It’s been 32 years since a retrospective of Donald Judd’s work has been put on in this country, and the one that is on now at the Museum of Modern Art (closed temporarily due to the coronavirus) is only the second. Judd’s work—which he called “three-dimensional objects,” not “sculpture,” a word strapped with baggage—is hard for a museum to exhibit in the way the artist intended, giving the often large pieces plenty of room to breathe (no security barriers, please) and grouping them alone or among the work of a few kindred spirits. As a result, an entire generation, save for hardcore fans who have hoofed it to Marfa, the remote West Texas cow town that became Judd’s Utopia in progress, hasn’t had a true encounter with the artist many consider to be one of the most influential of his generation, if not the entire second half of the 20th century.

Here’s your unusual—and extensive—chance. In addition to the main event at MoMA, there are concurrent satellite shows (also subject to temporary closures due to the coronavirus) in no fewer than three other locations: Gagosian Gallery (“Artwork: 1980,” a showing of Judd’s largest work in plywood, is on through April 11); David Zwirner (“Artworks: 1970–1994,” curated by the artist’s son, Flavin Judd, opens April 18); and the Judd Foundation (“Prints: 1992” is on through July 11). As an immersion in his totality of vision—where exhibition space and art are self-reinforcing experience enhancers, and the work on view happens to be a cherry-picked selection of the first order—Manhattan will, in a reversal of geographic circumstance, become an outpost of Marfa, without the stagecoach connection through El Paso.

This means, however, that what was true at the time of that first retrospective, held at the Whitney in 1988, is likely true now: many people will again not quite know what to make of Judd, an enigmatic man who labored mightily to strip his work of any such mystery.

Polymathic Perversity

A quick look back at the Whitney show gives the new one an edified perspective. Some 30 works had been assembled by the museum to trace a career still in full prime, reaping the fruits of its own disdain. Judd, after all, had long been a thorn in the side of the museum-industrial complex—calling their anthologizing tendencies “freshman English forever.” He had also been a forceful critic of the cash-and-carry art market. Collectors had, nevertheless, come round to accepting the kind of wide berth his works demanded, and by then he had become one of its movers. (In 1988, $242,000 became a new auction record for a Judd.)

Marfa, Texas, houses 100 works in mill aluminum by Judd, an outspoken critic of the art establishment.

Just 60, but less than six years away from being diagnosed with the blood cancer that would kill him, Judd was a polymathic figure. He wrote, had an architecture studio, designed striking furniture, and owned multiple properties—including a 62-square-mile ranch on the Texas-Mexico border. Like Balthus or Twombly or O’Keeffe, he had an eye that improved whatever it lit upon. His houses in Texas, New York, and Switzerland, sparely furnished with carefully chosen specimens of fine Bauhaus and Biedermeier furniture, tribal masks, and Western saddles, were domestic reflections of his rigorous paring down, adroit sense of placement, and intolerance of anything mediocre.

An enigmatic man who labored mightily to strip his work of any such mystery.

A review of the Whitney show in the Times dubbed Judd the “high priest of Minimalism” and, in a flourish of art-speak, praised the exhibition for celebrating an art that had declared an “ultimate resistance to systematic analysis.” Although that sentence might require its own analysis, it’s an apt one to keep in mind during this new Judd moment: let your eyes do the thinking, in other words. “Getting it” isn’t the point. Looking at it is.

It might still be tempting to stare at these visually sumptuous objects on view—a luminous stack made of stainless steel and pale-yellow Plexiglas, say, or a galvanized-steel-and-lacquer bullnose that shimmers like a grape Blow Pop—and, like the primates struck dumb by a perfect rectangle in 2001: A Space Odyssey, hope to receive a message of higher meaning. That expectation—ingrained in us by the Old Master hits we’ve seen since childhood—is something Judd rejected as a ridiculous burden, not only on the artist but perhaps on the viewer too. “It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain,” he said, at 38, of the European tradition that even the Abstract Expressionists hadn’t managed to wring out of their approach completely.

Classical Art’s Antihero

The current retrospective chronicles the result of Judd’s terse dismissal of canonical precedent, something his detractors took at his word, not looking closely enough to compare the work with his rhetoric. The show is proof that Judd made a historically radical break that still gives the works a tonic purity and rigor. But what you also see is that Judd, like all artists of the first order, was a careful student. He didn’t completely turn his back on the past but transmuted achievements he revered—Brunelleschi’s windows in the Badia di Fiesole, the color scheme in Rogier van der Weyden’s The Crucifixion—into new aesthetic inventions.

Judd’s radical art has roots in the canonical. The artist is pictured here in Marfa in 1992.

The MoMA retrospective is organized in biographical sequence, beginning with two examples of a medium the artist quickly jettisoned—that most ancient of art forms, painting. At the time, Judd, a former candidate for an M.A. in art history at Columbia, had been supporting himself by writing hundreds of gallery reviews. He knew the Cedar Tavern fist fights, the gatekeeping money men, and the size of the mike the Abstract Expressionists had just dropped on the whole scene. Who was preposterous enough to step upon the big stage with an aesthetic idea that had the vitality and balls to keep propelling American art forward? He came to an unsentimental conclusion. “The last advanced versions” in painting—Pollock, Rothko, and Barnett Newman, for him—had left nothing to be done, he wrote, with “the rectangular plane placed flat against the wall.”

Judd transmuted achievements he revered into new aesthetic inventions.

Sculpture, too, was heavily laden with yesterday’s clichés. People still expected it to be an assemblage of anthropomorphic parts, some more important than others, and the finished work placed upon a pedestal. Brancusi and Arp were exceptions. Their work was a thing unto itself, a complete whole: Judd looked at a Brancusi column and saw a stack of geometric modules stripped of a hierarchy that made the viewer look here or there first.

A significant seed had been planted, out of which came several hybrid works, both wall and floor pieces, which MoMA has arranged in a way that expresses Judd’s other preoccupation—space. These works were conceived in relation to each other, the gallery space, and their own composition. Here, for instance, is Untitled, 1961, a thick slab of composition board painted black, instead of his signature Cadmium Red Light; at its center is a steel baking pan, flush with the surface it’s buried in. It’s funky for sure, but it makes its point: rather than being a flat plane whose depth is an illusion—an effect that, for centuries, depended upon virtuoso skill—the three-dimensionality here is literal.

Mind over Matter

The materials—wood, aluminum pipe, sand—all specced by Judd from hardware-supply shops on Canal Street, still connote “expression,” however, and the pieces show the hand of a maker, Judd and his father, a skilled carpenter. Judd’s big epiphany, which materializes before your eyes in the second gallery, came one day in 1963, when he walked into Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialities, Inc., on Third Avenue, hoping to get some holes punched into a sheet of galvanized iron. The seminal chapter in Judd’s life that followed has been captured in fascinating detail by curatorial assistant Annie Ochmanek in an essay in the show’s excellent catalogue.

Untitled, 1967, offers a rare example of a piece Judd hand-painted; soon he would outsource this too to the industrial process.

Judd had stumbled upon a shop run by a family several generations deep with experience and a skilled, meticulous team of craftsmen in the machine room. What Judd was soon asking them to do required a great deal more precision and time than usual, but the relationship was mutually beneficial, as the two learned together how to turn materials like hot-rolled steel, copper, Plexiglas, and anodized aluminum into hollow, perfect geometries erased of any unintended signs of construction. (Judd worked so closely with a finisher named José Otero that he had him initial many of the pieces they worked on together.)

By then, Judd had achieved his dream of a machine-perfected art fabricated in absentia of the artist. “All the playing around with materials … should be in your head,” he said in 1967. Decades before Jeff Koons ginned up his studio assembly line—and still got hell for it—this was viewed by many as preposterous. Judd went even further in his most famous essay, “Specific Objects.” In it he writes, “A work needs only to be interesting.” If Beckett could write plays in which nothing seems to happen, and John Cage could perform a musical work of complete silence, why couldn’t Judd make art that didn’t look like art?

Judd turned materials into perfect geometries erased of any unintended signs of construction.

It both riled and delighted the art world: that Times review of the Whitney retrospective had gone on to crown “Mr. Judd, with all his disdain for the notion of a personal artistic signature … one of a kind.” But to others, Judd’s work was avant-garde poppycock, cold and conceited, the work of a second-tier one-trick pony. In 1980, in an episode of PBS’s The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes, the art world’s biggest junkyard dog, pronounced minimalism—of which Judd was then pope—a “minor” religion, and its aim “the Nirvana of boredom.”

Was that just Hughes being Hughes? Maybe not. In a 2011 New Yorker profile of the sculptor Carl Andre, Calvin Tomkins—an arbiter with more adventurous tastes than Hughes—claims Andre to be the top man of minimalism, “more radical and more influential” than any of his peers. But this just might be Judd’s return to the altar as high priest, for the deeper you go in the show, the harder it is to agree with such slights.

Space Odyssey

Judd’s sensitivity to the idea of space, which started with that loaf pan, became an endlessly complex journey, somehow captured by the MoMA show’s curator, Ann Temkin, with her own Judd-like intensity for distilling his oeuvre into four large galleries. “Judd knew he needed to be historically significant to matter,” she told me, pointing out how so many of the works had interior chambers and airy hollows that counteract your sensation of weight and size. Untitled, 1973, a mesmerizing blue-Plexiglas floor box with a gleaming brass beam tunneling through it, is a marriage of substance and air.

Judd’s Untitled, 1973, interacts with the space around it.

Judd was among the first to give material associated with grit and heavy construction properties of levitation, ethereality, playfulness, and deep beauty. And no one has yet surpassed him. These are not cold, emotionally mute artifacts, with the charisma of an air-conditioning duct. But neither are they completely alien, as Judd may have wished, to the enjoyments and enlightenments that all that old stuff hanging in the galleries downstairs give us. A quartet of anodized-aluminum floor pieces whose interiors are intersections of lustrous Plexiglas sheets in teal, deep blue, and orange struck me as being as richly lustrous as the guilloche enamel of a Fabergé egg, for instance. Is this really the work of a self-pronounced “empiricist”? Perhaps an empiricist, who, like the rest of us, wasn’t free of his share of human self-contradiction.

Judd himself wasn’t some ascetic monk who ate rivets for breakfast and slept on a concrete bed. He liked bagpipe music and Navajo rugs. He had a library in Marfa, a vast space with warm pine bookshelves, that holds some 13,000 volumes, including reams of novels and poetry. The longer he stayed in Texas, the more he dressed like a rancher; his clothes were the one visual thing about him that didn’t groove with the otherwise all-in aesthetic gestalt. He was not a blank, in other words, and though he said it was one of his aims, he didn’t end up making blank art.

An empiricist, who, like the rest of us, wasn’t free of his share of human self-contradiction.

This reminded me of a call I got in 2000, when I was an editor at Vogue. On the line was my uncle, a Slim Pickens kind of character who ran the family’s electrical-contracting business in West Texas. He’d sent me a billfold with the shield of the Texas Rangers branded into the leather and a note that read: “I don’t know if you’ll put this in your purse or your ass pocket, but I thought you might like to own something with real style.”

He was calling to make sure I’d received it, and to tell me about a multi-thousand-square-foot job he’d taken on involving fluorescent-light fixtures in nearby Marfa, which, last time he’d checked, was still a former railroad water stop. The project turned out to be Dan Flavin’s Untitled (Marfa Project), an installation that would eventually occupy six former barracks on a decommissioned cavalry outpost now run by the Chinati Foundation; like the cave paintings of Lascaux, it and several other permanent installations, including Judd’s 100 works in mill aluminum and 22 John Chamberlain sculptures, will presumably be there until Gabriel blows his horn.

“I don’t know what the hell it all means,” my uncle said, having had the chance to take in Judd’s sea of metal boxes. “But I can’t say it’s not interesting.”

Interesting, according to that Judd manifesto, was—and is—exactly enough. Yet, for once, at least, his estimation seems off. Judd is certainly that, but the art of the man who hated being labeled a minimalist was so much more.

Jay Fielden, the former editor of Esquire, is writing a novel