Contributed by Adam Simon / In 1979, Don Dudley, whose solo exhibition “New Work” is now on view at Magenta Plains, installed Red Corner in a group exhibition at the Vera List Art Center of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In doing so, he essentially reshaped the room, flattening the corner, obliterating any sense of spatial depth. Red Corner consisted of what appeared to be 23 parallel strips of Homasote, a cellulose-based fiberboard, used widely for soundproofing and cheap construction. The strips were two inches wide, hand-painted light red, with two-inch spaces between the strips that acted as white forms alternating with the red of the painted Homasote. The configuration increased in length as it moved from top and bottom towards the middle, but the ordering principle at some point gave out, and an irregular shape emerged that looked like an abortive attempt at pure geometry.
Red Corner was not the first of Dudley’s modular installations, but it was exemplary of his concerns at the time. The two perpendicular walls morphed into what appeared as a flat surface holding an image. There was something slightly off about it, though. It lacked the industrial rigor of Donald Judd, the pure presence of Ellsworth Kelly, or the equanimity of Anne Truitt. Each horizontal strip was composed of multiple eight-inch segments, held to the wall by single nails. The visible nail heads and the cracks between the segments were odd compositional elements. Why not use longer strips, cut to size, adhered in a less obvious way?
A Norwegian philosopher once told me that 1970s Minimalism was the type of art that he felt most corresponded with philosophical thought. I had only a rudimentary knowledge of Western philosophy, but I knew what he said was true – not in the sense that Minimalism was the most profound or far-reaching art, but in the sense that it constituted a rigid interrogation of first principles. Dudley’s work has always existed somewhere between Minimalist purity and a less clearly defined realm that partakes of the gestural, the atmospheric and the associative. In this he offers a heterodoxy that feels less austere and therefore timely. His minimalism has always had a West Coast flavor, more concerned with perception than objecthood. Like many artists of his generation, he has steered clear of expressionism, or anything that shifted attention from the object to the artist. His focus has been on the purely visual.
Before moving to New York from California in 1969, Dudley was associated with the Finish Fetish school of West Coast abstraction, creating highly finished prismatic works that conjured a feeling of the sublime in nature. Later, after the monochrome modular works such as Red Corner, there were other site-specific installations in which geometric shapes incorporated gestures and colors, appearing as rendered surfaces, like badly scuffed floors. Throughout there were drawings which, like the large-scale works, ranged from the diagrammatic to the fully pictorial. This range is evident in Dudley’s current show, which features four plywood constructions on one floor and works on paper on another.
The works on paper reflect a kind of thwarted formalism. Rendered in ink, acrylic, and colored pencil, vaporous expanses of multi-hued colors are air-brushed into what would otherwise be simple arrangements of geometric shapes. There are intimations of sky, cast light, and weather, but always within delineated shapes that interact with other shapes of flat color. It’s a convincing amalgam. Somehow, the atmospheric and geometric coexist in a believable, non-referential dreamscape. Dudley’s birch plywood constructions are installed in a below-ground gallery, a large, airy room with high ceilings. The four works are elegantly hung, one to each wall, so that the wall becomes part of each piece, a negative complement to the constructed forms.
For me, the show’s masterworks are the two pieces that most resolutely declare their objectness: #174 and Untitled. Both are birch plywood constructions of mostly solid color – red and black for #174, and red, black and yellow for Untitled. In each there is an underlying tension between the pictorial and the literal. Suggested spatial shifts or alignments of forms are either contradicted or made redundant by what the plywood shapes are physically doing. Like most of Dudley’s constructions, these works exist at the intersection of painting and sculpture. Both seem immutable. At the same time, they contain multiple traces of the hand, glitches, odd spaces and missed connections. It’s hard to convey in words, but there is an uncanny feeling of something so authentic that it feels like deception. Time stops.
It is the dialectic between facticity – the object declaring its objectness – and pictorialism that ultimately energizes Dudley’s work, one informing the other. At age 90, he continues to represent a merging of these seemingly opposed aesthetic phenomena, resisting easy classification in favor of a singular vision – nail heads, cracks, and all.
“Don Dudley: New Work,” Magenta Plains, 149 Canal Street, New York, NY. Through December 17, 2022.
About the Author: Adam Simon’s recent paintings combine corporate logotypes, stock photography, and tropes of Modernist design. He he recently had work on view in “Mind the Gaps” at Osmos Address and in “MOD” at Platform Project Space.
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