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Donald Judd: Early Work 1956-1965

Donald Judd with one of his paintings, 1956

Louise Bourgeois: The Early Work
(Krannert Art Museum)

Louise Bourgeois with her three sons

I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence
(Phillips Collection)

Jacob Lawrence (right) at the WPA workshop in Harlem, ca. 1933-34
Book Report
by Walter Robinson

Can we discover the secrets of art success in the details of an artist's early life? According to Donald Judd: Early Work 1955-1968 (D.A.P., $40), the model Minimalist did time as an army engineer making prefab huts and later studied empirical philosophy at Columbia University. Then again, he also taught elementary school for several years and once exhibited in the Washington Square Outdoor Exhibition. Sounds like it could have gone either way.

Judd's accomplishment could hardly be better celebrated than through this beautifully produced hardback book, published to accompany an exhibition held earlier this summer at the Kunsthalle Bieleveld, May 5-July 21, 2002, and subsequently traveling to the Menil Collection in Houston, Jan. 21-Apr. 27, 2003. Its 184 pages contain a detailed essay by curator Thomas Kellein, two telling texts by Judd himself (including his influential 1964 essay, Specific Objects) and an especially nice selection of some 80 color photos.

Individual works, including early student figure studies and his experiments with abstract painting, are well represented, of course. But it is the installation shots, of things like his 1963 exhibition at Green Gallery, for instance, and of rooms at his personal museum down on the converted army base in Marfa, Tx., that provide on their own convincing witness to the impact of his "relatively sudden, artistically assured entrance on the art scene in 1963," as Kellein puts it.

Biography was hardly the subject of Judd's work, in distinct contrast to the Surrealist sculptor Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) (who arguably qualifies as the Minimalist's artistic grandparent). Louise Bourgeois: The Early Work (Krannert Art Museum, $35 paper) focuses on a group of sculptures, or "personages," originally done in wood and now cast in bronze, made between 1945 and '55. The 152-page book, with 125 illustrations, also includes a suite of nine engravings, He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947), over 30 drawings and 15 paintings from the same period.

At the time Bourgeois was a mother of three, in her 30s, married to the art historian Robert Goldwater (author of Primitivism in Modern Painting) and very much a part of the Abstract-Expressionist art scene in post-War New York. She had begun to show at galleries and in the prestigious Whitney Annual exhibitions, so the story here -- not that it's actually told -- is not hidden beginnings but rather establishing a long pedigree.

Bourgeois' totem sculptures are especially iconic examples of Surrealist biomorphism, which was hardly an uncommon lingo at the time, though they certainly look classic now. One highlight, in addition to her trademark anthropomorphic imagery, is the black and white photos of the young Bourgeois with her kids, her husband and her works.

The book accompanies an exhibition organized by Josef Helfenstein for the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Urbana-Champaign, where it premiered May 1-Aug. 4, 2002. The show subsequently appears at the Madison (Wisc.) Art Center, Sept. 15-Nov. 17, 2002, and the Aspen (Colo.) Art Museum, Dec. 13, 2002-Feb. 2, 2003.

Still another new book focusing on an artist's early years is I See You, I See Myself: The Young Life of Jacob Lawrence by Deba Foxley Leach (Phillips Collection, $19.95). Published on the occasion of the Phillips' 2001 retrospective of the artist, the 64-page, lavishly color-illustrated hardcover has the feel of a children's book -- and indeed, it is exactly that, designed as an educational aid for students. Clearly, the author hopes to use Lawrence's example to inspire the budding artists of today.

The result is felicitous, particularly in the case of Lawrence, who dropped out of high school at 15 and began studying art first at Charles Alston's Harlem Art Workshop in the basement of the Schomberg Public Library on 135th Street and later with the WPA. The kid was nothing if not prodigious. By the age of 23, in 1940, Lawrence had undertaken his cycles of paintings on the life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and on the massive migration of African-Americans from the rural south to New York City during and after World War I.

Lawrence's "The Migration Series" was exhibited at Edith Halpert's Downtown Gallery in 1941, before he was 25. The young art stars of today don't have anything on him at all.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.

More works by
Donald Judd
in Artnet Galleries

More works by
Louise Bourgeois
in Artnet Galleries

More works by
Jacob Lawrence
in Artnet Galleries