– Spring/Summer 2005

From Specific Objects to Specific Subjects: Is there (still) Interest in Pluralism?

Mary Leclère

Tags: Donald Judd, Hal Foster, Michael Fried

It has now been 40 years since Donald Judd published 'Specific Objects', an essay he characterised as simply a 'report on three-dimensional art', which included the famous sentence: 'A work needs only to be interesting.'1

This syntactically challenged statement subsequently became the subject of a great deal of debate, starting, of course, with Michael Fried's equally famous - and apparently wilful - misreading of it in Art and Objecthood. Fried's interpretation suggests various ways of rewriting the sentence, including 'A work only needs to be interesting', or perhaps 'A work needs to be only [as in merely] interesting'. In either case, he makes the question of whether the work is interesting Judd's only criterion for judging it, levelling, in a word, the evaluative potential not only of the term itself, but of Judd's criticism altogether. Interest therefore took on what might appear to be undue significance for post-war criticism owing largely to the schism that resulted, at least in part, from the standoff between these writers on its account. Fried's construction of interest as the binary opposite of quality is now nothing short of doxa for any number of contemporary critics. As Hal Foster writes in The Return of the Real: '[T]he normative criterion of quality is displaced by the experimental value of interest, and art is seen to develop less by the refinement of the given forms of art (in which the pure is pursued, the extraneous expunged) than by the redefinition of such aesthetic categories.'

  1. Donald Judd, 'Specific Objects', Arts Yearbook 8, 1965. Reprinted in Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975, p.184. For Judd's comment on this essay, see John Coplans, 'An Interview with Don Judd', Artforum, June 1971, p.44

  2. Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996, pp.57-58

  3. Scott Rothkopf, 'Subject Matters', Artforum, May 2004, p.176. All Rothkopf quotations are from this source.

  4. Michael Fried, 'Art and Objecthood', Artforum, Summer 1967. Reprinted in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p.163. All Fried quotations are from this source unless otherwise noted.

  5. However, by the late 1960s Clement Greenberg saw aesthetic judgment as the agent rather than the product of consensus: 'Criticism becomes "objective" not because it "needs" a consensus, but because it produces one.' See Clement Greenberg, 'Letter to the Editor', Artforum, November 1967, p.4

  6. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, J.H. Bernard (trans.), New York: Hafner Press, 1951, p.46

  7. James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p.140

  8. Cited in Jonathan Flatley, 'Allegories of Boredom', A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-1968, Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004, p.55

  9. Ibid.

  10. This and the following two paragraphs have been adapted from a text authored by myself, 'Specificity and Acknowledgment: Practicing Art Criticism in the 1960s', SiteStreet 3, Winter 2003

  11. Donald Judd, 'In the Galleries: Lee Bontecou', Arts Magazine, January 1963. Reprinted in D. Judd, op. cit., p.65

  12. Donald Judd, 'In the Galleries: Ronald Bladen', Arts Magazine, February 1963. Reprinted in D. Judd, op. cit., p.75

  13. This characterisation is Meyer's own (see J. Meyer, op. cit., p.138). See also Robert Smithson, 'Donald Judd', Seven Sculptors, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, 1965. Reprinted in Jack Flam (ed.), Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p.6; and Rosalind Krauss, 'Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd', Artforum, May 1966, pp.24-26

  14. Donald Judd, 'Local History', Arts Yearbook 7, 1964. Reprinted in D. Judd, op. cit., p.151

  15. Ibid., p.156

  16. Michael Fried, Art Criticism in the Sixties, New York: October House, 1967, n.p. Fried does not identify the critics he's referring to. Fried was - and is - candid about the fact that he privileged the work of only a handful of artists at the time: 'My interest as a practicing critic or critic-theorist had always focused on a small group of artists: Pollock, Louis, Noland, Olitski, Stella and Caro.' See M. Fried, 'Introduction', op. cit., p.14

  17. Michael Fried, 'New York Letter: Judd', Art International 8, 15 February 1964, p.26. Reprinted in M. Fried, op. cit., p.312

  18. M. Fried, Art Criticism in the Sixties, op. cit., n.p.

  19. Ibid.

  20. H. Foster, op. cit., p.46

  21. Ibid., p.58

  22. Jerry Saltz, 'Super Babylon', The Village Voice, 10 September 2004

  23. Donald Judd, Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, New York: Jewish Museum, 1966, n.p.

  24. Ibid.

  25. D. Judd, 'Local History', op. cit., p.151

  26. Ibid., p.152

  27. Rosalind Krauss, 'Notes on the Index: Part 1', The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996, p.197

  28. D. Judd, 'Specific Objects', op. cit., p.187

  29. Jeffrey Kastner, 'David Altmejd', Artforum, January 2005, p.180

  30. Ibid.

  31. Lane Relyea, 'L.A.-Based and Superstructure', in Public Offerings (exh. cat.), Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001, p.253

  32. Brian Sholis, 'Professional Grade', posted 23 December 2004 to 'Scene and Herd', artforum.com

  33. H. Foster, op. cit., p.24

  34. Jean Baudrillard, 'The System of Objects', in Mark Poster (ed.), Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Stanford University Press, 1988, p.24

  35. Cited in Eleanor Heartney, 'What are Critics For?', American Art, Spring 2002, p.6

  36. Craig Owens, 'Allan McCollum: Repetition and Difference', in Scott Bryson et al. (eds.), Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p.119