The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

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APR 2019 Issue

Don Dudley: Early Work

Don Dudley, Untitled, 1974. Airbrush ink on paper, 23 x 29 inches. Courtesy Magenta Plains.

On view
Magenta Plains
February 22 – March 31, 2019
New York

Artists in New York and in L.A. are often understood through strategies related to their uniquely different environments. From the 1960s and into the '70s, as the story goes, artists on opposite coasts engaged with new mediums, shifted paradigms, and radically expanded a seemingly exhausted painting tradition. Despite artists' shared interests in abstraction at this time, the East Coast became associated with discrete, literal objects of the everyday while their West Coast counterparts fixated on light-responsive and illusionary surfaces. Finding inspiration in both places, Don Dudley integrated tendencies from L.A. Finish Fetish art and New York Minimalism, with his own inventive material sensibilities and formal interests, creating austere yet ethereal paintings that elude geographical groupings. Dudley, whose work was rediscovered only in recent years, left California for New York at the end of the '60s, joining other West Coast transplants including fellow painters Mary Heilmann and David Reed. An exhibition at Magenta Plains presents Dudley's early New York work—his modular paintings and drawings from the 1970s—a series that reveals the artist's remarkably conceptual approach to painting.

The period around 1970 to 1973 proved to be an auspicious start to the artist's New York career. In this short span, Dudley settled into the Tribeca loft that he still occupies today and began working as an art handler at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he won over the curator Marcia Tucker. Along with her colleagues, Tucker invited Dudley to participate in the Whitney's 1972 Painting Annual—an exhibition designed to focus more on lesser known artists than its previous iterations. Dudley had worked in California for many years—first in San Diego, and then in L.A., where he taught a young Jack Goldstein at the Chouinard Art Institute (now California Institute of the Arts), but he had not received much critical support for his work. For Tucker, the Whitney's mandate to find under-recognized talent, presumably like Dudley, was in her words, "a breadth of fresh air that propelled us forward in search of the challenging, the unknown, and the unexpected."1 Dudley contributed one of his first multi-piece works to the Annual—a sequence of angled panels that extended reticently from the wall into the gallery, representing a three-dimensional direction that he ultimately did not take while signaling his new body of modular paintings. It was also around this point that he met Anne Truitt whose columns of harmonious and contrasting hues must have had an energizing effect on him. By then, he was exploring bolder color arrangements through varying configurations of narrow panels.

The artist's current exhibition features three of his slick modular paintings, shown alongside a small group of more effusive drawings, inviting viewers to consider the compositional connections between them. Consisting of roughly four foot tall aluminum panels separated by a small two inch spacing, each painting explores a different spatial dynamic on the wall, ranging from a single row to vertically stacked and offset motifs. Eliminating signs of the artist's hand, Dudley covered their surfaces in uninflected layers of sprayed industrial lacquer.

Installation view: Don Dudley: Early Work, Magenta Plains, New York, 2019. Courtesy Magenta Plains.

Emphatic hues like chrome yellow and vermillion orange, positioned next to black, white, and pearlescent panels, produce an arresting opticality—a pulsating visual sensation that alters our perception of the work's internal patterns and interstitial spaces. The effect is not unlike Josef Albers's color interactions or Donald Judd's multi-colored late works. In his modular paintings, Dudley dispenses with the soft, rainbow-stripe palette of his '60s works, opting for a punchier chromatic experience while retaining a subtle dimensionality. After the Whitney Annual, Dudley began bending his panels so that the top and bottom edges fold back, creating a sense of buoyancy that counterbalances his high-keyed colors and opaque surfaces.

A dedicated draughtsman, Dudley first experimented with modularity in his works on paper through bands of hazy, prismatic colors. Meticulously airbrushed onto the sheet, the rich and delicate gradations are strikingly evocative of natural atmospheric tonal shifts—an emotive, illusionistic note distinct from the rigid coloring of his paintings. For instance, Two Reds, Blue and Black (1972) depicts a grid of iridescent, candy-colored rows while Cam I (1973), a series of alternating blacks and browns, is bookended by dreamy gradients of lavender. In drawings like Untitled (1974), Dudley pushes the perceptual limits of an orange hue until it becomes nearly invisible at the center, revealing a faint cruciform motif that is echoed in an evanescent white and silver altar-like painting nearby.

Dudley recorded countless variations on his modular paintings through his drawings, continually testing and proposing new compositional arrangements, often for works that were never realized. Embracing their expansive possibilities, Dudley has approached his drawings as a kind of catalog for potential configurations—a key to future realizations of the work. The modular panels in this exhibition were made in 1974, but it was not until 2011 that he presented the series again—this time, re-shuffling the existing panels based on a different set of permutations from his drawings. Dudley has again arranged the panels in this show using the drawings as a guide. Consequently, the gallery has assigned two dates to the modular paintings: 1974/2019, referring to the earlier fabrication year and its current realization in the exhibition (this does not take into account the date of a possible corresponding drawing). Cataloging questions aside, Dudley's process evinces an immensely flexible system in which his drawings operate as instructions for a nearly endless cycle of compositional groupings—linking his work to the conceptual practices of artists like Sol LeWitt or contemporary painter Cheyney Thompson, known for his formulaic works. Dudley's drawings continued to be critical to the realization of his paintings, particularly as he later came to rely on paper alone to develop his site-specific and now nonextant installations. The interdependence of Dudley's modular paintings and drawings, made in his early years in New York, underscore his radically fluid and singular mode of abstract painting.


  1. Tucker, Marcia. A Short Life of Trouble (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 95.


Melinda Lang

Melinda Lang is a curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She has previously held curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues