Crashing the Discourse with Judd and Bochner

In his review of the republication of Donald Judd’s collected writings (Artforum, Summer 2005), Mel Bochner offers some interesting asides on contemporary art and artists — much of it familiar; all of it relevant.

In spite of the "pluralism" of critical practices and market forces at work today — glossed by Bochner with the phrase "the trough is big enough for all the hogs" — something is missing.

One can hear it in all the verbal hand-wringing about the state of contemporary art. Is it only nostalgia for the "good old days," or does so much that is being done now lack either passion or purpose? The old guys…may have been cranky, but at least we went at it tooth and nail, as if our lives depended on it. Something real was at stake.

And in the ’60s and ’70s Judd was at the center of it.

As a working artist facing the challenge of present-tense conditions, Judd was uniquely able to judge how others were dealing with similar problems and sources. What made his reviews exciting to read was that he wrote with the immediacy of a war correspondent. By sending home dispatches from the front lines of contemporary art, he became that most valuable of literary companions: someone worth arguing with.

It’s precisely that sense of engagement and commitment that Bochner claims is missing today and I agree.  Of course, there was also a certain measure of narcissism and self-promotion that motivated artists to write in the ’60s and early ’70s.  Judd, for example, was not only defending what he found "worthy" in the work of other artists, but contributing to an emerging climate, coming out of a response to Greenberg’s dogmatic formalism, the tyranny of Ab Ex, the banality of Pop Art, and the flaccid criticism of Thomas Hess’s Art News poets, toward a new configuration more conducive to the reception of his own work. 

Judd’s self-interest is a given — a necessary price and one worth paying if, in addition, you can count on direct and unpretentious access to an artist grappling with his thoughts as he works through an encounter with both the art of the past and with the most significant work and issues of the day.

If Judd were writing today, would he be blogging?  Perhaps.  But I’m not sure it would be the best venue for him.  His tough-minded responses could easily turn into the sort of embarrassing, pugnacious rants the unedited free-for-all our blogosphere seems to encourage.  Nor would he be inclined to engage with the ephemeral and superficial art-gossip columnists that seem to proliferate on the web.  So what’s the relevance of Judd today?

Judd’s critical practice, if we can call it that, was not separable from his work as an artist.  It was a sustained, thoughtful, passionate, and serious attempt to crash the discourse on art and bring it closer to the lived experience of seeing, assessing, and creating visual and visceral responses to the world around us.  If nothing else remained, that in itself would be reason enough to remember Judd.

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