On Donald Judd’s 1975 Retrospective

Donald Judd's Catalogue RaisonneDan Flavin’s address to officially open Donald Judd’s retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, May 23, 1975.

In January of 1790, Gouverneur Morris wrote to President George Washington, “I think it of very great importance to fix the taste of our country properly, and I think your examples will go very far in that respect. It is therefore my wish that everything about you should be substantially good and majestically plain, made to endure.”

When Brydon (1) telephoned to ask me to come to say some opening words to you, of course, I was pleased but, quite properly I replied that he might really prefer someone better able, say, by articulate thought or institutional role, or even, surprisingly, both, but alas, no, therefore, you lose. But nevertheless, when I was last here for another such opening as this one, Brydon, Terry McGowen (2) of G.E., the late Guy Viau (3), Jean (4) again, sad to say, the late Barney Newman and I, finished our talking within about twenty-eight, mostly easy minutes. At the outset then, I declare that I’m prepared to shut up in a matter of moments, give or take a few, which ought still to be “a crowd pleaser” (not a teaser).

Look, if I had to talk for too long, I might climax like a bawling Edmund Muskie, for I’d go that sentimental about my big red friend, Donald Clarence, and all that he’s thought to issue as arts these several years that we’ve probably convinced and pleased each other. And by now, I’m unambiguously convinced that each of you is about to be confronted with quite a lot of the very best constructed and assembled arts ever produced in this New World.

Don’s efforts really do rate that well. (And I’ve not forgotten dear David Smith’s considerable sculpture.) And of our Old World contemporaries, who might even want to compare his or her output with Don’s? Anthony Caro, you readily reply. No! That’s nonsense! I’ve recently witnessed that man’s extended even attenuated embarrassment of an exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. No amount of Clem Greenberged cultivation and Bill Rubinized sanctification (and so slick re-nuenamelling all over the place) could dissuade this old boy from even his late Sixties rejection of Suddenly St. Anthony’s already too prayed over and canted about, Olde English, Cubo-comic, light weighty, figurative style of oh so many not nearly low down enough, posed, welded and enamelled frolicsome I-beams accompanied by the rest of his uninteresting act, merely gestural steels. The man’s sense of media selection and hierarchic sculptural compositional arrangement belong basically to a Continental European past. And to have lowered the sight line of the Picasso —Gonzalez—Smith et al. tradition doesn’t impress me as an engaging claim to new sculptural fame.

The mature Don Judd has not adopted those post-potential, historical influences in any reasonably comparable way. He’s proposed his own new art. He doesn’t have to play around or emotionally compose figuratively. Don declares preplanned geometric designs which, so often, are simple and straightforward in all aspects.

For instance, when he approaches ground work, Don defines whole absolute objects specifically geometrically manufactured in varied materials in stable respect to their intrinsic relative gravity. And neither symbolism nor psychology need be exemplified therein. Therefore, untitled is utterly unnecessary. And when he wants it, ordinarily or intensified or both ways simultaneously or by contrast, color for Don is a fundamental completion or extension of his whole concentration. He can establish the simply rigorous appearance of galvanized iron alone or arrange an absolutely gorgeous juxtaposition of cadmium red light enamel to illuminate internally, polished and unpolished copper. Too often to Anthony, color has become just an apparently arbitrary application on steel of an overall slick skin. Should it be a coat of flashy cad red light this morning or, perhaps, a deep ultramarine blue bath after dinner? Parenthetically, from what I’ve heard and read recently, Clem has finally enjoined his Tony to abjure plain profane modernist colorist gloss for an earlier looking, high holier “natural” varnish.

And so, here, today, following some solitary meditation, I call upon the heavens, to you, David Smith, to smite the repetitiously immodest, heretical, reversionist, modernist anti-Christ Clem. Well, after all he’s done from a position of posthumous trust to eradicate the real you and yours, lil’ David, at least, you could singe his old hairy ass with one Jeremiah justifiable thunderbolt.

Well now, where was I?…oh yes, “prepared to shut up in a matter of moments…” But just a bit before that, I’d like to add to Don’s and Brydon’s several thanksgivings here. For Don and me, especially, I thank Giuseppe Panza di Biumo for his unique patronage of our arts. (I know that Count Panza wanted very much to join us tonight but, instead, had to return to Milan.) (And Leo (5), you know how we both feel about you.)
Before I finally leave you alone this early evening, I’d like to leave you with some specific definitions other than Don’s nearby and above. They are drawn mostly from Ambrose Bierce’s (6) The Devil’s Dictionary concluded in 1911…for President Gerald R. Ford.

“Amnesty, noun. The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.” (And my dear Canadian and Canadien friends, usually rest assured that there’s so much more interestingly going on in that American Republic than the likes of Jerry Ford could allow. And, by the way, we’re here tonight to prove it.)

… “Painting, noun. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.”

… “Minimal, adjective. Least, particularly thus when put to modify the noun, art, as a convenient but baseless critical epithet contrived to denigrate the certainly contemporary and critically consternating arts of Donald Judd. Its initial spokesperson is already maximally forgotten.”

… And now, back to the best of that bastard, Bierce!

… “Man, noun. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other anima ls and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.”

… “Congratulation, noun. The civility of envy.”

Congratulations, Jean; congratulations, Brydon; congratulations, Don, for, the fine assertive exposition (with an absolute feat of a catalogue) which we are about to examine by ourselves, is a very great tribute to you three.

Thank you. Merci. Good night. Bon nuit.

And now, I get the privilege of introducing to you, my favorite mastermind, a guy whom, as Brydon and I have, you ought to try to get to know better, Don Judd.

First published in Studio International, September, 1975.


(1) Brydon Smith, former curator of con temporary art at the Notional Gallery of Canada.
(2) An electrical engineer employed in public relations for the General Electric Company, Nelo Park, Ohio, who spoke on the history of electric light into fluorescent light for Flavin’s National Gallery of Canada opening in 1969.
(3) Late vice director of the National Gallery of Canada.
(4) Jean Boggs, former director of the National Gallery of Canada.
(5) Leo Castelli.
(6) “The late Ambrose Bierce was a hearty American sarcastic and fictionalist.” [Dan Flavin]