1.5 / Review

Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt: Conceptual Color in Print

By Mary Anne Kluth December 16, 2009

“Conceptual Color in Print,” a well-paired selection of works by Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt currently on view at the Anderson Gallery of Graphic Art at the De Young Museum, investigates the roles of procedural and perceptual logic in the artists’ printmaking practices.

The earliest works are two series of prints by LeWitt produced in 1971, and printed by Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press (which was located in Oakland at the time). Both sets rely on descriptive titles to relate the conceptual basis for the printmaking process. In both series, the true red, blue, and yellow inks used (in addition to black) are primary perceptual colors as seen by the human eye. This is opposed to the process magenta, cyan, and lemon yellow used in commercial print media. This decision steers the work away from being exclusively about printmaking itself, and includes human perception at the conceptual level.

Scribbles Printed in Four Directions Using Four Colors is a set of fifteen etchings produced from a single copper plate that systematically explore the various colors and densities achieved using black and primary colored inks. An even, looping line covers the surface of each square, alone or layered up to four times, with the plate rotated in between layers to insure that no two lines are directly repeated.

The imprecise arrangement of the prints on the wall partially muddles LeWitt’s procedural logic. Though presumably no perfect system was specified as part of the concept of the piece, the work might be better displayed in columns and rows to reflect the quasi-mathematical precision of the series, and make more explicit the necessary integrity of the complete set. Nonetheless, the prints still present the subtle results of a regimented color study, suggestive of a meticulous perceptual experiment.

Bands of Color in Four Directions and All Combinations similarly demonstrates a process of combinatory testing, using two plates to produce sixteen etchings. The regular, emblematic shapes that result are displayed in two rows, in order of increasing complexity, and appear to build a visual, almost typographic vocabulary. Untranslatable, they defy any attempt to be read as symbol or picture, and thwart assigned meanings beyond the evidence of the printing process.

Sol LeWitt. Bands of Color in Four Directions & All Combinations, 1971; etching; 12 5/8 x 12 3/4 inches each (image size); 21 1/8 x 21 1/4 inches each (sheet size). Published by Crown Point Press, San Francisco. Courtesy of Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston.

Donald Judd. Untitled, 1993; one from a set of four color woodcuts with oil-paint stripe on the glass of each galvanized iron frame; 23 1/2 x 31 3/8 in. Courtesy of the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

Judd’s prints involve rational saturated color compositions combining lines, rectangles, and grids. Untitled (1992-1993) is a portfolio of ten woodcuts that consist of a central rectangle with a border of a contrasting color, interrupted by gridlines of the creamy white bare paper. The wall text notes that Judd chose the colors “visually”, intuitively selecting five pairings that aren’t strict complements. Each pairing has two iterations, alternating each color as the inside rectangle and as the border of its partner. These prints all share a set of optical phenomena: the cool colors recede, the warm colors advance, and the grids, which appear to overlay the saturated colors, create the illusion of darker smudges where the white lines intersect. These purely perceptual effects of the colors and composition create an illusory spatial relationship of a gridded foreground, a warm middle ground, and a cool background that belies the emphatically flat surface of the print.

Untitled (1993) is a set of four framed woodcut prints with single stripes of oil paint across the glass. The prints again feature the rectangular composition, with saturated blue, black, yellow, and orange borders framing clean, off-white paper centers. On the two black and blue prints, white gaps in the border imply an off-white line bisecting each page, though the effect is an illusion compelled by human perception. These illusory lines mimic the direction of the oil-paint lines on the yellow and orange prints, and the entire set of four, installed as a square, create a complicated grid of real and illusory lines on the paper, the glass, and the wall between the frames.

The logic Judd deployed is complicated. The grid is a symbol for linear, rational thinking, and while the color choices he made weren’t based on preconceived ideas, the way he structured each series conforms to its own rigorous methodology.

The pairing of the two artists prompts comparison, and superficially Judd comes off the more subjective decision-maker. But LeWitt’s entire conceptual frameworks are subjectively chosen, though his options occurred earlier in the printmaking process than Judd’s, and can be seen as radical, highly personal choices. Both bodies of prints reiterate an insistent dryness, a thwarting of Rorschach impulses, calculated to foreground the role of thought and perception in formal art making.

"Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt: Conceptual Color in Print" is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through March 7, 2010.


Mary Anne Kluth is a painter and writer who lives and works in San Francisco. She holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and has written for Artweek and online at Shotgun Review, amongst others. She has recently shown at MISSION17 and Frey Norris Gallery in San Francisco.

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