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How I Learned to Love Donald Judd’s Multicolored Works

Installation view of Donald Judd: The Multicolored Works, 2013, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Installation view of Donald Judd: The Multicolored Works, 2013, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

The summer after I graduated from college, all I wanted to do was save a few thousand dollars so I could move to New York. The tentative plan, I told anyone who asked, was to “work in art,” because I liked going to museums. My university’s career center let me stay on as an assistant, doing data entry work and answering the phone.
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1987.  Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1987. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Meanwhile, I got visitor service jobs at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. I was allowed, at the former, to spend hours at the front desk, reading and chatting with the other young employees, many artists themselves. The Pulitzer post, however, was much more regimented. As a gallery assistant, I worked intricately-choreographed, eight-hour shifts. Every 30 minutes, I moved to a different position in the galleries, guarding the works and answering visitors’ questions about the exhibitions.
I was disappointed to learn, when I started at the Pulitzer, that the museum was showing ’s multicolored works. The last exhibition I’d seen, as a visitor, was a presentation of ’s Take Care of Yourself (2007), a multimedia installation that featured 107 women of various occupations—a clown, a criminologist, a psychiatrist—interpreting a single break-up email. It was girly, fun, and relatable. Now, I’d be spending eight hours a day around stiff, formal metal sculptures that look like misshapen bookshelves, plus a series of inscrutable diagrams describing how they were made.
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1985. Courtesy of McClain Gallery, Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1985. Courtesy of McClain Gallery, Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr

A curator led the gallery assistants on a tour of the show so we could study up on the boxes. I learned that Judd began “making” his colorful series of enameled aluminum works in 1984, though his hand was absent from the finished works. Judd sent his shape and color specifications for each piece—he used an industrial color chart called the RAL—to a Swiss furniture manufacturer, Lehni, who fabricated the artworks for him. Judd’s primary interest was “space”; he hoped the pieces, which were mostly hung horizontally on the walls (one large piece was set on the floor), would lead viewers to reconceive their environment (at least, that’s how I interpreted it).
For the most part, visitors didn’t seem too impressed. Some asked questions about the work’s meaning. When I offered what I knew, they began to look more closely. Regardless of whether they liked the explanations or not, my descriptions of Judd’s obsessively-detailed plans seemed to give credence to his aesthetic vision. People rolled their eyes, though, when they discovered that Judd hadn’t made the works himself. I started to understand how our culture fetishizes an artist’s hand and individual touch.
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Like most artworks on display, the sculptures were also barred from viewer interaction. Once, a child in the main gallery ran up to a massive (nearly 25 feet long and 5 feet wide), untitled work from 1989 and touched it. The compartmentalized box’s playground hues—bright yellows, reds, oranges, and blues—must have been attractive to the kid. One staff member scolded the errant parent and another fretted about the potential damage to the artwork from the oil on the child’s skin. I’d previously considered the piece so austere; in this moment I realized that it resembled a jungle gym.
One day, our boss alerted us that the New York press would be visiting the museum for a tour. The museum had flown them in just to see the show. I remember a wave of black infiltrating the light-filled institution. A sea of black pants and dresses. No one with much of a summer tan. At the top of the stairs, one journalist seemed genuinely awestruck. “This is incredible,” she said. Her praise reverberated around the placid, open space.
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Installation view of Donald Judd: The Multicolored Works, 2013, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis. Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1984. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Installation view of Donald Judd: The Multicolored Works, 2013, at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, St. Louis. Photograph by Florian Holzherr.

A part of me felt that these people were ridiculous for being so excited about a bunch of boxes. Another part of me was intrigued. They clearly saw something in the work that I did not. They’d been so eager to see the show that they’d traveled to St. Louis all the way from New York, my personal mecca which, once I got there, I had already vowed to never leave. I envied their passion, that mysterious feeling they got when they looked at Judd’s constructions. For them, it wasn’t just conceptual work. The sculptures were tied to art histories they knew intimately. The opportunity to see all these works together for the first time, in person, made something come alive for them. I wanted in on the secret.
Over the next few weeks, I spent rainy days and sunny days in the galleries. The museum’s appearance shifted as the days waxed and waned. The building features a giant picture window that refracts sunlight off an outdoor pool, creating bright lines that ripple along the smooth concrete floors. I still wasn’t entirely sure what Judd meant when he said he was interested in “space,” but I began thinking about my surroundings anew.
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzher.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989. Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photograph by Florian Holzher.

Subtle gradations—in the lighting of the room, in the angled ridges of the small silver bolts that held Judd’s works together, in the boxes’ alternate constructions—began to seem like major events in my sleepy, post-college days of monotony. The fact that one work was hollow in the center, allowing me to peer through it and see another gallery assistant’s face on the other side, seemed like a revelation. Spend 30 minutes standing in the same spot, peering at the same object, and it’s easy to start challenging your idea of what “red” actually is. That’s not a bad thing. The sensation made me feel a little bit high.
By September, savings account full, I was able to move to New York. I crashed with friends before I found an apartment in Crown Heights. I picked up internships, then a public relations job, eagerly leaving my days at the Pulitzer behind for a fast-paced new future in the city. I’ve lived in New York for nearly six years and haven’t been back to St. Louis since. Yet I found myself excited to learn that the Museum of Modern Art is planning a Judd retrospective for 2020. Spending time with the boxes again will put me back into touch with a former self I’ve been reluctant to acknowledge ever since I entered a world where everyone seems to know everything, all the time. Back then I was naive, eager, and just beginning to learn how to see.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.