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Judd's minimal touch reinvented art

Portland conference looks at artist's life, work from a different angle
by: © 1970 Paul Katz, Donald Judd revolutionized art with delegated fabrication in the 1960s, and made an appearance in Portland to celebrate “The Portland Piece” in 1974.

Donald Judd was a frustrated painter early in his career, a bit disenchanted with the idea of artists making illusion on canvas with brushes. So, he moved into another dimension - the third to be exact.

Dimension and space, the use of raw materials and delegating pieces to be fabricated by others became Judd's passion and his blatant diversion from abstract expressionism, and one of America's preeminent historical artists continues to influence many in the architecture and art worlds.

Judd died in 1994 at age 65 from lymphoma, but his inspiration lives on.

The 'Donald Judd Delegated Fabrication: History, Practices, Issues and Implications' conference takes place April 25 at the University of Oregon in Portland's White Stag Block, and an exhibition of Judd's documents and works will be on display until the end of May.

Organizers are calling the Judd happening one of the city's most important cultural events of the year, revisiting part of Portland's forgotten and rich history in the arts.

It was 36 years ago, and the Portland Center for the Visual Arts arranged for Judd to visit Portland, and 10 years into his rebirth as an artist, Judd made for Portland what has been simply called 'The Portland Piece.'

Except, he didn't make it.

In fact, Judd conceived of the art and passed on sketchings to local carpenters - his modus operandi - and they constructed what consists of 55 4-by-8-foot sheets of Douglas Fir plywood lining the baseboard of an empty room. Judd went on a rafting trip while it was being built, and showed up the day of the opening.

While some people view it as plywood lining the wall of an empty room, others in the art world say the piece explored space, delegation and raw materials in their truest sense.

Arcy Douglass and Jeff Jahn, organizers of the Judd conference, came across a photo of the work - it was disassembled, with the plywood reused after the exhibit - and it served as inspiration to further study Judd.

'He was trying to blur the lines between floor and wall,' Jahn says. 'He wants you to see the space, he's not giving you extra detail. Very spartan.

'None of the dimensions were anything he made a choice about. He almost wanted it to have non-arts association.'

Jahn continues: 'In the 1960s and '70s, there was a certain amount of institutional critique, and people asked, 'Well, how do you reinvent art?' Site specificity was very important to the artist at the time, and Judd was into that. He led the way for other artists. He wanted to be a painter … but he was later claimed by different schools - conceptualist, minimalist and others. He wanted to dissociate himself from the art world to make art.'

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Left: Courtesy of Jeff Jahn • Judd's 'Untitled, 1963 (DSS.41)' is one of his most important early pieces and belongs to the Miller Meigs collection in Portland.

Right: Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images • "Untitled, 1968 (DSS 120)" goes on auction in New York. His art is still expensive and famous and influential, longtime fabricator Peter Ballantine says, long after his death in 1994.

Avoid illusion

Judd had a vast collection of pieces, many of which, if not the property of others, reside at his home in New York City's SoHo District and his ranch at Marfa, Texas. Perhaps his most famous work was from the 1980s, the '100 untitled mill works in aluminum.'

In 1964, he had work fabricated for him and, four years later, 23-year-old Peter Ballantine started doing much of the work for him. Ballantine, now 65, will be in Portland for the conference, which will also features Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art, and Bruce Guenther, chief curator at the Portland Art Museum. Ballantine says delegated fabrication has not been studied before, which makes the Portland conference something special.

Ballantine knew Judd better than most people.

'He was a serious and dedicated painter in the '50s, but (his painting) ran aground on philosophical grounds,' says Ballantine, who lives in SoHo. 'It was two-dimension, trying to make people believe you have space in painting. He started making three-dimensional work, and he had problems doing that without sabotaging it. So, he started having work fabricated. And, it became faraway delegated fabrication, so he wasn't hovering in a hard hat and steel-toed boots in the factory.

'I think it was more radically delegated than (Andy) Warhol was. Judd's was open and radical, something he didn't hide from anybody.' The piece in Portland was classic Judd, he adds, although Ballantine did not work on it.

'It's a very interesting piece, part of a series of nine or 10 (at the time) - big, whole room pieces with quite a bit of found element in them.'

Ballantine tells the story of how Judd grew disenchanted with painting, in the wake of the famed Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, highly romanticized and arbitrariness of the day.

'Getting away from arbitrariness (of art) was very important to him, almost as important as avoiding illusion,' Ballantine adds.

So, the standard 4-by-8 piece of plywood, and aluminum, copper, stainless steel, galvanized iron, cortand steel and concrete became some of his materials; he popularized the use of brushed aluminum. His art became the appreciation of the materials, the space they created and the workers who put the tools to them - or left them alone.

'It isn't necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate,' Judd wrote in an essay. 'The thing as a whole, its quality whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful.'

'An old master'

Ballantine says Judd was a unique artist.

'I liked working for him, because I understood his system and why he did extreme delegation. We were in sync,' says Ballantine, who scoffs at critics who said the artist lost control of his art. 'Judd actually got control of his work by delegation. He didn't have to pretend to be an engineer, he handed work off to fairly old traditions of carpentry and machinery.'

Ballantine described the Missouri-born Judd as taciturn - 'less said better than more said.' He says the misconception is that Judd was from the Old West, having settled in Marfa, near El Paso, Texas.

But, Judd was also very New York, and revered across the globe as a very serious artist. There's a photo of Judd rafting on the Clackamas River, and Ballantine doesn't like it, because he says the photo trivializes and mocks Judd, makes him look vulnerable and scared.

Jahn and Douglass like the photo, because it depicts Judd as enjoying the Oregon experience on his trip to the state in 1974.

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© 1974 Maryanne Caruthers • The Portland Center for Visual Arts created a site for Judd's "The Portland Piece" in 1974, an examble of his delegated fabrication art.

'He's an old master,' Ballantine says. 'Judd's been dead for 16 years, and his work is famous and expensive.'

Long gone is 'The Portland Piece,' which lives only in idea and photo. Long gone is the PCVA, which splintered off in the 1980s to the Portland Art Museum and other groups.

Judd's influence still exists in the architecture and art worlds.

'When you go to a museum and see a sculpture, like by Rodin, you see a lot of handworking, taking raw materials and through vision and hands as tools (the artist) creates this representation of the human form,' Douglass says. 'This is what we're taught what art is about. The closer you can get to that representation, the more skillful you are.

'Judd was almost 180 degrees opposite. He's taking industrial materials, and not handling anything. It's not about the handworking. In the 1960s, a period when art went through this crisis, he found something more true to the world we lived in.'

Adds Ballantine: 'Judd was so good for so long and so rigorous that his work never diminished or became weaker. He doesn't have any direct followers in art, they're indirect followers, or they follow him by realizing there's no place you can go, because Judd did it all himself.'

Tickets for the Judd conference, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. April 25, are $85 and $35 for students, or a group of five or more for $65 each. Go to www.juddconference .com or call 1-800-280-6218 for tickets. Four pieces of Judd's art, including the 'Record Box and Turnbuckle,' some of his first works, as well as documents and fabrication materials will be on display at the UO's White Box, 70 N.W. Couch St.