Minimalist in Manhattan

“It used to be like a big porch, you could open the windows as wide as you wanted. SoHo then was mainly made up of factories,” says Rainer Judd, daughter of the late artist Donald Judd, whose adroit, spare 1960s sculptures and installations redefined Minimalist art. We are standing on the first floor of her childhood home, and her father’s studio, in Spring Street, downtown New York, facing an expanse of full-length windows that sweeps around one of the most dramatic buildings in Manhattan.

The five-storey 19th-century structure is the last surviving single-use cast iron building in the neighbourhood, a monumental mass of 1,300 solid, restored pristine pieces. The breathtaking façade was unveiled to the public last summer after a 10-year renovation, and from next month Judd devotees will be able to step inside the space for the first time in three years following a $23m restoration.

Donald Judd moved in to the light-filled space with his family in 1968, and the building, built in 1870 and designed by Nicholas Whyte, remained his New York studio until his death in 1994. A 1989 essay by the artist for a monograph entitled Architektur details how Judd reimagined and reconfigured the dilapidated interior from 1969, approaching the structure as an architectural intervention to be moulded in his mind’s eye.

“The interior of the building was ruined. There had been a separate business on each floor, most with machines leaking oil. The trash was so much that [the late French sculptor] Arman could have bought the building and left it alone,” he wryly observed. The perfectionist further reveals his masterplan, saying: “The given circumstances were very simple: the floors must be open; the right angle of windows on each floor must not be interrupted; and any changes must be compatible.” Judd adds that the building “finally contained more work of others than of mine”.

These other works, drawn from his 500-piece art collection, have been removed and reinstalled just as Judd left them (the roster of artists makes for impressive reading, encompassing Marcel Duchamp, Carl Andre, Frank Stella and Claes Oldenburg), along with his own works and furniture items. What could be a mawkish mausoleum in the artist’s name is instead an engrossing insight into what motivated Judd, especially his “permanent installation” philosophy: the idea that where and how a work is sited affects our perception of the piece.

An outstanding fluorescent work by Dan Flavin from 1969 runs, for instance, along the entire fifth floor, reflecting the cast iron windows facing Mercer Street. On the second floor, alongside the Judd-designed kitchen and bathroom, is a bold fresco by David Novros, commissioned by Judd in 1970, a visual totem that anchors the light-filled space. Carl Andre’s “Manifest Destiny” (1986), a vertical stack of meticulously placed “Empire” bricks on the first floor, is a starkly beautiful monument.

“This [philosophy] came out of the frustration and sadness of placing works and then having to de-install them. He was 42, and was aware of people whose work would be lost: Barnett Newman, for instance,” says the artist’s daughter, herself 42, with her eloquent insights into her father’s art. “I don’t think of his art as conceptual. It’s about being physical and making material. It has colour. You directly experience it. You don’t have to be wired into any philosophy to enjoy it.”

Few other people are as qualified to explain what makes the space special. Rainer spent her formative years in the downtown building, quipping that she “was brought home from hospital in a VW van”.

Reminders of family life are dotted round, symbols of domesticity amid the more aesthetic aspects of 101 Spring Street. On the fifth floor there is a sparse loft space for Rainer and her brother Flavin Judd that looks a little sad in the surroundings. “Most works were traded with other artists,” Rainer says. “The [Dan] Flavin piece wasn’t really a commission but a case of friends helping friends.”

Donald Judd at 101 Spring Street in 1970

She left Manhattan aged five for her father’s remote Texan base in Marfa, his fabled complex of living and working spaces nestled in the desert. The siblings, who returned to Manhattan in their teens, now oversee the Judd Foundation, which safeguards Donald’ Judd’s reputation and legacy by preserving his venues and ideals in both New York and Marfa.

Judd was millions of dollars in debt when he died – ironic, given that he’s now a blue-chip name selling for millions (at Christie’s New York last year, his “Untitled, 1989, Bernstein 89-24” work fetched $10.2m). Now, however, a press statement says the “Judd Foundation’s operating endowment provides financial stability to the organisation for basic maintenance of its 16 properties in New York and Marfa”. Canny (and controversial) initiatives such as a sale of Judd works at Christie’s New York in 2006, mean the body is on a firm financial footing (the endowment was established with proceeds from the auction).

The artist himself appears to have had an ambivalent relationship with the art market. “He was making money in the 1980s and was a tough cookie with his dealers: Pace, Paula Cooper and Leo Castelli,” says Rainer. “He was in utter disbelief that you could make money from art. When he began his art practice, he had no concept of it being a moneymaking endeavour. He would try to make as much money as possible to buy Swedish furniture and buy Scotch and make great meals.”

Dudley Del Balso, who worked with Judd from 1968 to 1984 overseeing museum shows and dealer relations, underlines that the artist disliked the business side of art. But that doesn’t mean he was naive about money.

Carl Andre’s stack of bricks ‘Manifest Destiny’ (1986)

Judd installed his own structures at Marfa in the 1970s along with works by significant practitioners such as John Chamberlain and Oldenburg. Boosted by funding from the Dia Art Foundation, Marfa became his main hub under the auspices of his non-profit Chinati Foundation. Judd ensured that the relationship with Dia, though shortlived, provided some sort of income. “He set up a [payment] system quite early on, stressing: ‘I want this amount of money every month’,” Rainer says.

He certainly seems to have relished mischief-making. “He was friends with [Russian artist] Ilya Kabakov and would fly the Soviet flag in Marfa,” she continues. “He had an adversarial relationship with the US government. He wouldn’t let the authorities in and was audited a lot by the Internal Revenue Service.” The FBI even seized a work from the collection: a large reproduction of a passport photo by Le Corbusier.

The image of an accomplished headstrong maverick endures, a fascinating figure revered still by artists, curators and connoisseurs. “In the early years of Spring Street, we would often start our meetings around the desk on the first floor, discussing work to be fabricated and correspondence to be dealt with,” Del Balso says, reflecting on the small, resourceful community that thrived in the New York space. “We would invariably move up to the second floor and continue our discussions there with food and drink close at hand. Discussions would veer in many directions and would sometimes result in going to a gallery to view Old Master prints or other art objects which I had been asked to source.”

But Judd had his rougher edges. The artist reportedly clashed with some of Marfa’s citizens at the outset; a foundation spokeswoman, points out, however, that as the largest employer by the late 1980s, “he was pretty popular and remains highly regarded”.

Could he be intimidating? “There are some sensitive souls who unfortunately were oppressed by his audacity and rigour,” Rainer says, diplomatically. She pauses, and looks around the sublime, refurbished premises at 101 Spring Street, and suddenly adds: “If he didn’t like you, you never got past the first floor.”

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