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ESSAYS Mousse 8

Permanent Judd: Donald Judd

by Cecilia Alemani

 

In the last five decades, the downtown neighborhood called SoHo (acronym for South of Houston Street) has drastically changed. Mainly built in the second half of the 19th century for commercial purposes, it housed a multitude of factories and storehouses. In the Sixties the majority of the edifices were abandoned as the industries had moved out of Manhattan. The vacant buildings offered a great location to artists who converted the former factories into large lofts and studios. The rent was cheap and the space was plentiful. Little by little galleries started taking over the ground floors. Up to the beginning of the Eighties, SoHo was mainly an art district on the verge of illegality: many of the industrial buildings disseminated throughout the neighborhood were officially meant only for commercial use, but despite that, many artists converted them into residential spaces. As it is happening today with another downtown neighborhood—the Lower East Side—SoHo soon became a victim of its own transformation: the new generation of art spaces, both galleries and non-profits, helped the district to improve, transforming the derelict areas into prosperous ones. At the end of the Eighties and mostly in the second half of the Nineties, the neighborhood got more and more expensive, and the rapid process of gentrification pushed away the art community to make space for the fancy boutiques and design stores that populate the streets now.

Today, almost unnoticeable to the rushed visitor immersed in a shopping day in SoHo’s trendy design district, one could still find an intact, almost a secret sanctuary of contemporary art, which also stands as a monument to what this neighborhood used to be. The Judd Foundation, sited in an edifice that the legendary minimalist artist Donald Judd bought in the late Sixties and used both as living and working space for himself and his family, occupies a magnificent iron cast building at the hectic corner of Mercer Street and Spring Street. Although buried behind scaffolding, the building is a wonderful example of 19th century industrial architecture but, more importantly, it preserves, in an almost religious way, Judd’s legacy of artwork, furniture, and installations.

Born in Missouri in 1928, Judd studied philosophy at Columbia University in New York and wrote art criticism for many American art magazines before becoming one of America’s most famous artists. He started making expressionist paintings in the late Fifties, but soon abandoned the illusionistic media to approach the three-dimensional volume of sculpture or, as Judd would say, of the “specific object”. His production is characterized by the use of simple industrial materials such as metal, plywood, concrete, and Plexiglas which he assembled in regular geometric and repeated forms. Throughout his life, Judd also made furniture: as expressions of his multifaceted talent, the design creations reach a perfect balance between simplicity and absolute elegance. Both artworks and furniture are today preserved at the Judd Foundation in SoHo.

Following Judd’s death in 1994, and after years of legal struggles, economic difficulties and prolonged restorations, the Judd Foundation finally re-opened its doors to the visitors a few months ago, although only by appointment. Run mainly by Donald Judd’s children—Flavin Starbuck (born in 1968) and Rainer Yingling (born in 1970)—the Foundation, established in 1996 and in charge of the artist’s estate, aims to preserve the living and working spaces that Judd owned when he passed away, both in New York City and in Marfa, Texas. All through his life, in fact, Judd had organized his work in his home and exhibition spaces, creating unique installations that he wished to see perfectly preserved. As he stated in his last will: “It is my hope that such of my works which I own at the time of my death as are installed at 101 Spring Street in New York City, or in Marfa, Texas, will be preserved where they are installed.”

Judd purchased the building on 101 Spring Street in 1968 when SoHo was still a no-man’s-land, and you could afford to buy an abandoned commercial building like this one for only $68,000. A five-story cast-iron factory from the late Nineteen-century, it rises today as the best-preserved building in SoHo, an extraordinary example that merges an industrial purpose with an innovative and elegant look. Originally, the edifice used to host a retail store on the ground level and different companies on the higher floors where commercial machines and industrial equipments were assembled in the spacious open plans.

The 101 Spring Street building was extremely influential for Judd’s work and for pretty much the whole New York artistic community. Disappointed with the “curatorial” abuses that his works had to undertake in museums—he always complained how badly his works were exhibited in regular institutions—Judd bought this building and adopted it as if it was a museum itself. Not only did he install his works in the way he really wanted, with natural light coming through the large windows (he hated shadows created by artificial light), but he also included the works of other artists, mainly his friends and companions. The Foundation displays pieces by Jean Arp, Carl Andre, Larry Bell, John Chamberlain, Stuart Davis, Dan Flavin, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, Frank Stella, H.C. Westermann, Lucas Samaras, Ad Reinhardt, and even Marcel Duchamp.

It was here, in the late 1960s, that Judd formulated the main concept that underlies his artistic production: his home was the backdrop for what he later would have called the idea of “permanent installation”: that is, the belief that the placement of the artwork in space is as crucial as the work itself. Acting with the maximum freedom, Judd installed more than 500 objects—artworks, prototypes, furniture, decorative objects and ceremonial masks—in a striking balance between the historic building and his own radical concepts of interior design. His aim was to integrate art within the space surrounding it in order to obliterate the distinction between art and life.

Left untouched after his death, the display on view now shows the artist’s almost sacral attention to the spatial disposition of the artworks in dialogue with the furniture and the building itself. As Judd himself said, “My requirements were that the building be useful for living and working and more importantly, more definitely, be a space in which to install work of mine and others. I spent a great deal of time placing the art and a great deal designing the renovation in accordance. Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and to be permanent.” The concept of “permanent installation” with its radical approach to the display of artworks deeply influenced recent art history and the way we relate ourselves to art. In those very years in the late Sixties, Judd had long conversations with Heiner Friedrich, at that time a SoHo art dealer, that later in 1974 became the co-founder, together with Philippa de Menil, of the Dia Foundation where Judd’s beliefs found their most accomplished outcome.

In the late Seventies, tired of the suddenly populated neighborhood and running out of space, Judd moved his studio and his two children down to the isolated town of Marfa, Texas, where he bought several properties in the Chihuahua desert, 200 miles from the nearest airport. As the legend goes, Judd picked the ghost town of Marfa because it was the less populated territory in the US. He spent the rest of his life there expanding his possessions and establishing the Chinati Foundation, a public institution originally created in collaboration with Dia Foundation to host large-scale works permanently installed there. Now, thanks to the Judd Foundation and the Chinati Foundation, Marfa constitutes a pilgrimage destination for art lovers.

Today, back in 101 Spring Street, crossing the glass door that recites AdC (Ayala de Chinati, the name of Judd’s ranch south of Marfa), is as though nothing had changed since the Seventies. Wandering through the five floors of this contemporary untouched temple, one could still grasp the artist’s visionary approach to space as well as his almost pathological attention to details. All throughout the building, one could hear the subtle conversation between emptiness and volumes: his sculptures and furniture create a vibrant dialogue with the void spaces surrounding them, while the building and its great light function as the perfect scenery for his permanently installed works.

Judd loved this building. He kept it as it was, with large, loft-like open spaces and no walls or partitions, and not even doors for the bathrooms. Originally, the ground floor was used as Judd’s studio. After a while, Judd decided to move his studio to the third floor, as too many people would stop by and interrupt him while working behind the street windows. The ground floor then became an exhibition space. On view—you can still see it from the street—there are five aluminum boxes by Judd on the wall, and a wonderful, late piece by Carl Andre: Manifest Destiny (1986), a freestanding sculpture made of few bricks piled one on top of the other, gently leaning, almost trembling like a precarious Pisa Tower in the middle of the bare space.

To go upstairs, you could use either the elevator—a frightening, old lift—or the stairs, which run on the back of the building where Judd installed a large collection of African masks, mainly bought in SoHo. The second floor hosts the kitchen: all around an old industrial stove from the original building, Judd installed few minimal pieces of furniture, mainly designed by himself, such as a large wooden table with 12 chairs and a comfortable square daybed: all furniture was built in Marfa and then shipped back to New York. The rest of the floor is decorated with a 1970 fresco by David Novros and a red painting by Ad Reinhardt from 1952.

The third floor was Judd’s studio. So quiet and sparse that the artist always forbid installing telephones or any communication system connected to the rest of the house. Judd even went as far as developing a system for isolating the access to the floor via the elevator, so that nobody could disturb him in his realm. This floor is the most fascinating in the building. The space is occupied by two of Judd’s very large aluminum sculptures, a Larry Bell’s glass cube, two Alvar Aalto chairs, Judd’s desk with his drawing tools, and a small table. The very basic design evokes either a meditation room or a Spartan cinematographic setting: it is as though the floor was embedded with a religious, almost Franciscan atmosphere.

The last two floors are where the family would spend more time. The forth floor is a very minimal living room, with tables and chairs reminiscent of the austere simplicity and almost ascetic touch of the Shaker interior design; a Claes Oldenburg piece from 1961 and a large Stella piece from 1967 hung on the wall. The fifth and last floor is the apotheosis of the building. It used to be Judd’s bedroom: In the middle of the space lies the bed, a low, Zenlike wooden platform that Judd designed in 1970. Behind it, an astonishing early work by Judd from 1962, a John Chamberlain’s car piece, and a soft sculpture by Oldenburg. But the floor is mainly commanded by a neon piece that Dan Flavin created for Judd’s firstborn and titled Dedicated to Flavin Starbuck Judd ‘68. Echoing the sequence of large windows on the back, Flavin’s artwork is a series of red and blue neon tubes installed in a metal frame that runs through the entire length of the room. Like a threshold to the void, the work shapes a progressive and rhythmic screen made of light and empty spaces. Apparently, Judd used to keep the neon always on, even at nighttime. Together with the rest of the building, this floor symbolizes Judd’s vision: it is the man that has to adapt to art, and not vice versa.

 

Originally published on Mousse 8 (April 2007)

 

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