Local History: Donald Judd as Art Critic, “The Chavín Civilization,” 1962

“This exhibition has been assembled from collections throughout the United States and is the first of Chavin art anywhere. As is customary at the Museum of Primitive Art, it is excellently displayed.”
– Donald Judd, Review (“The Chavín Civilization”), February 1962

The handwritten notes above are the last two sentences of Donald Judd’s May/June 1962 review of “Gods with Fangs,” an exhibition at The Museum of Primitive Art for Arts Magazine. It was a common practice of Judd to write notes directly on the press releases, checklists, and ephemera for exhibitions that he reviewed as a critic for Arts, later Arts Magazine. Judd wrote fourteen reviews for that issue, including reviews of work by Alexander Calder, Sally Hazelet Drummond, and Kenneth Armitage among others. His practice as a critic reflects the diversity of the curatorial interests of the early 1960s in New York, with reviews as wide-ranging as those on the work of Tao Chi, a Chinese landscape painter, calligrapher, and poet from the Ming Dynasty, to a review on the Inca of Peru.

In his favorable review of “Gods with Fangs,” Judd returned to a body of Pre-Columbian work on which he had written as a student at Columbia University. Judd’s 1958 essay, “An Ica Leeboard,” written while at Columbia, addresses the “abstract” styles found in Chavín period reliefs. More than an intellectual interest, the architectural advances of the Chavín period had a practical influence on Judd. In 1989, Judd reflected on the architecture of the Chavín period in his design from the 1970s of a house for a round valley in the canyon of Arroyo Grande in Baja California, Mexico, writing, “One idea for the house was to be round, around a pond whose bottom sloped into the slope of the land…A related idea is a round building in Peru of the Chavin period, which just by being circular would provide a distinction of function and privacy.”

In additional ephemera from the “God with Fangs” exhibition, Judd uses the checklist to make notes and small drawings in the margins. Judd’s typed draft of the review contains no corrections and was published as is in Arts Magazine, as his reviews often ran directly as he had first written them.

Judd’s initial reviews in September, October, and November 1959 were written for ARTnews, yet Judd switched to writing reviews primarily for Arts magazine at the end of 1959. He continued to do so until the beginning of 1965, after which he no longer worked as a critic for-hire. Included here is a letter from Hilton Kramer, editor of Arts until November 1961. In this letter dated October 22, 1959, Kramer praises Judd’s reviews for ARTnews as having “style and precision, and are both serious and readable.” Kramer invited Judd to write for ARTnews, acknowledging that the magazine paid “very poor rates” of six dollars for 300 words; four dollars for 150 words; and three dollars for a one-sentence review (six dollars in 1959 is around fifty dollars today). In 1974, reflecting on the pay rate at Arts, Judd wrote, “The magazine was always poor; I felt that Kramer and Mellow paid as well as they could. Obviously art critics should be paid much more. That’s one of the things seriously wrong with the activity.”

Judd could determine the length of the review, though his assignments were selected by Kramer who would provide Judd with a list of exhibitions to be reviewed. Seen here is a list from May 1962. In some instances, Judd would attend and write reviews for exhibitions that were never published. For example, in January or February 1962 Judd attended an exhibition of terracotta works by Louise Nevelson. Although Judd took extensive notes on the exhibition, a review of this show was never published. As Judd wrote, “A list for September 1962 that I still have gives 48 shows as assigned and seen. Sixteen were reviewed.”

Although Judd stopped writing reviews in 1965, he continued writing extensively. His later writings were often not specific to a particular exhibition, but instead responded to larger themes within art, architecture, and politics. In 1975, Judd’s reviews were collected and published as Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975 by the Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University Press. Reprinted in 2016 by Judd Foundation, this volume is again widely available, as is Donald Judd Writings a collection of Judd’s writings from 1958 to 1993. For more information on Judd’s writings, please visit our website.