Tag Archives: Donald Judd

Inside the Box

In passing a number of packing, shipping crates lately that seem to be everywhere – on city streets, in suburban enclaves – it looks as if everyone is relocating. It got me to thinking about boxes.


Obviously, Donald Judd was thinking about boxes long before this synapse occurred in my brain. His boxes are definers, forms, containers for space. I think he was prescient and profound about their metaphor for life because our lives are defined and contained by boxes. Cradle to grave.


There is the large box we inhabit, whether it be apartment or house or office cubicle. A rectilinear world surrounds us, encases us. If our homes can’t contain all of our belongings, we rent a storage space – another box – unless we have a garage, also a box. If we are moving to a different location, a structure is supplied in the shape of a  pod, referred to as “container-based moving,”  and it is a box for your belongings. Then we move and we find a place to live in that needs remodeling, so we bring in a Dumpster, a huge rectangular box to fill with debris; the unwanted stuff gets boxed and carted away. Often, too, the wanted stuff gets boxed but stays with us – look at all the plastic storage boxes you can buy at big-box stores. Many of our furnishings are, face it, boxes that hold other belongings.

Our cars are just shiny, molded boxes – containers to move us from place to place – also with as many of our belongings as we can carry. Overseas shipping containers are huge boxes that fit on boats, train cars and 18-wheelers – and they float. And, too, smaller boxed items are shipped everyday, everywhere by many competing shipping companies.

Proposal rings come in small boxes, gifts come in boxes of all sizes; England and Canada, among others, celebrate Boxing Day. Books and DVDs come in boxed sets. Box seats are desirable to some theater-goers, if they can afford them. In the sport of boxing, somehow, the square stage of the event is called a ring, but we all know it is really a box. Heck, these days, even liquids come in boxes. A typical day could involve starting off with boxed cereal, working with text boxes and going out to check your post-office box before sending off a box of chocolates to an admiree and grabbing a Bento box for lunch unless you have brought along your own lunch box, then off to the box office to get tickets for a performance.

Why do shoes come in boxes? Mass production, it seems. Funny how they can become stashes for treasured items like seashells and love letters.

If you get on your soapbox, it may elevate you in a crowd but its useful life as a container happened before you came along; unless, of course, you might argue that it helps form and package your thoughts for a public forum. But beware, you might inadvertently open up Pandora’s box, resulting in a crowd-displeasing pummeling by round rather than square objects. Boxed ears can occur.

Ultimately there is the last box. It can be made of wood, metal or cement. It can be lined or bare and it will contain for eternity, only this container must be contained by non-rectangular earth cut into a rectangle to receive the box. A fitting end for a square peg.

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They’ve taken in the David Smiths for the winter, up at Storm King, and put them in storage until it’s safe to have them re-emerge in the spring, like crocuses, or tax preparers. We’ve never quite been able to figure out why so many of the sculptures up on Museum Hill disappear every year at season’s end. Does the bronze or steel of the pieces tend to crack in the area’s bitter cold, or collapse under the weight of the heavy snows? Or are they trundled off to the indoors because they are smaller and can be moved, and that it would be good if all of the works could be nestled in shelter but are simply too big to move? Not one of life’s great mysteries, but a puzzlement nonetheless.

The mystery, such as it is, was solved recently when – on a winter walk through the browned and still beautiful (indeed, perhaps, more beautiful) grounds, devoid of all humans except for our small, select group (one of the benefits of membership) – what to our wondering eyes should appear but the realization that the hilltop area is covered with trees mature enough that, when the winds barrel down from the mountains or ice storms coat everything, large and weighty branches snap and hit the ground (or David Smiths) with damaging force. Ergo, the sculpture exodus – no sense playing dice with Nature, not when fine art and millions of dollars are at stake … and, especially, when some of the stuff is merely on loan. So, off they go, to their Citizen Kane-ish warehouse, awaiting the equinox.

Which leaves the pedestals. Here and there, poking up from the beaten down grass, the concrete rectangles remain, devoid of duty, like doormen in a doorless world. In a sculpture park, as Storm King is, or in any museum or gallery, the pedestal is the most overlooked and nearly-invisible object in the place. But they also serve who squat and support; without pedestals, there’d be a lot of lopsided pieces ruined by contact with the elements, and a lot of art lovers with bad backs from bending over to look at things situated at the wrong height. The art would suffer, too, by just being plunked there – to be on a pedestal, after all, is a figure of speech indicating honor or praise or the implication of importance … all of which a lot of today’s art could use, if only to be considered adequate. Sometimes, pedestals are what make art “Art.”

But, up there, nearly alone on the semi-barren rise above Storm King’s di Suvero’d landscape, one can imagine more life to pedestals than even those functions already mentioned. One can dig deep into one’s memory and try to remember the pieces that had recently been on those pedestals, and imagine them there, seeing them, the shiny burnished surfaces, the geometric forms, ghostly, like phantom limbs. It’s a good mental exercise. Then take it to the next step: use the empty pedestals to envision your own sculpture garden, imagining works that could go on them, whether they be works you know or works you’ve made (give yourself an ego boost by seeing your art in Storm King), or even works you devise out of your own creative wisps as you stand and peer at the pedestals. And, for that moment, in that very site-specific magical moment, when site impacts you and you create art, you have an essential arslocii experience that is not only wonderful and ephemeral, but entirely personal – and, yet, no less valid or “real” than if the solid pieces were standing there before you. So much of the appreciation of art is what we make of it, our “take,” the intellectual and emotional resonances, the inner gong we strike; so why should imaginary artworks, utilizing the site and your brain, have less personal impact? They don’t extend beyond you … but, then, what does?

And, then, consider the concrete pads themselves, without any whole-cloth addenda. Fanned out across the ground, low to it, quietly making their presence known, they seemed like an artwork in and of themselves: physical, minimalist in the sense of a Donald Judd or even a Serra, as well as conceptual – a piece playing with the idea of pedestals without art, engaging us with the absurdity and opportunity to imagine. Believe me, we have seen worse things that call themselves art by big names who call themselves artists in places that call themselves art collections.

We’re not saying here that anything can be art – it can’t, although some might disagree – but that sometimes the art need not be present to appreciate and perceive the placeness inherent in an art place, and that sometimes the littlest things can be art, even unintentionally, and that when art is the thing under discussion, you the observer are in the driver’s seat. When they take in the David Smiths, it doesn’t mean that they’ve taken in your senses.

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Sniffing Serra

Having visited Dia:Beacon several times, (and it isn’t nearby) I am continually surprised by what I find there. The space is overwhelming, with huge, cavernous rooms and hallways, all in giant scale; the light is ethereal, whether delivered indirectly through the clerestory windows, or directly through window walls where some of the glass is textured in a fractured opacity and just their clear central panes allow outdoors glimpses and sunlight to penetrate the monastic ambiance. And, too, the visual array of artworks (because that is the point, right?), from Robert Ryman’s all-white canvases to Richard Serra’s monoliths of hard and rusting steel, tempt you in every conceivable way with sui generis sensuousness and mystery.

But, as all these other senses are fully engaged, so fully that at times you want to cry or fall to your knees or just feel the vibration and disappear into the energy that each piece and each space is emitting, suddenly, this visit, there is the realization that one sense that had been formerly neglected I am now experiencing – smell. Olfaction. Yes, smelling art.

When I was in art school I smelled art everywhere. Every classroom and, later, every studio had a smell – a particular smell: oil paint, clay, acrylic paint, printmaking ink, sawdust, welding fumes. Largely, these were toxic smells of chemical reactions, but to anyone who spent time breathing them they were the smells of creativity. The smells are so universal and have become such a part of the fabric of art-making that I can walk into any artist’s studio and smell the familiar, immediately bouncing me back to a connected past with my school days. This is generally not the case in the more staid museums; everything is so controlled, often encased, air-quality adjusted and purified.

But, at Dia, I was noticing olfactory changes as I drifted from room to room, artist to artist, material to material. I became excited by this added layer of experiencing the works and the spaces they occupy. Often the inner, windowless rooms there have a stillness with an odor that accompanies the unmoving air. As I became more acclimated to the smells, I realized that each artwork had its own individual smell and that, when clustered in groups, or when massive enough to stand alone, there was a very noticeable odor associated with the galleries they inhabited and imparted to them. At first it was a vague awareness of changes in the air, then I started to home in on trying to “explain” or dissect what it was I was inhaling. I became acutely aware in Imi Knoebel’s Raum 19, a construction of wooden shapes and paint stretchers with that sweet, old lumber fragrance. Something you would smell in a bone-dry attic, with hints of Masonite and fir emanating from old pieces of furniture.

With Agnes Martin, one would expect the smell of both linseed oil and acrylics, of course, but here they were faint, light, clear and pale – just like her canvases; whereas Robert Ryman’s works, whether room-size or small scale, had the presence of all smells. And On Kawara’s Today Series, daily paintings from 1966 to 2000, had an indistinct smell, a blurring of the years. Dan Flavin’s fluorescent tubes had the whiff of heated dust combined with an electronic or solder pungency. While Joseph Beuys’ stacks of felt had, what else – wool, reminiscent of a formerly wet dog now dried, dust coatings and aged socks or mittens. Donald Judd’s Untitled (1976), was, as expected, plywood scented but almost minty in its intensity. And when the setting sun blasted through the clerestory above the minimal box constructions and the oils in the wood heated up, it was like a plywood sawmill without the dust, in the permeating aroma.

And so, I wondered, what about Richard Serra, could his pieces possibly have a fragrance? His monoliths of steel, a material that would seem almost inert except for oxidation: slabs of some natural mineral ores blended into a manufactured structural product? What smell could they possibly have? Hey, though, remember the plywood of Judd. (And right here I must confess to Serra being a favorite, so I really wanted the giant pieces to smell like something.) Union of the Torus and the Sphere sits in a kind of hallway and as close as I allowed my nose to scan it, there was, disappointingly, just a hint of something, at spots, a mild rust smell. I hurried downstairs to the Torqued Ellipses, his wonderful massive herd of shapes which you enter, are labyrinthine and so meditative that you get dizzy inside them. I took a deep breath; inhaled a dry cave, desiccated even. I smelled the rust, stronger now because I was inside the steel chamber and the enclosed air was more concentrated. There were distinct chalk-like odors, hints of dry mold as in cheese. Ah, yes, a fine blend, so fine I wanted to drink it in.

And once again I find placeness: in smell. It is said that smell is the most vivid sense memory. I hope to be sniffing Serra for many years to come.

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