Less a movement than a set of crucially new ideas about the nature of artistic practice, minimalism has profoundly influenced the most important art of the last four decades. Donald Judd was minimalism's philosopher, defining its principles through his work and writing, while disparaging the term. In recent years the National Gallery has made key acquisitions of work by other minimalist artists, such as Dan Flavin, but there has been no major work by Judd in the Gallery's collection to provide a center point for these holdings. The recently acquired Untitled, 1963, adds to the collection a major early work by Judd of exceptional historic significance.
For Judd, 1963 was a watershed year, concluding with a solo exhibition at the Green Gallery in New York in December. Now widely considered a landmark for the definition of minimalism, the exhibition showcased a transformation in the artist's work, from painting to the creation of large, simplified three-dimensional objects. Among the works shown were two floor boxes—one of which was #Untitled#, 1963—that sat on the ground without pedestals, directly in the space of the viewer, brutally unframed in a way that almost no previous sculpture had been. With these two works Judd took aim at what he saw as the continuing illusionism of European modernism, pursuing instead a purely lucid form that would exist simply as an object. The floor boxes defined, as Judd wrote soon afterward, "the top, the whole shape, and the interior volume at once." From this point on, the box—either mounted on the wall or placed directly on the floor—became Judd's principal form. Untitled offered a cubic structure that was generated by geometrical logic rather than by appealing to the language of expression: bisected across the diagonal, one half was double the height of the other, creating a step formation. Judd's pursuit of literal rather than apparent space emerges in #Untitled# as a challenge to the terms of traditional perspective in painting; the rising volume makes it nearly impossible to see the work as a cubic form with orthogonals receding in space.
All objects shown at the Green Gallery exhibition were made of plywood painted a matte cadmium red; this serial use of color imposed uniformity on the objects and denied surface variation. Judd explained the choice on optical grounds, saying that it allowed him to create a sharply perceptible form. "Other than a gray of that value," he wrote, "[red] seems to be the only color that makes an object sharp and defines its contours and angles." It also marked the artist's sense of debt to Barnett Newman, who used such a red in paintings like #Vir Heroicus Sublimis#, 1950–1951, and whom Judd saw as breaking importantly with artistic tradition, his famous "zips" suspending the traditional opposition of figure and ground. Color was particularly central to Judd's thinking with #Untitled#: the purple panel bisecting the work is the first use of Plexiglas in the artist's career. He later described his interest in the industrial resin as a way of incorporating color that was integral to the material and not merely applied, and it subsequently became a signature material for Judd.
The ideas developed in creating the objects for the 1963 Green Gallery exhibition facilitated what followed and were articulated in a key text the next year, "Specific Objects," which became a minimalist credo. In it, Judd defines a new type of work, neither painting nor sculpture in the traditional sense, that would jettison both the vestiges of representation and traditional notions of composition—"the relics of European art"—with a driving sense of ethical imperative. "Three dimensions are real space," he wrote. "That gets rid of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors." These volumes would be nonadditive, nondivisible entities that challenged the "part to part" organization of European modernism. Though modern sculpture conventionally was unpainted, exposing the material and marks of its manufacture, Judd's own specific objects would be intensely so, always with nonnatural hues that made no claim to representation. No work better represents these principles than Untitled—in both its manifesto-like clarity and its historic role in the Green Gallery exhibition, it stands at the conceptual origins of minimalism.
Acquired soon after its making in an exchange of work between Judd and his friend and fellow minimalist Dan Flavin, #Untitled# remained in Flavin's possession during his lifetime, a testament to the relationship between the two artists.