The art of noticing Part II

Donald Judd, DSS32, 1962

Often, it is not long before a sculpture student at tertiary level discovers their enthusiasm dinted by a definition of sculpture by the American painter Ad Reinhardt, as ‘something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting’.

Just as often, though, the bad bruising quickly fades as one succeeds in one’s practice. Yet if for some strange reason one finds oneself reading an introduction to sculpture all over again, one cannot help but be hit by the definition once more, for being inevitably included.

In Alex Potts’ introduction to ‘The Sculptural Imagination: Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist’ (2000, second printing 2009), however, there is a difference. The definition, here, is contextualised in a manner that leads us to understand it is not the entire genre of ‘sculpture’ that is being referred to, but to sculpture without any ‘clearly defined status’ as a depiction or representation; without, that is to say, any signposts that say ‘this is art’. It refers to sculpture without a pedestal, sculpture placed directly on the floor — sculpture bumped into for not being seen; or, at least, for not being seen as art.

This invisibility is most likely part of the issue that raised its incommodious head in 2004 when a Donald Judd piece was exhibited on a pedestal at the Tate Modern.

The incident spurred a conference last April at the University of Oregon, Portland, entitled ‘Donald Judd: Delegated Fabrication – history, practices, issues and implications’: the motor, it would seem, behind upcoming symposiums in New York and Berlin. An insightful introductory text by Arcy Douglass for the conference, begins by asking ‘What do you see when you look at a work by Judd?’. The text replies:

One of the first things you might notice is that the work sits directly on the floor or directly to the wall. The work does not have pedestal or a frame. It shares the same space with you. There is nothing to separate you from the work.

To notice the placement of Donald Judd’s art is key to unlocking its spatial drama. If overlooked, the reality of Ad Reinhardt’s maxim sets in. As a result, a common complaint is that, in not being able to see this art for oneself, unless one accidently backs into it one has to be pushed into it by art theory if one is to see anything at all.

We can read this in an articulate online comment left by Ananya Mukherjee of New Delhi on 25 Feb 2011, to The Art Newspaper’s article Is Donald Judd’s art being wrongly handled?:

This is the kind of work that, in the name of being democratic, actually pushes art deeper into the ways and politics of the art world, making the work and its meaning severely inaccessible. It is not possible to see Judd’s work without a reasonable sense of history to which it belongs — this might be true for all art but Judd makes it impossible to see anything outside of the context of its production.

Yet even with ‘a reasonable sense of art history’, a viewer will still miss the key that gives access to this art for reasons much more, I regret, mundane. They are the same reasons why, at this very moment — while most likely sitting at your computer reading this text — you are absorbed in a space other than the space you physically inhabit.

This is not said critically, but admirably. For this is the wondrous thing about thought. It bridges the physical and spatial barrier between oneself and another by allowing one to go, through thought, beyond oneself.

As a consequence, however, one can become ‘thoughtless’ of one’s most immediate environment. Habit nevertheless looks after us during such thoughtlessness. Habit allows us to sit on the chair we are presently sitting on without us having to think through its function first. We did this, once, at some earlier age. Habit is acquired skill. Without its assistance, our thoughts would be consumed with every sip we take of our coffee, as though we had to learn to sip for the first time, every time. Yet, in allowing our thoughts to be elsewhere, habit blinds us to the ‘here’ of where we are.

Since habit allows us to negotiate the objects in a room when we pass from one side to the other without having to think of them, it is not surprising, then, that we do not notice if one of these objects — similarly placed directly on the floor — is a work of art. The story  is different, though, if the object is established as meaningful by being raised to symbolic heights on a pedestal.

The first to struggle against habitual blindness to see this art was Donald Judd. The placement of his first work directly on the floor in 1962 was not the result of a calculated intention in response to aesthetic politics and manoeuvres of the day. It was, instead — somewhat ingloriously — an accident: unpremeditated.

Yet in seeing DSS 32 directly on the floor Donald Judd, it seems, was struck by this same struggle to see it — as are we. In a response to an interview question by John Coplan in 1971, he explains:

I was surprised when I made those fist two free-standing pieces, to have something set out into the middle of the room. It puzzled me. On the one hand, I didn’t quite know what to make of it, and on the other, they suddenly seemed to have an enormous number of possibilities. (1)John Coplans, ‘Don Judd’, for the Pasadena Art Museum, printed by the Castle Press, Pasadena, 1971, p. 30.

By recognising, in this struggle, an aesthetic space not seen in art before — a real space not segregated from the space we walk through, daily, while segregated, at the same time, as art — Donald Judd found something worth noticing.

To break the habit of not seeing is to notice what we overlook when we seek established meaning. The art of noticing allows us not only to be absorbed in the real but find, in its struggle, unestablished meaning we are left to establish — if we believe in the empowerment of art.

NB: This is a reposting of the second of a three part text, the subsequent parts of which will follow during the next couple of weeks.

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