Installation view of Judd, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 1–July 11, 2020. Digital Image © 2020 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

“Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”
—Donald Judd, “Specific Objects”

Donald Judd’s objects were not reliant simply on materials and form, although these were key elements of his work. The space in which the objects existed was as important as the pieces themselves. His works transformed galleries, museums, and private homes (his and others’), and eventually the vast desert landscape of Marfa, Texas.

In March, Judd opened at MoMA in the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Center for Special Exhibitions. Installed chronologically, the exhibition is divided into four large spaces. Here, the exhibition’s gallery texts examine the various materials, ideas, and forms that Judd worked with over the course of his career.


During the early years of his career, Judd was more visible as an art critic than as an artist, publishing nearly six hundred reviews from 1959 to 1965. While working as a critic—with a front-row seat to observe and consider the investigations of fellow artists—Judd gradually intensified the three-dimensionality of his paintings and began to incorporate found elements (for example, a metal baking pan).

Judd soon enlisted his father, a skilled carpenter, to help him make wall reliefs and freestanding box-like forms, using wood, metal, and materials sourced from odds-and-ends vendors. “I spent a lot of time looking around,” he later recalled. “I’d see a nice piece of aluminum tubing or a strip of plastic on Canal Street and I’d buy it.” In 1963, Judd debuted these objects in two group shows, and then a solo exhibition, at the trailblazing Green Gallery, on West 57th Street. Most of the works were painted in cadmium red light, a color that Judd said he chose because it “really makes an object sharp and defines its contours and angles.”

This gallery includes several works that were shown at the Green Gallery, alongside sketchbook drawings that provide a glimpse into the thought process which led Judd from two to three dimensions during this crucial period.

Hear about Judd’s transition to working in three dimensions. Listen to the audio and read the transcript

Installation view of Judd

Installation view of Judd


Judd was not fully satisfied with the cumbersome process of making his three-dimensional objects, or the homemade look of their painted wooden surfaces and found materials. A breakthrough occurred in early 1964, when the artist walked into Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties, a shop near his loft on East 19th Street. Judd learned that the metalworkers there could produce his objects to order, working from his detailed instructions to form the sheet metal they normally used for products such as industrial sinks and ventilation ducts into works of art.

During the intensely fruitful months that followed, Judd explored various new formats and materials for the thin, hollow units he could have made by Bernstein. Among the first objects produced in that period, and on view here, were a collapsible floor box comprising three frosted amber Plexiglas sides and two steel endplates, held together by the tension of interior wires and turnbuckles; and a wall work consisting of four galvanized iron boxes of the same dimensions connected by a blue aluminum bar. Also on view in this gallery is Judd’s first “stack”: seven galvanized iron boxes that project out from the wall in a column, separated by intervals that equal the height of the boxes. The “stack” became Judd’s most well-known format, one which he would continue to explore in different materials, colors, and sizes for nearly 30 years.

Hear about how Judd delegated the making of his work to fabricators. Listen to the audio and read the transcript

Installation view of Judd

Installation view of Judd


Judd had his first solo museum exhibition in 1968, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show featured an open layout of 30 objects—several of which are on view here—that introduced the public to Judd’s commitment to basic forms free of metaphorical or expressive intent. It served to identify Judd as the leader of a “Minimalist” movement—a term he disavowed—made up of artists who shared a pared-down aesthetic, an interest in repeating forms, and the use of industrial materials and methods.

Included in addition to the “stacks” were wall works known as “progressions,” which consist of a hollow bar connecting a number of L-shaped box units whose respective lengths (and, in reverse, the distances between them) correspond to a mathematical logic such as simple doubling or the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 . . . ). “Bullnose” progressions feature units with rounded profiles. Floor pieces included “channel” works comprising a succession of thin rectangular frames of steel, whose overall footprint is a perfect square. In all of these formats the logic is self-evident; the work appears more as objective fact than subjective expression. They would be repeated over the course of his career in countless combinations of various colors and materials, each new iteration possessing a unique character.

Hear about Judd’s attention to scale and space. Listen to the audio and read the transcript

Installation view of Judd

Installation view of Judd

ON SITE, 1970s

In the early 1970s, Judd began to engage space in new ways, making works that responded to the specific parameters of a given room. In gallery installations, as well as in pieces commissioned for particular indoor or outdoor sites, he investigated the ways in which an object defines the space it occupies. He started making work in plywood, an affordable and utilitarian material (available in large sheets) that resonated with the architectural nature of his work. Judd also began to make expansive multi-unit pieces, such as the 21-part floor work in this gallery, in which each unit has a unique configuration.

This evolution of the works’ scale and reference to site corresponded to a dramatic shift in Judd’s circumstances: he was recentering his practice in Marfa, a small town in West Texas long past its economic heyday. There Judd acquired buildings and land large enough to satisfy his need for space to situate his art. Over the next two decades, he established permanent installations of his work and that of selected peers, in what he saw as a necessary counterpoint to the temporary displays at museums such as this one.

Installation view of Judd

Installation view of Judd


Throughout his career, Judd retained a painter’s attention to color. The inherent colors of his materials—the wealth of browns, grays, golds, and silvers native to steel, iron, copper, brass, aluminum, and plywood—offered an expansive palette, which he further enriched with industrially applied paint and richly hued sheets of Plexiglas. Until the 1980s, however, Judd limited each of his works to one or two colors.

Judd’s work took a decisive turn in 1984, when he began to work with Lehni AG, a Swiss manufacturer of aluminum products. The resulting multicolored works, inspired by the technology available at Lehni, are shallow, outward-facing open boxes of folded aluminum. The aluminum was powder coated in colors selected from the RAL color chart, a standardized resource for commercial and industrial use. Judd arranged the colors to achieve overall balance while avoiding patterns or the appearance of a system at play. “I wanted all of the colors to be present at once,” he later said. “I didn’t want them to combine. I wanted a multiplicity all at once that I had not known before.” At the same time, Judd continued to experiment with novel ideas for his signature forms, investigating new chromatic and spatial structures within his metal and plywood boxes. He was also deeply engaged with his writing, his projects for buildings, and new commissions. At the time of his death from cancer in 1994, at the age of 65, much remained to be done.

Hear about color in the last decade of Judd’s career. Listen to the audio and read the transcript

Installation view of Judd

Installation view of Judd