Nick Hackworth

Donald Judd/Constantin Brancusi

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

With commendable intelligence, the Tate is staging exhibitions of two giants of 20th century sculpture — the Romanian, Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and the American, Donald Judd (1928-1994). Though Judd was not particularly influenced by Brancusi, there is a measure of intellectual continuity that runs from one to the other, and a sense of how iconoclastic early modernism developed into the austere high modernism characterised by the younger man’s minimalism. But there are closer parallels too, for both sculptors were interested in purity, both had a keen sense of their own worth and both, rightly, as these shows prove, were suspicious of museum displays of their work.

Brancusi, who lived in Paris in its glory days, in the first half of the 20th century, was an ancestor to the Mockney — he shuffled around in clogs, talking up his elemental peasant roots while talking about himself in the third person and disgorging aphorisms. Of his work, he said, “They are imbeciles who call it abstract”, because apparently what he was really interested in was “the essence of things”.

Imbeciles we are, then, for in practice he sought the essential by steadily abstracting natural forms, as shown by the series of small egg-like forms from a decade later. This smoothing and rounding both fitted and fed the Zeitgeist of Art Deco with its aesthetic of the aerodynamic. Indeed, Brancusi’s most iconic works, Maiastra and Bird in Space, could have decorated the bonnets of luxury cars (US Customs felt the same way — in 1927, they attempted to tax Bird as an expensive kitchen utensil). Though a competent, modish sculptor, Brancusi was not a great one. But Tate Modern’s pompous display suggests otherwise. His best pieces perch atop specially created white columns rising from absurdly wide white disks that resemble huge buttons with erections. They try to make you forget that these are domestic-scale works, meant to sit on a collector’s table, and elevate them beyond their worth.

In a sense, Judd’s work, in a show curated by Tate director Nicholas Serota, is also presented out of context. Hanging in the café between the two exhibitions, a series of photographs of the sculptor’s live/work spaces in Texas and New York reveal how the sculptor displayed his work. They show spaces with minimal furniture, in which art by Judd and his contemporaries holds court — austerely beautiful and habitable aesthetic environments. The repeated wooden and metal units make sense in Judd’s settings; he knew this and took pains to ensure that they would not be changed after his death. The studios have since become a temple for art pilgrims.

In the gallery, en masse, Judd’s works become rather silly, though still worth seeing for their illustration of how minimalism has had such enormous impact on contemporary visual culture. Intelligent use of space was his obsession, and his champions talk of his “dynamic impact on the space”. In his homes, the phrase fits, but, as one stands in front of the huge, open plywood boxes, or large metal cubes in this impersonal, public display, there is little dynamic impact. At Tate Modern, Judd’s works look like dysfunctional Ikea storage units. Serota could have used them to display the Brancusis.

Constantin Brancusi runs until 23 May, Donald Judd from tomorrow to 25 April. Information: 020 7887 8888.