Image caption: surface detail of Donald Judd’s Untitled (1984) at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, MO, February 2018
1. Across a gray, slightly pocked concrete surface—in what appears to be blue crayon—a simple message in child’s handwriting: “Gretta / [struck out L] was / Here!” This crudely inscribed missive announces the presence of a visitor, however anonymous.
2. An acknowledgment of presence, of hand, of body, of self through mark-making, though, belies the purpose of the surface upon which it is scrawled. For this is the surface of Donald Judd’s sculpture Untitled (1984) at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, MO on an unseasonably warm day in February 2018.
3. Judd, of course, took great pains to extricate the human hand—or any perceivable human intrusion, for that matter—from his works of art. As James Meyer notes in Minimalism, his general survey of the movement and its practitioners, Judd’s artwork was “industrially produced or built by skilled workers following [his] instructions” and thus removed “any trace of emotion or intuitive decision-making.”
4. Moreover, the MoMa’s biography of Judd states that “in 1964, [he] turned to professional sheet-metal fabricators to make his work out of galvanized iron, aluminum, stainless steel, brass, and copper. This effectively removed from the artist’s studio any hands-on art making.”
5. And the Tate’s catalogue description of his Untitled (1973) mentions that “Judd wanted to remove all physical traces of the artist’s hand from the making of a work, believing that they would distract viewers.” For Judd, outsourcing the creation of his artworks to industrial fabricators and machine processes was not just a matter of convenience, but also a matter of aesthetics, ideology, and essence.
6. And what of those artists working during this time period that did not align with or adhere to Judd’s procedural edicts? His dismissal of Anne Truitt and her iconic towers provides ample evidence for those working outside of his prescriptive paradigms. In response to her 1963 solo debut at the Andre Emmerich Gallery, Meyer, again, notes that Truitt’s “hand-painted, not factory-made” sculptures rankled Judd. He “was not charmed by her allusions…and her instinctive use of colour.”
7. Indeed, Judd not only found the human hand distracting, but was, as well, repelled by instinct and Romantic notions of the imagination: ineffable but apparent interventions of a human (and, not coincidentally, female) presence.
8. As editor William S. Smith of Art in America mentions, Judd “reserved special scorn for Anne Truitt,” who he found to be “inconsequential.” To this extent, one could surmise that he would have found both Gretta’s message and its means of conveyance of a similar character.
9. While the three concrete structures that comprise Judd’s Untitled (1984) are impressive works in their own regard, it is Gretta’s minute, human imposition upon his rather large, inhuman work that resonates with me after the passage of several years.
10. Near the conclusion of her book-length lyric essay Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes: “I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side then any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”
11. There is something about the blueness of Gretta’s name—her name as word in juvenile print—and its presence on an interior, concrete wall of Judd’s sculpture that returns me to this excerpt from Nelson’s book.
12. Gretta announces, exclaims rather, that she was “Here!” But she is nowhere to be found. Her words are a blue message from the past—her present presence long since vanished—inscribed on a surface.
13. Standing inside Judd’s structure in 2018, or, now, looking at a digital photo of her handwriting on my phone, I am most aware of Gretta’s absence and the mystery of her identity. How I will never know her. Will I ever know her?
14. “To write is to produce a mark,” Jacques Derrida argues—in his essay “Signature, Event, Context”—“that will constitute a sort of machine, which is productive in turn, and which my future disappearance will not, in principle, hinder in its functioning, offering things and itself to be read and to be rewritten.”
15. Gretta’s mark making—her disappearance in her “Here!”—continues to function. It is a machine that has brought me to another machine—an aged, 2008 Dell laptop—to produce marks of my own that will work as a machine after my own disappearance.
16. “A written sign carries with it,” Derrida later states “a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription. This breaking force is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text.”
17. It is no accident, the French philosopher might have claimed, that the word of Gretta—the word “Gretta” and her “Here!”—is here with me now in Denver, Colorado in the tenth month of 2020.
18. Yes, Gretta is gone; but “Gretta” works with me. The moment Gretta put blue crayon to concrete and composed in an iterable code, she communicated to me. She called me.
19. Would I rather have Gretta by my side than pictures of her blue words? The question, one could argue, is moot. Gretta, through her infinitely reproducible letters, is here with me now in her not-here-ness. But it does not feel so.
20. I cry a bit, knowing I will never know Gretta; but the tears, I must admit, are self-indulgent: more a product of my own loneliness and obsolescence than any sincere desire for Gretta to sit by my side.
21. In “Notes on Sculpture,” Robert Morris argues that color is an “additive,” at least insofar as it “emphasizes the optical” and, thus, the artist takes objection to its use. Sculptures, he claims, are “physical” objects, and their qualities of “scale, proportion, shape, [and] mass” must be given unmitigated attention.
22. In a rhetorically similar declaration, Richard Serra claimed that “any exaggerated emphasis on surface…is decadent.” Moreover, the sculptor proposed that adding color or other embellishments to a surface is to “deny the intrinsic quality of [its] material” and, therefore, diminishes the work.
23. From these rather derisive statements regarding color and surface additions, one might surmise that Morris and Serra would think not too highly of Gretta’s blue letters. For what are they but blue surface embellishments?
24. But is not the optical also a physical quality? Is not the eye corporeal? Does not the eye assist in our assessment of scale, proportion, shape, and mass? How can a viewer determine the relative scale of an object in a space if not through optical comparison? Is there no quicker and more accurate manner in which to gauge an object’s proportions and shape than through the eye?
25. And how does one determine the intrinsic quality of a material? Can one honestly argue that heating, melting, and shaping—via forging or rolling—does not alter the intrinsic qualities of a material such as steel?
26. And what of the fact that said material is an alloy, synthetically composed of iron and carbon? Is not Serra’s steel an already altered substance that denies intrinsic qualities more thoroughly than a simple surface addition?
27. Conversely, couldn’t one claim that Gretta’s blue letters are a physical addition to Judd’s concrete? Pigmented paraffin marks, constructed intentionally and systematically via ordered shapes?
28. Likewise, how are we to know that the material and shape of Judd’s structures does not contain within it an intrinsic quality or characteristic—an essence, perhaps—that demands Gretta’s name and exclamation of “Here!” be scribed upon it?
29. In truth, though, who can claim to know the intrinsic qualities of concrete? A material or shape might suggest or demand an engagement that some may see and others may not.
30. For just as Serra’s steel is an alloy, Judd’s concrete is a mixture of broken stone or gravel, sand, cement, and water.
31. And the shape Untitled (1984) takes is not inherent. It is produced by a wooden form designed by the artist that, in an act of material deception, disappears once the concrete cures. Disappears like Gretta.
32. Untitled (1984) is the negative space of a disappeared structure fabricated by unnamed men who filled it with an aggregation of various elements, which then underwent a chemical reaction in order to change its material state.
33. Perhaps Gretta saw clearly and Serra did not; perhaps Gretta’s vision is physical and Morris’s is not; perhaps Judd is inconsequential and Gretta is not.
34. But what’s in a name anyway?
35. In his January 6, 1964 address to the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation (later published in Shadow and Act), Ralph Ellison argues that “it is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gifts of others, must be made our own.” To his mind, then, this gift is a locating device. An articulable way for us to place, insert, or ground ourselves. To determine where we are.
36. Ellison believed, though, that what was given must become the impetus for agency. We are named, thus placed, by others; but we must replace ourselves in order to make ourselves “our own.”
37. The issue of location was of no small consequence to Ellison. For, later in his life, the author was quite fond of paraphrasing Heraclitus’s adage “Geography is fate” (whether in reference to a slave’s pre-Civil War passage North, the westward movement of indigenous people on the “Trail of Tears,” or his own autobiography, etc.).
38. To follow this line of thinking to its logical conclusion: if geography is fate, and our names place us in the world, then, to some extent, our names are our fate.
39. Later in his Whittall address, Ellison argues that:
We must learn to wear our names within all the noise and confusion of the environment in which we find ourselves, make them the center of all our associations with the world, with man and with nature. We must charge them with all our emotions, our hopes, hates, loves, aspirations. They must become our masks and our shields and the containers of all those values and traditions which we learn and/or imagine as being the meaning of our familial past.
What initially locates us and fates us becomes something wearable that both protects (i.e. “our shields”) and hides (i.e. “our masks”) us from the “noise and confusion of the environment in which we find ourselves.” But even in its role as protector and guise, our names still locate us, insofar as they “center” us within “all our associations with the world, with man and with nature.” Regardless of its other uses or functions, our names continue to locate us with, in, and against the world.
40. Never one to be pinned down, though, Ellison qualifies himself in his essay “Going to the Territory”:
I have stressed that in this country geography has performed the role of fate, but it is important to remember that it is not geography alone which determines the quality of life and culture. These depend upon the courage and personal culture of the individuals who make their homes in any given locality.
Yes, geography may dictate our overarching fate; but the particulars of our lives, their composition and quality, are left to the proclivities and psychological disposition of the individuated subject. Such a stance that vacillates between geographic determinism and subjective characteristics should come as no surprise from a man who championed—or at least abided by a belief in—American pluralism.
41. For Ellison believed in the individual as an autonomous subject outside of their affiliation with localized communities. But he also believed in localized communities (e.g. black, white, north, and south, etc.) as a well-spring of culture. And, moreover, he also believed in a broader, American culture that subsumed and transformed the cultures of localized communities, while simultaneously enabling those communities (and their individualized subjects) to remain of themselves. Both together and apart.
42. So, yes, geography fates us; but a person’s culture and psychology inflects and shapes the contours of all that unfolds within that fate.
43. During the final public address of his lifetime (at a Whiting Foundation ceremony in 1992), Ellison said:
Not only do Americans spring from different geographical areas, but they possess—and are possessed by—a variety of conflicting attitudes, personal, social and regional. What’s more, since the revolutionary days of its founding, this nation has grown so rapidly and transformed its landmass so chaotically that frequently we don’t know where we are or where we’re headed. In the course of our recent attempts to make the Founder’s dream a reality, the media…that facile transmitter of composite images, has further increased our confusion.
If our geography is our fate, and our names locate us both within that geography and fate, then what does it mean when our nation’s rate of growth has left us in a “confusion,” such that “we don’t know where we are or we are headed”? Has our fate become unclear? Have we, by extension, forgotten our names? And what to make of the fact that “the media” increases this uncertainty about ourselves and our surroundings?
44. Because Ellison knew, long before cultural skeptics decried the algorithms of social media and the propaganda of cable news networks, that we form our “Americanness…from our technology-propelled search for national consciousness,” which itself is pervaded with “self-doubt.”
45. To know one’s own name and to scrawl it by hand upon an “untitled” concrete monument fabricated by machines and a team of nameless (but skilled) laborers for the sake of one man’s ego, is an act of renaming. An act of relocation. An act of inscribing one’s fate upon a landmass that’s propelling us into an uncertain and chaotic future.
46. It is to center oneself in front of, against, and in contrast to a concrete monument meant to establish a hierarchy of aesthetic tastes, values, and history.
47. Gretta’s “Here!” may now be a machine; but it was a mark first made by a human both upon and against the inhuman.