A specific object’s journey from Green Gallery to the National Mall: A comparison of two Donald Judd works

Elena Bowen and LaStarsha McGarity


In the winter of 1963 Donald Judd introduced the world to his specific objects in his first solo show at Green Gallery in New York City. Two of the works displayed in this show have since made their way into the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Gallery of Art. Between 1963 and the present day, there is a significant lack of information about their histories. The objects were added to private collections after the Green Gallery exhibition and from there any treatments, exhibitions, and modifications are a mystery.

Over the course of five months, the Hirshhorn’s 1963 Untitled was researched, analyzed, and treated in preparation for a Spring 2020 loan to MoMA for a Donald Judd retrospective. The overall goals of this project were to: (1) Create a clear timeline of the object’s history including treatment, exhibitions, and additions; (2) Conduct materials research and analysis of the objects to better understand the artist’s practice; (3) Bring the object’s surface appearance closer to the artist’s original intent; and (4) Stabilize recurring condition issues. Shortly after starting the project the Hirshhorn and National Gallery of Art conservators realized we were working simultaneously on contemporaneous Judd pieces and began a collaboration. While all research, analysis, and treatment of the Hirshhorn’s Judd had to be complete by the end of January, most of the analysis of the National Gallery of Art’s Judd has been delayed due to COVID-19 closure and restrictions.

At the Hirshhorn, the object’s historical timeline was established by conducting internal research utilizing the object files, database, and museum library. Exhibition catalogues and memos helped to nail down specific loan dates as well as the relative time-frame of some additions to the piece. Research into Judd’s working practices and materials choices was done by interviewing conservation colleagues in New York City, arranging a visit to the Judd Foundation in Marfa, TX, and scientific analysis. Non-invasive techniques included portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) and fiber optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS), while invasive analytical techniques included Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS). This materials analysis, as well as comparison with other Green Gallery works at the National Gallery of Art and Judd Foundation informed the final treatment decisions for the Hirshhorn piece. Not only were recurring condition issues addressed, but paint layers and wheels added later in the object’s history were reduced and removed, respectively. Comparison of the National Gallery’s piece to other examples at the Judd Foundation guided aesthetic choices in treatment but raised more questions about differences in fabrication, labeling, and materials. Examination of these specific objects allows us to envision a timeline of Judd’s construction process and the evolution of his aesthetic choices as well as identify condition issues that arise from Judd’s media choices.

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28