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Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra

Craig F. Starr Gallery’s Frieze Los Angeles 2022 presentation is devoted to the work of Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. In 1964, Johns wrote in his sketchbook: “Somewhere here, there is the / question of ‘seeing clearly.’ / Seeing what? / According to what?” [1] This thematic display explores the various ways in which three of the most influential postwar artists have addressed these questions throughout their careers, expanding notions of sight and its limits—vision and blindness, transparency and opacity—into broader explorations of perception and experience.

In his influential art criticism, Donald Judd praised work that “asserts its own existence, form and power” and “becomes an object in its own right.” [2] There was clarity for Judd in work that resisted or expanded traditional classifications, pushing past outmoded categories like painting and sculpture, which he believed obscured more than they clarified. In his own practice, he explained that the use of his signature cadmium red color (as in the woodcuts on view here) was due to “its capacity to define the form with clarity.” [3]

Left: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961-79. Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper,

15 x 20 1/4 inches, image; 21 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches, sheet.

Right: Jasper Johns, Flag, 1969. Lead relief, 17 x 23 inches.

Left: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961-79. Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper,

15 x 20 1/4 inches, image; 21 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches, sheet.

Right: Jasper Johns, Flag, 1969. Lead relief, 17 x 23 inches.

Judd cited Johns’s work approvingly in “Specific Objects,” his pioneering 1965 essay in which he outlined many of these positions. Johns himself, two years earlier, stated that he approached painting “as an object” that “occupied a space and sat on the wall.” This approach had informed Johns’s infamous acts of defamiliarization of “things the mind already knows”: his paintings of flags, numbers, and letters of the mid-1950s introduced a fundamental instability between the image, the idea, and the object. Johns soon extended this instability in his work through recurring invocations (and frustrations) of sight: unilluminated and opaque flashlights and lightbulbs, canvases whose rectos remain hidden from the viewer, and titles like No and Disappearance I and II. Stating in 1964 that “I … want an object to be free from the way I see it,” Johns has embraced techniques like casting and printmaking throughout his career; as characterized by scholar Jennifer L. Roberts, these are “blind” practices, wherein the work is “done darkly, between two surfaces … away from the artist’s eye.” [4] Alphabets (1962), on view here, is an example of Johns adding another step to this “blind” process, employing an unpublished proof as a support for his drawings and paintings. In this work, Johns’s dense gestural markings obscure not only the original printed substrate but leave the letters of the alphabet—the building blocks for language and meaning—as well as his elegantly gridded structure nearly impossible to see clearly.

Richard Serra has recently addressed similar polarities of sight in his Transparency drawings, which originally debuted at Craig F. Starr Gallery in 2012 and were later shown at the Courtauld Gallery, London, in 2013. Indeed, Serra has long acknowledged the deep influence Johns’s work has had on his own, citing another of Johns’s sketchbook notes as a key source: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it.” [5] Serra received direct support from the older artist during the early years of his career, most importantly receiving a 1969 commission from Johns to execute one of his splash/cast works for Johns’s Lower East Side studio. [6] Johns had seen a similar work of Serra’s at the Whitney the year before, describing it in this way: “The lead pieces appeared simply to have been brought forward from the wall, one after the other, as they were cast. The piece and the making of the piece were perceived as a single event/object.” [7]

Richard Serra and Jasper Johns during the installation

of Splash Piece: Casting in Johns’s studio, 1969.

Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni. © Estate of Gianfranco Gorgoni

Richard Serra and Jasper Johns during the installation

of Splash Piece: Casting in Johns’s studio, 1969.

Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni. © Estate of Gianfranco Gorgoni

Over forty years later, this sense of Serra’s work as “single event/object” remains present in the artist's Transparency drawings. Serra creates these works by layering a single clean sheet of transparent Mylar plastic between two others completely coated with black lithographic crayon. The artist then uses a drawing tool to compress the sheets, transferring the gestural marks to both sides of the center sheet, whose final composition remains unseen until the artist peels off the outer layers. Borrowing from the techniques and materials of both drawing and printmaking, these works extend the notion of Johns’s “blind” practice: the drawings are not composed but instead simply reflect the process through which they were made. To this end, Serra has remarked of his drawings in general that he’s “more interested in people experiencing these things than looking at them.” [8] Serra’s rejoinder, then, to Johns’s ultimate query—“according to what?”—is evident in these works as well as in his pathbreaking sculptural practice, which together position perception not as an idealized visual experience but rather as an embodied encounter attuned to site and environment. It is this, most of all, that separates Serra’s work from Judd’s: Serra once remarked that, “My problem with Judd … is that he was never critical enough of the context. His work has no irony, no cynicism, no criticism, no sense of its own vulnerability to its context.” [9]

Judd’s work, however—perhaps even contrary to his own repeated pronouncements regarding clarity—did introduce elements of vulnerability and uncertainty in their embrace of forms of transparency, particularly in their use of Plexiglas. Judd’s works are “meant as objects of perception, objects that are to be grasped in the experience of looking at them,” in the words of art historian Rosalind Krauss; this includes what Krauss termed “lived illusion,” optical effects achieved through properties inherent to Judd’s forms and materials. [10] While Judd once stated that his incorporation of Plexiglas made his work “less mysterious, less ambiguous”—due in large part to its transparency, which “open[ed] the work up”—in many ways it had the opposite effect, introducing new forms of uncertainty in his work: edges and boundaries appear to dissolve or vanish, while materials viewed through the Plexiglas are transformed by its color. [11] One of Judd’s major bodies of work to explore these effects are his series of wall-mounted Menziken “boxes,” one of which is on view here. Named for the Swiss fabricator with which Judd began collaborating in the 1980s, these anodized aluminum “boxes” project out from the wall, with their innermost surface lined with transparent and often brightly colored sheets of Plexiglas. The “chemical” hues of this material are at once intrinsic—another significant term for the artist—while nonetheless generating such a “lived illusion”: in this example, what may seem at first to be an interior of Judd’s cadmium red is in fact two layers of Plexiglas, a yellow sheet over a red sheet. Due to this layering, the interior boundary of the box appears indeterminate; the work itself seems to glow from the inside out. As Judd described the effect, “The inside is radically different from the outside. Whilst the outside is definite and rigorous, the inside is indefinite.” [12]

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1991. Clear anodized aluminum with yellow over red acrylic sheet,

10 x 40 x 10 inches.

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1991. Clear anodized aluminum with yellow over red acrylic sheet,

10 x 40 x 10 inches.

Finding certainty through process, material, and site, Serra’s work has sought to avoid the dematerialization inherent to Judd’s illusions and their reliance on opticality. In Serra’s practice, then, “according to what?” functions not as an ongoing and open-ended query, but as a directive towards “extending the language” of sculpture and drawing through a focus on process. [13] In the words of Richard Shiff, for Serra “process is processural—continual or forward-moving—and with the realization of process as form comes the beginning of the end.” [14] However, as for Judd, Serra’s incorporation of transparency opens his drawings up visually, suggesting effects beyond the bare facts of their procedure. The works, two-sided as they are, are replete with conjoined oppositions that refuse to neatly resolve: on the recto, the thick encrustations of the lithographic crayon assert themselves as low relief in contrast to the thinness of the Mylar, while those that have adhered to the verso remain partially visible as if, as characterized by Shiff, “we were viewing a mountain range from below the surface of the earth.” [15]

The same year that Serra created the splash/cast piece for his studio, Johns was conducting his own experiments with lead for the creation of his series of Lead Reliefs, on view here. Like Serra, Johns was fascinated by the materiality of lead: its surface at once alluring and reserved, with a sense of weight and heft despite its pliability under certain conditions (for Serra, heated to a liquid; for Johns, run through a hydraulic press). In Johnsian fashion, this group of six works repeatedly plays with and subverts ideas of “seeing,” beginning with their existence as reliefs (which call out for a haptic encounter) and extending through the work’s various motifs, from the leaden lightbulb to the mirror of High School Days that deflects our gaze off the work, reflecting instead the surrounding environment.

Left: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961. Oil on board mounted on wood,

with inset tinned steel baking pan, 48 1/8 x 36 1/8 x 4 inches.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Right: Jasper Johns, Bread, 1969. Lead relief laminated

with embossed, oil-painted paper, 23 × 17 inches.

Left: Donald Judd, Untitled, 1961. Oil on board mounted on wood,

with inset tinned steel baking pan, 48 1/8 x 36 1/8 x 4 inches.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Right: Jasper Johns, Bread, 1969. Lead relief laminated

with embossed, oil-painted paper, 23 × 17 inches.

In several works on view, Johns repeatedly invokes other senses besides sight: taste in the lead relief Bread, sign language in Untitled (2008), and the ghostly touch of his handprint in Figure 7. Indeed, Bread, with its illusionistic rendering designed to “fool the eye,” could be read as a veiled retort to a 1961 work of Judd’s now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in which Judd embedded a metal baking pan in the center of a thickly black-painted composition board. Through the formal echoes between the rectangular pan and the work as a whole, Judd deftly asserts the objecthood of the work of art. Eight years later, in a composition that both mirrors and inverts Judd’s (Johns’s bread protrudes from the surface, whereas Judd’s pan recedes into it), Johns returns to the first of the questions that began this essay: seeing what? Is it a piece of bread adhered to the surface of the relief or merely a representation of one? Johns’s relentless skepticism of vision is thus enacted not through a rejection of illusion but through setting a “trap” of looking for the viewer to fall into. [16]

In a sketchbook note from 1963, Johns addressed Judd directly: “Judd spoke of a ‘neutral’ surface. But what is meant? Neutrality must involve some relationship (to other ways of painting, thinking?)” Johns notes that Judd’s “neutrality” functions as a “negative solution,” declaring that “‘Neutral’ expresses an intention.” [17] The various forms of clarity and certainty sought by Judd and Serra—though at least partially undone by their use of transparent materials—is consciously refused by Johns. Through recurring strategies of misdirection, negation, and withdrawal, Johns links the contingencies of vision to the limits of knowledge: of ourselves, of others, of the world around us.   

In discussing the creation of his work for Johns’s studio, Serra related a story about Johns: “At one point we were heating up the lead and Jasper asked me if he should open to skylight to let the fumes out. He got a ladder, traipsed across the floor, opened the ladder, hurried up the ladder, opened the window, ran down the ladder, put the ladder away, sat down, took a shot of whiskey, took up a brush and marked a painting with a stroke of the wrist—just right. I asked him, Did you like doing that? And he said, Which part? And I thought, Ooh.” To which Serra’s interlocutor, curator Kynaston McShine, responded, referring to Johns: “The master of questions.” [18] If Judd and Serra sought in disparate ways to answer Johns’s sketchbook queries, Johns has remained exactly that, the master of questions, posing them—coyly, pointedly, insistently—again and again in his works.

Thumb-Show

Thumb-Show Thumbnails
Jasper Johns, Alphabets, 1962
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Detail
Jasper Johns, Alphabets, 1962

Jasper Johns

Alphabets, 1962

Watercolor, chalk, magic marker and litho ink over lithographic proof

33 1/4 x 23 3/4 inches, image 

41 x 29 1/4 inches, sheet

Inquire
Jasper Johns, Lead Relief Series, 1969 
Light Bulb
0 through 9
Bread
High School Days
Flag
The Critic Smiles
Jasper Johns, Lead Relief Series, 1969 

Jasper Johns

Lead Relief Series, 1969 
Six lead reliefs with some variations: embossed sheet lead with mirror (High School Days); with tin leaf and cast gold (The Critic Smiles); and with oil on paper hand-painted by the artist (Bread
23 x 17 inches, High School Days 
23 x 17 inches, The Critic Smiles 
17 x 23 inches, Flag 
39 x 17 inches, Light Bulb 
23 x 17 inches, Bread 
30 x 23 1/2 inches, 0 through 9 
Edition of 60 

ULAE 72-6  

Inquire
Jasper Johns  Figure 7, from Color Numeral Series, 1969 
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Detail
Jasper Johns  Figure 7, from Color Numeral Series, 1969 

Jasper Johns 
Figure 7, from Color Numeral Series, 1969 
Lithograph 
28 x 22 1/2 inches, image 
38 x 31 inches, sheet 
Edition of 40 

ULAE 66 

Inquire
Jasper Johns Flag on Orange, 1998 
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Jasper Johns Flag on Orange, 1998 

Jasper Johns
Flag on Orange, 1998 
Etching and aquatint 
17 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches, image 
27 x 19 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 27 

Inquire
Jasper Johns  Untitled, 2008 

Jasper Johns 
Untitled, 2008 
Monotype printed on wove paper 
19 3/8 x 13 inches, image 
31 3/4 x 22 5/8 inches, sheet 

M92 

Inquire
Donald Judd Untitled, 1991 (Menziken 91-97) 
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Donald Judd Untitled, 1991 (Menziken 91-97) 

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1991 (Menziken 91-97) 
Clear anodized aluminum with yellow over red acrylic sheet 
10 x 40 x 10 inches 

Inquire
Donald Judd Untitled, 1961-79 

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1961-79 
Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper 
15 x 20 1/4 inches, image 
21 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 25 

Schellmann 30 

Inquire
Donald Judd (1928-1994) 

Donald Judd (1928-1994) 
Untitled, 1961-79 
Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper 
15 x 20 1/4 inches, image 
21 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 25 

Schellmann 31 

Inquire
Donald Judd Untitled, 1961-78 

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1961-78 
Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper 
10 x 16 3/4 inches, image 
14 x 20 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 25 

Schellmann 26 

Inquire
Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #10, 2013 
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Detail
Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #10, 2013 

Richard Serra
Courtauld Transparency #10, 2013 
Litho crayon on Mylar 
30 x 24 inches 

Inquire
Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #6, 2013 
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Detail
Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #6, 2013 

Richard Serra
Courtauld Transparency #6, 2013 
Litho crayon on Mylar 
30 x 24 inches 

Inquire
Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #12, 2013 
Seeing Clearly: Johns, Judd, Serra
Detail
Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #12, 2013 

Richard Serra
Courtauld Transparency #12, 2013 
Litho crayon on Mylar 
30 x 24 inches 

Inquire
Jasper Johns, Alphabets, 1962

Jasper Johns

Alphabets, 1962

Watercolor, chalk, magic marker and litho ink over lithographic proof

33 1/4 x 23 3/4 inches, image 

41 x 29 1/4 inches, sheet

Jasper Johns, Lead Relief Series, 1969 

Jasper Johns

Lead Relief Series, 1969 
Six lead reliefs with some variations: embossed sheet lead with mirror (High School Days); with tin leaf and cast gold (The Critic Smiles); and with oil on paper hand-painted by the artist (Bread
23 x 17 inches, High School Days 
23 x 17 inches, The Critic Smiles 
17 x 23 inches, Flag 
39 x 17 inches, Light Bulb 
23 x 17 inches, Bread 
30 x 23 1/2 inches, 0 through 9 
Edition of 60 

ULAE 72-6  

Jasper Johns  Figure 7, from Color Numeral Series, 1969 

Jasper Johns 
Figure 7, from Color Numeral Series, 1969 
Lithograph 
28 x 22 1/2 inches, image 
38 x 31 inches, sheet 
Edition of 40 

ULAE 66 

Jasper Johns Flag on Orange, 1998 

Jasper Johns
Flag on Orange, 1998 
Etching and aquatint 
17 1/2 x 11 3/4 inches, image 
27 x 19 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 27 

Jasper Johns  Untitled, 2008 

Jasper Johns 
Untitled, 2008 
Monotype printed on wove paper 
19 3/8 x 13 inches, image 
31 3/4 x 22 5/8 inches, sheet 

M92 

Donald Judd Untitled, 1991 (Menziken 91-97) 

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1991 (Menziken 91-97) 
Clear anodized aluminum with yellow over red acrylic sheet 
10 x 40 x 10 inches 

Donald Judd Untitled, 1961-79 

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1961-79 
Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper 
15 x 20 1/4 inches, image 
21 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 25 

Schellmann 30 

Donald Judd (1928-1994) 

Donald Judd (1928-1994) 
Untitled, 1961-79 
Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper 
15 x 20 1/4 inches, image 
21 1/2 x 29 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 25 

Schellmann 31 

Donald Judd Untitled, 1961-78 

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1961-78 
Woodcut in cadmium red on offset paper 
10 x 16 3/4 inches, image 
14 x 20 3/4 inches, sheet 
Edition of 25 

Schellmann 26 

Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #10, 2013 

Richard Serra
Courtauld Transparency #10, 2013 
Litho crayon on Mylar 
30 x 24 inches 

Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #6, 2013 

Richard Serra
Courtauld Transparency #6, 2013 
Litho crayon on Mylar 
30 x 24 inches 

Richard Serra Courtauld Transparency #12, 2013 

Richard Serra
Courtauld Transparency #12, 2013 
Litho crayon on Mylar 
30 x 24 inches 

Additional captions in order of appearance:

Jasper Johns, Alphabets (detail), 1962. Watercolor, chalk, magic marker and litho ink over lithographic proof, 33 1/4 x 23 3/4 inches, image; 41 x 29 1/4 inches, sheet.

Richard Serra, Courtauld Transparency #6 (detail), 2013. Litho crayon on Mylar, 30 x 24 inches.

Jasper Johns, Figure 7, from Color Numeral Series (detail), 1969. Lithograph, 28 x 22 1/2 inches, image; 38 x 31 inches, sheet. Edition of 40. ULAE 66 

Notes:

[1] Jasper Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 60.

[2] Rosalind Krauss, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd,” Artforum (May 1966).

[3] Judd quoted in John Coplans, Don Judd (Pasadena, CA: Pasadena Art Museum, 1971), pp. 25, 30.

[4] Jennifer L. Roberts, “Casting Blind,” in Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror (New York and Philadelphia: Whitney Museum of American Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2021), p. 169.

[5] Jeffrey Weiss, “Due Process: Richard Serra’s Early Splash/Cast Works,” Artforum (November 2015). Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, p. 54.

[6] Necessitated by the sale of his studio building, Johns eventually donated the work, originally titled Splash Piece: Casting (1969), to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where Serra and Johns collaborated to reconstitute it. The work is now titled Gutter Corner Splash: Night Shift, 1969/1995: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/91.30/.

[7] Weiss, “Due Process: Richard Serra’s Early Splash/Cast Works.” The work was Serra’s Casting (1968), installed as part of Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, Whitney Museum of American Art, May 19 – July 6, 1969.

[8] Serra quoted in Dave Hickey, “Serra’s Parables of Gravity and Architecture,” in Richard Serra: Weight and Measure Drawings (New York: The Drawing Center, 1994), p. 11.

[9] Ibid., p. 11.

[10] Krauss, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd.”

[11] Judd quoted in Coplans, Don Judd, pp. 36-7.

[12] Ibid., p. 44.

[13] Serra quoted in Kynaston McShine, “A Conversation about Work with Richard Serra,” in Richard Serra Sculpture: Forty Years (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007), p. 24.

[14] Weiss, “Due Process: Richard Serra’s Early Splash/Cast Works.”

[15] Richard Shiff, Richard Serra: Recent Drawings (New York: Craig F. Starr Gallery, 2012), n.p.

[16] This relates directly to a parable that also comes from Johns’s notebooks, of the watchman and the spy: “The watchman falls ‘into’ the ‘trap’ of looking. The “spy” is a different person ‘looking’ is and is not ‘eating’ and ‘being eaten’ … The spy designs himself to be overlooked. The watchman ‘serves’ as a warning.” Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, p. 59.

[17] Johns, Writings, Sketchbook Notes, Interviews, p. 52.

[18] Serra quoted in McShine, “A Conversation about Work with Richard Serra,” p. 24.