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.