Local History: General Statement
Judd Foundation is pleased to present Local History, featuring findings from the Judd Foundation Archives. In this series, the Foundation will share visual and textual documentation of Donald Judd’s life and work contained within the Archives as a tool to understand the diverse range of his thinking.
Throughout his life, Donald Judd consistently argued for the importance of engaged citizenship and did not view his work as an artist as separate from political action. As he wrote in 1970, “I’ve always thought that my work had political implications, had attitudes that would permit, limit, or prohibit some kinds of political behavior and some institutions.”
In May 1970, four students were shot and killed by National Guardsman at Kent State University while protesting the United States’ illegal invasion of Cambodia. In acknowledgement of this tragedy, as well as the growing Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam movements, Artforum asked a number of artists to respond to the following question, “What is your position regarding the kinds of political action that should be taken by artists?” Responses from artists including Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Robert Smithson, and Donald Judd were published in the September 1970 issue of Artforum. Judd’s statement, reprinted in Donald Judd Writings, includes some of his most powerful political remarks. As Judd wrote, “…I think that everyone has to be involved in politics, in organizations that will defend their rights and obtain more, that will decide on what should happen in all public matters. If you don’t act, someone will decide everything.” Making an important distinction, Judd continued, “There is a big difference between the politics of citizens and the politics of interest groups.”
During the 1970s, Judd engaged in the local democracy movement in New York City, helped organize Artists Against the Expressway, fundraised and hosted exhibitions on behalf of the War Resisters League, donated work on behalf of the New York Peace Action Coalition, and spoke out against the Vietnam War. Later, Judd would continue his efforts as an engaged citizen through donations of work to organizations such as “Art for a Nuclear Weapons Freeze” and “Art Against Aids.” Among other actions in the 1980s and 1990s, Judd joined the Alert Citizens for Environmental Safety (ACES), which successfully forced the relocation of a nuclear dump in Sierra Blanca, an area not far from Marfa, Texas. He was also a vocal opponent of American military aggression in the Middle East.
Judd’s commitment to political action is clearly expressed in his writings, including his essays and letters to public officials, media outlets, and corporate entities voicing civic concerns. His letters from 1971 alone are directed to organizations as distinct as the Office of the Mayor of Chicago, the editors of Science magazine, the editors of The New York Times, and the chairman of Citizens for Artists Housing.
One of Judd’s early political writings for a public audience, “General Statement,” appeared in the Newspaper of Lower Manhattan Township in January of 1971. In this essay, Judd addressed the need for the creation of local political organizations, stating:
“We’re organizing the Lower Manhattan Township…a political organization based on geography…dealing with anything that is a common problem in the area. Obviously there is quite a bit that is accidental about a community, especially in New York City, but geography and a common specific interests are the only practical and ultimate basis for live, free politics. Individuals and the communities that they form should have political power. It shouldn’t occur in a hierarchy resting on, living on, an undifferentiated mass.”
Handwritten drafts of this essay as well as other essays Judd wrote specifically for the Newspaper of Lower Manhattan Township are part of the Judd Foundation Archives. The full text of “General Statement” is available to read here.
Judd returned to writing long-form political essays in the early 1990s with the advent of the First Gulf War. Announcing the start of what later was called Operation Desert Storm on January 16, 1991, President George H. W. Bush argued that “the world could wait no longer.” This led to a five-week bombardment of Iraqi command, brought coalition casualties in the hundreds, and Iraqi losses in the tens of thousands. Written in January 1991 and completed, as Judd specified, on the 18th of January, his essay, “Nie Wieder Krieg,” which translates from the German as “No More War” is a direct condemnation of the First Gulf War. Whereas President Bush proclaimed in his speech of January 16th, “We will not fail,” Judd argued, to the contrary, that “War is failure. War is caused by carelessness, wastefulness, thoughtlessness, incompetence, complacency and laziness.” Condemning the inaction of the U.S. citizenry, Judd continued, “The people in the United States said nothing in August against the first soldiers, just like Vietnam, or the second soldiers, also like Vietnam, and have not said anything since, and Congress mumbles OK, whatever you want. Only people in the streets can stop this waste of their labor and lives.”
Other material records of Judd’s political activism include two posters that were made twenty years apart. The first, printed in 1971, was an anti-war poster made as a fundraiser for the New York Peace Coalition and the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. As Judd wrote in a 1968 statement, “Vietnam is a deliberate atrocity.” Among other sources, the poster included quotations found in The Public Life, a journal of particular importance to Judd. Judd supported the work of Harvey Shapiro, a publisher, political historian, activist, and founder of the Teachers’ Freedom Party, Citizens for Local Democracy, and The Public Life. Shapiro worked to establish Jeffersonian-style townships throughout the boroughs of New York City to foster localized democracy. Of The Public Life, Judd stated, “Anyway, I agree with The Public Life, and that’s unusual. Their thinking is more developed than mine; but when I read the first issue…I recognized some of the ideas; I hadn’t seen them stated before.” Notable figures quoted on the poster include Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass.
A second poster, made in 1991, is a photograph of political graffiti on a wall in Madrid reading, “Sadam es Malo / Bush es Peor.” Judd included the poster as part of an exhibition of his work at Galerie Theospacio. Judd incorporated political posters and writings into exhibitions and exhibition catalogues throughout the early 1990s, including exhibitions of his work in Wiesbaden and Oxford in 1994.