naïve minds had the same thought but we kept it to ourselves, until someone finally said it out loud, “I could do that”. I can still remember the professor’s reply, which was to the point, “You can do it because Judd did it first”. Of course we learned through studying his work that there was much more to Donald Judd’s sculpture than met the eye.

Judd’s work on the surface can seem simplistic. However, beyond the repetitive pure geometric forms that Judd was known for there is another element which is very important: setting. Judd wrote and theorized for much of his career about the permanent placement of art. He believed there was a fusing of art, architecture, and environment and that art created its own small scale space and time. Essentially that the art’s environment was also a part of the work and that one could not be understood without the other. A short-term installation in a gallery or temporary exhibit would totally change the sculpture’s meaning.

If you have a chance to experience Judd’s work in person, step back and consider the work and its setting in its entirety. This is the way Donald Judd imagined his work would be appreciated.

About the Author

Nathan M. Gillette
Nathan M. Gillette, AIA, LEED AP O+M, CEM, is director of Natura Architectural Consulting, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a retrofit editorial advisor. He works with clients to successfully implement and manage energy efficiency and sustainability projects.

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