“Things that exist exist,” the Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd once wrote, “and everything is on their side.” His words are in a sense the credo of an empiricist, which was Judd’s preferred description of himself. He disdained the term Minimalist, along with the whole idea of art movements.
Judd, who died in 1994 at the age of 65, didn’t believe in the afterlife, but he did believe in his art and his legacy. So it is hard not to imagine some kind of Judd spirit approving when 101 Spring Street, the five-story 19th-century cast-iron building in SoHo where he lived and worked off and on for 25 years, opens for small public tours on Monday, his 85th birthday. Its inauguration can only be good for art, design and architecture in New York City and elsewhere.
Spring Street is once again almost precisely as Judd left it, after a painstaking three-year renovation, at a cost of $23 million, that has included extensive repairs to the cast-iron facade, new double-pane windows and frames (in a building that is mostly windows), the installation of climate control and adjustments to meet fire and safety regulations. Various pieces of Judd’s art, as well as that of artists he admired — Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, Frank Stella and Larry Bell — remain exactly where he placed them. So does the furniture — most of it by Alvar Aalto, Gerrit Rietveld and Judd himself — and the kitchen utensils, stacked dinner plates and rows of ceramic bowls and glasses. African sculptures line the five-story stairwell, which Judd left largely untouched.
Astoundingly, given the generations of artists that New York has nurtured, the Judd building is the first fully preserved artist’s house-museum in Manhattan and only the second in the city as a whole. (The other, in Staten Island, is the home of the documentary photographer Alice Austen, who died in 1952.) Its preservation and elaborate rehabilitation reflect the obstinance and inspired dedication of the artist’s son and daughter, Flavin and Rainer Judd, now 45 and 42. They refused to listen when advised to sell Spring Street to settle the debts of Judd’s messy estate and to support the larger concentration of Judd’s many activities in Marfa, Tex. — his art, extensive collections and immense library, as well as the several buildings he redesigned, turning them, he rightly claimed, into architecture.
But Spring Street is the template for all things Marfa, and New York is where Judd became an artist. It is more than right that the city should have its own, more compressed, equally revelatory Judd environment. After all, Judd’s many interests — art, design, visual culture — are expressed most fully and accessibly by the spaces in which he lived and worked. Spending time in them looking at the art, the everyday objects and his deliberate arrangement of everything can be a life-changing experience.
That totality changed my life when I first encountered it as a Midwestern college student in the fall of 1968. I suspect it will similarly affect others, starting on Monday. (Reservations can be made at juddfoundation.org; admission is $25; $12.50 for students.)
I met Judd while participating in the Whitney Museum’s fledging independent-study program, and I ended up writing my senior thesis on his decadelong evolution from painting into the realm of three dimensions. He was the first prominent artist I had ever known; his work, the first contemporary art I had ever tried to understand and write about.
I didn’t understand much at that point or write very well about it. But I got something immediate and irrevocable when I first visited the small loft at Park Avenue South and 19th Street — now replaced by a Gwathmey Siegel monstrosity — where he lived at that time with his wife, Julie Finch, and Flavin, then 9 months old. Just about every object in sight held my attention, whether it was a kitchen pot or the bead-encrusted gold box with a knife piercing one corner, a work by Lucas Samaras placed (then as now) at one corner of his bed. A cactus garden set in big, shallow, galvanized-iron pans signaled his affinity for the Southwest. (He much preferred the crisp distinctions of that area’s topography and flora to the blending greens of the Northeast.)
Every object chez Judd had a kind of strength of personality or presence, as if it had been carefully scrutinized before being let in the door, which it had. This sense of scrutiny helped me not only to understand Judd’s work; it also clarified something in myself. I liked looking at things, all kinds of things, analyzing them, figuring out what was good, what worked and why.
The Whitney semester salvaged my college career by setting my sights on New York and its art world. To research my paper, I interviewed Judd extensively, and for the next few years he was a good friend and mentor, and for some time after that, I was an unabashed Juddite. Occasionally during that semester I accompanied him on trips to his fabricator, Bernstein Brothers, an industrial metal shop in Long Island City, Queens. Once or twice I went with him to 101 Spring Street — in what was then called the Cast-Iron District — which he had just purchased. As the building was being cleared out, he was moving things in. I remember standing in the building’s filthy basement unrolling his paintings from the 1950s, which seemed like ancient history.
When I returned the following fall, after graduation, Judd and his family were living, or at least camping out, at 101 Spring Street. Soon he began a series of improvements and adjustments, some of which I witnessed firsthand while working as his secretary and later on his catalogue raisonné in the early 1970s. They would continue until his death.
Judd once characterized himself as having been “born attracted to space,” and 101 Spring Street was his first chance to show what he meant: art and other things worth looking at deserve to be seen, properly placed in the proper amount of space; space is interesting in itself, whether as open landscape or apportioned by architecture. The building intensified his already sharp preservationist instincts, which gave priority to existing structures and the natural landscape. He disliked most Earthworks as violations of nature and preferred improving existing buildings to erecting new ones. “I’ve never built anything on new land,” he once wrote proudly.
Judd was especially attracted to the cast-iron buildings that dominated SoHo (a term he hated almost as much as Minimalism) for the incipient modernity of their uncluttered lines, spaces and simple method of fabrication: their iron parts were sand-cast in multiples and assembled.
Judd must also have admired 101 Spring Street’s repeating forms. Its many windows and the five light-filled spaces that they sheath corroborated his favored compositional approach of “one thing after another.” He conceived of each floor as a single, unobstructed space dedicated to a single activity: sleeping (fifth), working (third) and eating (second). He viewed the fourth floor, which contains tables and benches of his design, as a kind of parlor.
Judd’s plans changed as the building evolved. When the studio was being plastered, he decided that he liked the rough undercoat; the white finishing layer was never applied. His alterations were subtle but striking: he opened the fourth floor to the stairwell and — perhaps his most brilliant addition — covered the ceiling with the same kind of wood used in the floor, implying a planar volume often found in his sculptures. He also experimented; for a while in the 1970s the building’s elevator shaft was painted his signature color, cadmium-red light, before reverting back to white.
Long before he started seriously designing furniture, you can see that the line between art and functioning object blur at Spring Street. For example, on the second floor, some of the kitchen shelves progress from 2 to 12 inches high in increments of 2 inches. The design is a simplified form of the progressions he used in some of his wall sculptures — and who knew that a two-inch-high shelf was perfect for storing cutlery?
On the fifth floor he designed and built a small wood and plaster structure to serve as a walk-in closet/dressing room. It has stainless-steel sinks (never hooked up) whose elliptical shape and slanted bottoms echo a circular, site-specific sculpture he made for display on the ramp of the Guggenheim. Overhead, a sleeping loft for Flavin has one of my favorite design touches: a ladder with footholds requiring the children to face inward while ascending or descending. Other signs of fatherly attention include, in a shelf-lined nook on the third floor, a collection of his children’s grade-school efforts in ceramics.
The resurrection of 101 Spring Street is Flavin and Rainer Judd’s hard-won tribute to their father, and a testament to their own perseverance. It may be something he could not have quite imagined, and he probably couldn’t have pulled it off, given his disdain for red tape. It pays homage to his life and vision, but it is not just a shrine. Beyond illuminating Judd’s exacting sensibility, the building and its contents offer a multitude of lessons in looking, pure and simple, at things that exist, in space, and their potent effect on our lives.