NINE YEARS AFTER HIS UNTIMELY death from cancer at the age of 65, Donald Judd has never been more fascinating. After moving to West Texas as a newly minted international icon in 1972, Judd spent the last two decades of his life creating the dazzlingly edgy personal art park and museum complex that sprawls over 340 acres of downtown Marfa and its environs. He has since achieved cultural canonization, drawing upward of 10,000 art pilgrims annually to his remote shrine, now called the Chinati Foundation. With the cult of Judd in full bloom (manifestations include WWDJD—What Would Don Judd Do?—bumper stickers), parsing his life, writings, and art has become a small industry, inspired not only by an increasing awareness of the profundity of his work but also by the intriguing enigma of the man himself. Publicly cranky and diffident yet privately charming, a no-nonsense Midwestern pragmatist driven by an almost mystical vision, Judd—and his art—bristled with contradictions. He was an artist whose works can be measured in tons and acres who nevertheless remained a painter at heart, a cultural populist who could realize his vision only in one of the nation's most sparsely populated outposts, an ardent secularist who created one of the twentieth century's most spiritually resonant works of art. For the growing legions of the faithful, divining the true essence of Judd and his work has become an issue as urgent as defining the nature of the Trinity was to the Council of Nicaea.
Fortunately, much illumination will be shed by "Donald Judd: Early Work 1955-1968," an exhibit co-organized by Houston's Menil Collection and on view there through April 27. (Much of Judd's multimillion-dollar Marfa project was financed by Philippa de Menil, a daughter of the museum's late founders, John and Dominique de Menil.) The question asked—and to a satisfying extent answered—by this austere yet ravishing little show is: How did Judd get from a generic art-school nude he painted in 1950, when he was a 22-year-old tyro at New York's Art Students League, to the Stonehenge-like concrete megaliths and warehouses full of shimmering aluminum boxes that have made Marfa the mecca of Minimalism?
Like Jackson Pollock, the Wyoming native he succeeded as the point man for Modern art, Judd was a provincial; born in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, in 1928, he hopscotched through the Midwest with his family (his father worked for Western Union Telegraph) before settling down to finish high school in suburban New Jersey. While studying painting and drawing at the Art Students League, Judd also attended Columbia University, earning a bachelor of science degree in philosophy.
Judd's first decade as an artist, summarized by a small gallery full of drawings and oil paintings from 1950 through 1958, was pedestrian if not plodding. In two small-scale, untitled views of trees on a New York street from the mid-fifties, the forms of the trunks and foliage have become more blocklike in the later painting, a progression similar to Piet Mondrian's increasingly geometric trees of the early 1910's. Welfare Island (1956), a more severely abstracted landscape, introduced a style that varied little over the next four years: natural and man-made features pared to elegantly drawn geometric forms, painted with a deftly handled but hardly original palette dominated by grays and subtle greens and blues. What's most striking about these early paintings is a sense that Judd was entirely contented with their middle-of-the-road aesthetics and risk-free execution.
But a storm of innovation was brewing beneath this placid surface. Judd went back to Columbia in 1957 to work on a master's degree in art history, his studies ranging from ancient Egypt and Mexico through Renaissance Venice and Modernism. In 1959 he became a critic for Arts magazine, his blunt, uncompromising opinions reflecting his increasingly well-informed outlook. Evidently Judd also took his own work to task; an untitled 1960 canvas, featuring a few looping white lines on a glaring yellow field, seems startlingly confrontational next to its timid antecedents. Like a handful of the most advanced painters of his generation, Judd had begun to struggle with the radically simplified compositions of Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and Barnett Newman, dense, undifferentiated skeins of paint or flat fields of color that seemed to have finally eliminated any vestige of representation. The problem, as Judd saw it, was assimilating the breakthroughs of Pollock's generation without "doing it again." One solution was to assert even more baldly the physical reality of a painting's surface; in an untitled 1961 piece, Judd recessed an aluminum baking pan exactly in the middle of a large, heavily textured black painting, a pun, wittingly or not, on the traditional Renaissance "window into space" as well as an implicit edict that any penetration of the surface should be the real deal, not an artful or even unintentional illusion of space.
In scooping out space with a baking tin, Judd embarked on his lifelong exploration of a medium he described as "neither painting nor sculpture." An untitled 1962 floor piece consists of two wooden rectangles, painted an incandescent red and attached at right angles; with a bent, black-enameled metal pipe running between the two planes, the piece looks less like an unfinished box than an abstract painting opened like a pop-up book. A year later Judd made a complete red box and embedded a straight piece of pipe along its top; placed on the floor, the piece resembled one of Newman's paintings (typically, a single plane of color divided by a single contrasting stripe) materialized in 3-D. "Three dimensions are real space," Judd wrote. "That gets rid of the problem of illusionism . . . one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art."
By 1965 Judd was arranging his boxes in orderly rows. To Susan Buckwalter (1965) is composed of four unpainted thirty-inch galvanized-iron cubes, placed about six inches apart horizontally along the wall; the boxes are linked by a slender, blue-lacquered aluminum beam running across their tops. Judd hung other, similar sequences of regularly spaced galvanized-iron boxes vertically