What Judd Built
by Nicolette Reim
Donald Judd, 101 Spring Street, New York, 1992. Photo Leo Holub © Judd Foundation.
Donald Judd (1928-1994) died unexpectedly of lymphoma. His estate was in disarray with considerable debt and took almost twenty years to straighten out. He left a directive to establish a foundation in his name (this would become the Judd Foundation) dedicated to preserving his art and the buildings where he made and installed it, alongside the work of his friends and colleagues. This included 22 buildings on 12 properties in Marfa, Texas and 101 Spring Street in New York City. His children Rainer and Flavin, then 23 and 26, were appointed executors of their father’s estate, guardians of his work and overseers of plans left unfulfilled and continue to do this today.
Judd, a highly accessible artist, had a gritty, pithy persona and much to say. His first love was architecture. When he moved to New Jersey with his family from his Missouri birthplace, he took painting classes nightly at the Art Students’ League, then studied philosophy at Columbia University, having previously attended the College of William and Mary. In 1959, Thomas Hess asked Columbia students if anyone was interested in writing reviews for the startup, Artnews. Needing money, Judd took the offer and began a career as a widely respected, pointedly direct and opinionated art critic. It also gave him a means to evolve and understand his ideas about art. Although he could be considered overbearing, he was also a relief for many who perceived the art critiques of the day as soft peddled.
4th Floor, 101 Spring Street,Judd Foundation, New York. Photo Charlie Rubin © Judd Foundation.
As an artist, Judd comes out of a very American pragmatist tradition; pragmatists believe in facts and concreteness. He considered simple existence enough to stir interest on the part of the viewer, especially work with different qualities from familiar categories. The experience comes out of seeing, never from intellectual concepts -- perception leads to thought and feeling. You look and think until it makes sense, then it becomes interesting. This involves a certain mental speed. Like other American artists of his time, Judd wanted to separate from European traditions to create distinctly American art. He was exploring non-relational composition, symmetry and repetition, parts that don’t need balancing, thus fitting in with the American fixation on concreteness and fact. He emphasized the big difference between his work and customary European ideas of balance in that his work is not “rational.” He was very influenced by Jackson Pollock, seeing his layers of paint on equal footing with each other -- ideas of polarization. They exist in “actual space,” not in false flat or false deep spaces. Judd’s early paintings of few shapes in defined areas, many painted in his trademark reds, reflect the importance he placed on elements being singular and not subservient to other aspects of the work. During this time, he turned to three-dimensional objects.
Judd came to see simple geometric shapes, such as the square and rectangle, as a way to see an object simply as “it is.” An important confirmation of his instincts came from The Street of Rossi the Architect, an early nineteenth-century urban project in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1984. Experiencing its numerical dimensions of space, he wrote, “There is no neutral space, since space is made.” The street’s geometry, basically a square, is a collective perception that belongs to everybody -- a common-sense shared experience. The square of the Leningrad street was itself, neither referencing history nor any similar configuration. Judd’s square/rectilinear constructions would be equally straightforward and individual. Meticulous about placement and dimensions, he set the height of most horizontal pieces so that the typical viewer looks slightly over the top to see three sides at once. He used simple ratios. His color choices were few in number, Judd wanting each to be distinctly different, and they neither combine, moderate nor harmonize. Later, he relied on industrial processes of applying color and stopped using brushes. He developed a work style of surrounding himself with a mass of information, notes, materials, his work and that of colleagues so he could reference them at any time.
Rossi Street, St.Petersberg
The term “Minimalism” arose during the 1960s. It extended the idea art should have its own reality and not be an imitation of something else and used extreme economy of means reduced to geometric essentials. Judd despised this label, as did others under it, considering it “simplistic.” It confirmed his belief that museums and galleries make “symbols” and “examples” of particular art pieces rather than supporting their uniqueness. He thought art history at any time to be “messy” and should be kept that way. He also did not consider himself as “conceptual,” saying he never knew what a work would look like until it was finished.
In 1969 he bought and moved with his wife, the dancer Julie Finch and young children Flavin and Rainer, to 101 Spring Street, SoHo, New York. He spent the next 20 years renovating the 5-story cast iron building into conjoined living/workspaces. His passionate belief in historic preservation drove artistic directions and motives; the building should be basically repaired, not changed. This meant the nineteenth-century open floor layout should reflect one purpose per floor. Art was everywhere; fellow artists and collaborators such as Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain and others, as well as Judd, presented together cohesively. In particular were works that wouldn’t fit on a living room wall or in refined museum settings. A Marcel Duchamp shovel readymade leaned in one corner. The American “artist’s loft” manner of living was now evolving, changing artistic scale, and influencing the architecture of galleries and museums to accommodate and encourage out-sized works.
101 Spring Street was Judd’s first project to state that art should be shown in the context of its creation. He brought together art and architecture; the space surrounding the work is crucial. Permanence of display was for the display, not the meaning; meaning is contingent on its surroundings. Showing works of art in new contexts such as temporary museum and gallery exhibits risks that they will become historical artifacts, losing immediacy and specificity. This stance guided subsequent ways he developed art-making and architecture. Judd later rented and renovated two residences in Europe, in Switzerland and Germany. Not maintained by the Judd Foundation, they continue to be privately owned, but retain his innovations. One, a former Swiss inn on a lake, has historical alpine features mixed with his geometric constructions.
4th Floor, 101 Spring Street,Judd Foundation, New York. Photo Charlie Rubin © Judd Foundation. Frank Stella Art © Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Library, 3rd Floor, 101 Spring Street, Judd Foundation, New York.
Photo Mauricio Alejo © Judd Foundation.
In 1971, Judd visited Marfa, Texas looking for a place to live in southwestern United States. He became a full-time resident in 1977. In response to his idea of sustained installations, he partnered with the Dia Art Foundation in 1979 to purchase the land and buildings in Marfa to create permanently maintained public spaces for contemporary art. Judd carefully selected for inclusion other timely artists, such as Carl Andre, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Roni Horn, John Wesley and Richard Long that shared common aesthetics and could be passed over quickly by art historians. Separating from Dia in 1986, Judd continued the project that became the Chinati Foundation. Located on 340 acres, it is on the site of the former Fort D. A. Russell in Marfa and within some buildings in the town’s center. Chinati’s initial intention was to preserve for the public permanent large-scale installations by a limited number of artists. It has evolved into an independent non-profit museum and increased its collection. Judd’s goal was to bring art, architecture and nature together in a coherent whole.
An old cattle town, Marfa sustained Judd’s interest in symmetry, simple proportions, and the relationship between interior and exterior. He wanted to retain a sense of its history, not parody it. The sites portray his care and creativity with a number of abandoned properties. Wanting to reuse old buildings as much as possible, he often improved incongruous features, leaving intact basic serviceable architecture. He designated individual buildings for specific areas of his practice and included exhibits of three-dimensional reliefs, early paintings and prints with the studios for art and architecture. Among outdoor installations in various materials at the Chinati Foundation, he positioned in two revamped artillery sheds, 100 large, box-like metallic objects with the same exterior dimensions but variations in internal divisions, an example of some slight feature that interrupts the staid geometric shape. They are what art historian Kirk Varnedoe in Pictures of Nothing called Judd’s “quirkiness” and one reason his objects maintain interest. Marfa became and remains the primary place to see Judd’s work.
South room, West building, La Mansana de Chinati/The Block,Judd Foundation, Marfa, Texas. Photo © Elizabeth Felicella. Courtesy Judd Foundation.
Donald Judd Art © Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Licensed by ARS.
This is a good moment to look at Donald Judd’s art, if only because of the recent publication of a most generous book of his work, Donald Judd Spaces, edited by Flavin and Rainer Judd, published by the Judd Foundation and DelMonico Books in 2020. The numerous, beautifully considered photographs are designed to “stop the heart,” Judd’s exclamation when coming upon something unexpectedly beautiful. The book’s cover is citron yellow with red lettering, colors seen on the “objects” for which Judd is known. On the shortened book jacket, a Dan Flavin blue and red fluorescent sculpture illuminates artworks, and furniture designed by Judd for an interior of the old New York industrial building he restored. Huge windows draw in somber, urban vistas. The metallic gray on the inside cover gives emphasis to the instant sensation Judd wanted to evoke in a viewer -- in one sweep, light, architecture, landscape and art works are felt. The book complements the Judd retrospective at MoMA in 2020 featuring his square and rectangle constructions as well as furniture. It also coincides with the 2020 expanded opening by the Judd Foundation of his studio/home at 101 Spring Street, NYC (due to the pandemic this was postponed; the building first opened to the public in 2013 following a historic restoration). The Judd Foundation maintains and makes public Judd’s personal living/workspaces and art collections located in Marfa, Texas and 101 Spring Street.
The contexts in which the Judd Foundation preserves Judd’s work and that of others are purposefully visual and comprehensible. Judd’s art ultimately tended toward architecture, which he considered knowledgeable of proportion and space in a way art is not. He wanted to invent a new kind of space – the delineation of space around his objects to produce a kind of art never seen before. He made space – not sculpture, nor painting, that he felt to be palpable. He stated that his work and that of his contemporaries he acquired was not made to be property. It’s simply art. He wanted the work he had to remain that way. It is not on the market, it is not for sale, not subject to the ignorance of the public, nor open to perversion.
‘Donald Judd Spaces’ (Judd Foundation and DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2020).
Nicolette Reim is a visual artist, poet, and writer, who lives and works in New York and Atlanta.