UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Squarehead Reeve, Charles


In the United States during the early 1960s, there was, within the dominant art-critical mode of formalism, a mounting opposition to Clement Greenberg's grip on the art discourse. By the mid-sixties, this dissent resulted in a weakening of Greenberg's grip. Artists and writers began to break off from the direction which Greenberg prescribed as the formalist imperative. One such artist was Donald Judd, a painter who in 1961 began to experiment with three-dimensional art work, which he came to refer to as "specific objects." The name reflected Judd's conviction that he was working with phenomenologically-stable art works: art works which could not be confused with anything else, which would avoid all illusion, and which would not refer to anything outside of themselves. Judd's shift from working in painting to working in specific objects can be seen as a manifestation of his emerging conviction that painting has a number of insurmountable problems which three-dimensional work does not have, or at least not to the same degree. The most pressing of these problems was, according to Judd, the inevitable illusionism of painting. In a number of articles and interviews in the mid-1960s, Judd argued that one of the major weaknesses of painting and of non-specific art as a whole is its reliance on internal relations in the form of composition. This, in turn, tended to interfere with the immediate comprehension of the piece and, for Judd, was symptomatic of the lack of integrity of non-specific art. However, the dispute between Judd, Greenberg and Fried, remained an argument between formalists. The disputants held somekey beliefs about the nature of art in common. The most important of these beliefs for my argument are that art is historically autonomous, and that the central project of Modernist art is the self-definition of forms. Nor did the discussion remain framed within the terms of formalism merely as a result of inertia. These boundaries were adhered to even when talking about artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichenstein, in spite of their highly suggestive imagery. Hence, Judd's aesthetic of the specific object utilizes a conception of the ideal state for the viewer and the artist which is relies on a denial of history. It is based on a phenomenological and epistemelogical innocence that is not concerned with arguments about the historical contingency of the subject. Judd's intention was that the specific object, by the very fact of its specificity, would preclude the viewer's perceptions being interfered with by material limits, presuppositions, and conditions independent of the viewer's will. The crux of my argument is that Donald Judd is confusing the appearance of specificity with specificity per se. That is to say, his work is based on the utilization of forms and surfaces which, within their historical contexts, are read as neutral. But this reading is illusory, given that it is historical determined. Therefore, in my paper I demonstrate how Judd's work is a product of the aesthetics of objectivity, and how particular aspects of his art and his arguments can be seen as symptoimatic of the system of beliefs which is faith in objectivity and, more importantly, how Judd's specific objects can be seen as a 'nexus between this system of beliefs and its particular manifestation in the United States of America during the early 1960s.

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