Tag Archives: Donald Judd

BMA Voices: The importance of looking beyond first impressions

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1976. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased in Honor of Edith Ferry Hooper, Trustee of The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1957 1995, and President of the Board of Trustees, 1973 1975, with funds contributed by her Friends, BMA 1976.49. Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Donald Judd. Untitled. 1976. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased in Honor of Edith Ferry Hooper, Trustee of The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1957 1995, and President of the Board of Trustees, 1973 1975, with funds contributed by her Friends, BMA 1976.49. Art © Judd Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant

“Which work of art do you believe least belongs in these galleries?” It was 1998, and I had just begun training to become a BMA docent when this question was posed to me. Before we had an introduction to the contemporary collection, my docent class was set free in the Contemporary Wing with the assignment of choosing the work of art that we felt least belonged in the Museum. After setting off to explore the galleries, the group reconvened to share our answers.

When my turn came, I told the group that I had selected Donald Judd’s Untitled, 1976. I cringe when I think of it, but I clearly recall saying that I felt his plywood box looked like something that belonged on a construction site or a playground but not in an art museum. After each of us had shared our opinion, the instructor turned the tables on us. The assignment for the week was to research our chosen object and prepare a five-minute presentation designed to convince our classmates of the importance of the artist and the object.

Once I began my research, I soon learned that Judd was a seminal artist in the development of Minimalist art and is considered one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. Although he was trained as a painter during the peak of Abstract Expressionism, Judd was driven by a desire to create a new art form that was free of both illusion (images of things) and allusion (references to thoughts and feelings). Judd soon abandoned painting for the creation of non-referential, three-dimensional, geometric forms. “Actual space,” he wrote, “is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”

In order to avoid any connotation associated with traditional sculptural materials such as bronze and marble and to eliminate any sign of the artist’s hand, he opted for industrial materials like plywood, anodized aluminum, and steel. He eventually took the step of turning to professional fabricators for production. This radical act shifted the emphasis of art-making from craft to concept. Finally, he placed the finished three-dimensional work directly on the floor or hung it on the wall and, in doing so, took the revolutionary act of freeing sculptures from pedestals and platforms. Judd believed his works defied the categories of painting and sculpture and referred to them as “specific objects.”

Through my research, I came to have great appreciation for the theoretical advances of Minimalism and the ground breaking role that Judd played in its development, both as an artist and critic. Approaching the Museum’s Untitled, 1976, with this new understanding, I became absorbed in the act of looking, and I was surprised to find that the plywood that had originally repelled me now mesmerized me with the beautiful waves of its wood grain. As I walked around the work, I was continually intrigued by the dynamic relationship between my body, the box, and the space around me.

I like to think that the presentation I made to my fellow docents helped open their minds to the power of Minimalism. (I even went so far as to have a carpenter build a miniature replica of the work.) Whatever the case, this assignment was the most important lesson of my docent training, not only because it prompted my profound appreciation of Judd’s work and the Museum’s remarkable collection of Minimalist art, but also because it serves as a reminder about the importance of looking beyond first impressions.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

BMA Voices: The return of Joel Shapiro’s “Untitled”, 1985, to the BMA

Joel Shapiro. Untitled. 1985. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1987.3. © 2014 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joel Shapiro. Untitled. 1985. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1987.3. © 2014 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

I hadn’t really given Joel Shapiro’s work much thought until I was asked to write a label for his sculpture Untitled, 1985, which returned to the BMA this November after a lengthy period of absence due to ice damage. I had only seen the piece in old photographs taken when it stood in the Levi Sculpture Garden, and then in pieces at the Polich Tallix Foundry in Rock Tavern, New York, where the work has been skillfully restored. So for my label I needed to do some research.

Shapiro’s work was influenced by the geometric sculpture associated with Minimal Art of the 1960s and 70s and shares a vocabulary of hard-edged, industrial forms employed by artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris. Shapiro fundamentally challenged the pure abstraction of Minimalism, however, through the re-introduction of figurative qualities that convey a sense of human vitality. Combining beam-like elements and rectangular box shapes (originally of milled wood and later cast in bronze), Shapiro’s works evoke arms, legs, and torsos. These are often arranged in teetering compositions, as is the case with the BMA’s figure, which appears to be falling backwards like a dancer with a dramatic alignment of one raised and one supporting arm. This expressive tendency became especially pronounced in works like the BMA’s, produced shortly after Shapiro spent time at the American Academy in Rome studying sculpture created by the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

What I have come to admire most in Shapiro’s work is the way he imposed the strictest of limitations on himself, working only with hard-edged right angled units, and yet, by letting the joins and junctures of these elements be angled, a whole universe of possibilities and expressive reconfigurations opened up. Shapiro imbued industrial forms with biological motility and expressive gesture to create a new species of completely hybrid humanoid things. It is hard to limit one’s attention to a single sculpture as his entire body of work becomes an almost infinite series of fascinating relational variations based on a single idea. What you’d think would become stale instead constitutes a creative tour de force.

Now that Untitled, 1985, has returned to the BMA it occupies a very conspicuous spot in the center of a round, elevated, newly constructed island directly in front of the Museum’s reconfigured Zamoiski east entrance.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

BMA Voices: The many facets of Olafur Eliasson’s “Flower observatory”, 2004.

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Olafur Eliasson. Flower observatory. 2004. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Fanny B. Thalheimer Memorial Fund, and Collectors Circle Fund, BMA 2003.233. © Olafur Eliasson

Kristen Hileman, Curator & Dept. Head of Contemporary Art

While it may not be exactly what artist Olafur Eliasson had in mind, when I enter his kaleidoscopic Flower observatory, 2004, and look up at the complex arrangement of reflective triangles, I have a sensation similar to that of walking underneath the magnificent domes of old European churches. Undoubtedly, Eliasson looked to nature for inspiration, borrowing the form of a flower for his sculpture and allowing light to penetrate through openings within the network of polished metal plates. However, because the natural form is translated into an industrial material and blown up to such an enormous scale, the architectural qualities of the piece appear first and foremost to me. It is almost as if Eliasson’s piece operates as a 21st-century interpretation of the spectacular gold mosaic surfaces of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. In both structures, the edges of overhead elements seem to vanish because of the play of light and shadow, and the result is simultaneously one of soaring space and an enveloping sanctuary.

I also like to contrast Eliasson’s sculpture to another work in the BMA’s collection: Donald Judd’s unornamented and untitled box of 1976. The stark 3-foot high by 5-foot wide by 5-foot deep untreated plywood construction contains a single tilted plain within its interior. All of the piece’s borders and corners are clearly defined and visually legible. The piece is beautiful in its rigorous purity. To continue the spiritual analogy, it seems to relate to the austere architectural vernacular and attitudes of American Puritanism.

Another way to compare Eliasson’s and Judd’s sculptures is to apply terms elaborated by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864-1945). Wölfflin assessed art and architectural form using two categories: Renaissance and Baroque. Although these words are typically associated with chronologically distinct historical periods, Wölfflin employed the terms more broadly to summarize stylistic strategies. The multi-faceted shape, dramatic effects of light, and disintegrating volume of Eliasson’s Flower observatory place it within a contemporary extension of Wölfflin’s Baroque, while the linear, highly rationalized composition of Judd’s sculpture connects it to the art historian’s notion of a Renaissance approach.

There are pitfalls to using dichotomies to analyze artworks. Eliasson’s and Judd’s pieces do not simply exist in opposition to one other. Both sculptures engage a viewer’s body and demand to be seen from multiple vantage points. One must walk underneath Eliasson’s observatory to discover it fully, and one must walk around Judd’s work to appreciate variations in the plywood and the different intersections of the interior plane and exterior box. These active spatial relationships with the viewer are an important commonality. However, contrasting artworks can encourage closer investigation of each piece in question. And, I’ve found that analogizing my experience of abstract works to feelings that I’ve had in other situations, like walking through a church, helps me find the words I need to communicate their emotional and psychological impact on me to others.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.