Donald Judd: Curating Light and Shadow

By Lizzy Hill on June 18, 2013

Installation photograph, Donald Judd, February 2 to August 4 2013, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ahmanson Building. Photo © 2013 Museum Associates / LACMA

Exhibiting the work of a deceased artist, in a way that remains true to the spirit of the artist, is no easy feat for a curator—especially if that artist is Donald Judd.

In 2011, one of Judd’s fabricators, Peter Ballantine, spearheaded symposia in Berlin and New York, aimed at avoiding what he referred to as a “potential crisis” regarding the handling of Judd’s works. Considerations regarding how to properly exhibit works from the impressively diverse oeuvre of the Minimalist artist are also in the minds of curators at the National Gallery of Canada, given that the Gallery has a wide range of Judd’s works, spanning more than a decade

So, of course, after viewing the new Donald Judd retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I jumped at the chance to chat with exhibition curator Lauren Bergman, regarding her thoughts on the challenge of exhibiting Judd’s works.

The fascinating thing about curating a Judd show is that you’re not simply curating art—you’re curating light, shadow and the surrounding space and objects as well. Bergman positioned Judd’s Bullnose (1974) in such a way that crisp beams of light cascade upwards from the polished brass form, while a dark shadow descends sharply to the floor. And, as LACMA’s modern collection is visible from the Judd exhibition, Bergman also had to take into account what gallery-goers would see when they turned away from Judd’s work. “We really wanted to make sure the vistas were important, as you’re walking through the modern collection,” she explains. The fact that viewers see Josef Albers when they turn away from a series of Judd’s prints, and Picasso when they’re standing by his Prototype Desk (1978), is no accident.

I was intrigued to see Prototype Desk exhibited alongside Judd’s prints and sculptures (which he would have referred to, rather, as “specific objects”), largely because Judd has written about his decision not to put his furniture in galleries. In his 1993 essay, “It’s hard to find a good lamp,” he expresses his feeling that furniture is simply furniture, as it has a fundamentally different “nature” from art—along with his hope that keeping his furniture out of galleries would prevent their prices from becoming inflated.

This tension did not escape Bergman, who placed the desk in an elevated nook in the gallery to help give the work “a different vocabulary.” Bergman also had to be careful, however, not to place the desk on a pedestal. When Ballantine called for the Judd symposium, he was responding in part to the Tate Modern’s controversial choice in 2004 to place a 1964 plywood piece by Judd on a pedestal. Judd, who often installed his own work, was expressly opposed to any act that severed his work from the exhibition space, as he believed in the integration of art and the surrounding architecture. This was a concept embodied in his five-storey Soho home (which opens to the public this month): a stronghold for Judd and his contemporaries in the late 1960s. 

Installation photograph, Donald Judd, February 2 to August 4 2013, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ahmanson Building. Photo © 2013 Museum Associates / LACMA

By running the elevated area from wall to wall, Bergman made sure that the work “didn’t feel like an object on a pedestal, or that it was privileged in any way.” She goes on to say, “That desk was the one that was actually used by his son, and we wanted it to be at a level where you could see that it’s been used. It isn’t a pristine object—it’s a piece of furniture that used to exist functionally in the world.”

Including the desk helped demonstrate a clear line of thinking throughout the exhibition, as the desk—which features clean, balanced lines and open shelving that allows light to shine through on all sides—embodies the design vision of the artist. “You can see that the desk’s repetitions of planes and divisions delineate space in a rhythm that is really similar with his work,” Bergman says. Indeed, the same spatial concepts are at play in an untitled 1988 series of black-and-white prints featuring rectangular blocks. The mind’s eye cannot help but interchange the geometric shapes with one another, as each black or white block has the same dimensions as its neighbour.

I have to admit, when standing by Prototype Desk, I felt the urge to step up to it and jot down some notes in my Moleskine®—I somehow feel Judd would have approved.

Donald Judd is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until 4 August 2013


By Lizzy Hill| June 18, 2013
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill

Lizzy Hill is an internationally published writer, Akimbo's Halifax Correspondent and the editor of Visual Arts News, Atlantic Canada's only magazine focusing on the work of visual artists.


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