Donald Judd: Good Intentions

By | June 20, 2014

View of 101 Spring Street from the corner of Mercer and Spring in SoHo.

Artist Donald Judd did not believe in the afterlife. But he did believe in art.

Judd’s passion for art is enshrined at 101 Spring Street where he lived and worked off and on for over 25 years. Here Judd established a space to install his own work and the work of other artists and designers that he collected.

Collections are often dismantled and dispersed. Sometimes before death a person gives objects to relatives, friends, or institutions. All too often the array is left in the hands of bewildered family members to sort through and decipher. If one is lucky, a last will and testament provides instructions for what should become of it all. Such was the case with Judd whose leave-behinds included a building full of art. In a 1987 essay Judd wrote, “The art and architecture of the past that we know is that which remains. The best is that which remains where it was painted, placed or built.” The building at 101 Spring Street and its contents have been preserved as a permanent installation according to Judd’s wishes.

The cast-iron building at 101 Spring Street was designed by Nicholas Whyte and erected in 1870 in New York’s SoHo quarter, which at the time was known as the cast-iron district. Judd purchased this five-story structure with two basements in November 1968. The cast-iron façade with classical style pediments and Greek-inspired faux columns is an apt example of historicism typical of late nineteenth-century American architecture. The columns encase near floor to ceiling windows that frame views of Spring Street to the south and Mercer Street to the west.

Judd assigned each floor a specific purpose: eating, sleeping, working. The first floor served primarily as a workspace and gallery; the second housed the kitchen and dining areas; the third was designated another working space; the fourth another eating room; and the fifth floor contained sleeping quarters.

Now open to the public, in April I had the opportunity to join a guided tour.

The transition from narrow cobblestone lane to wide-open interior space is inviting. The pressed-tin ceiling tiles and oil-stained wooden floorboards are original. A wooden armchair on casters and roll top desk offer a nod to an earlier time but Judd’s hard-edged three-dimensional works that hang on opposite walls propel one into the next century.

Judd’s presence survives through this work. The 1970 anodized aluminum piece based on the Fibonacci sequence introduces Judd’s interest in time and space through the use of mathematical progression. The 1988 series of four cubes reveals his fascination with simple geometric form and reinforces his interest in industrial materials such as galvanized steel and plexiglas. This synergy between contrasting elements of old and new sets the tone for the rest of the tour—modernism interlaced with touchstones of the past.

African masks line the walls of the stairway leading to the second floor. At the top of the landing, shelving stocked with bottles of tequila and other liquor alludes to a more communal and spirited space. A massive table with fourteen chairs dominates the room. This ensemble designed by Judd demonstrates his fascination with scale. All fourteen chairs tuck succinctly under the table disguising the fact that they are even chairs. The chair backs flush with the table’s surface forming the illusion of a single sturdy three-dimensional object. The wide table legs measure almost the same proportion as the solid planes of the backs of the chairs leaving a repeating pattern of open spaces that rhythmically circumscribes the table. While an interesting effect, I would have liked to see more detail of the chairs.

In addition to Judd’s table chairs, examples of mid-nineteenth-century bentwood chairs manufactured by Thonet Brothers of Austria include a high chair and several child-size versions of Thonet’s model No. 14, often referred to as the “chair of chairs.” This is one of the few instances where Judd’s children are acknowledged. The dialogue between old and new is also exhibited by the intimate interaction between Judd’s understated high-back pine daybed and the decorative cast-iron of the No. 22 potbelly wood-burning stove. The roughly three-foot tall sides of the daybed gently separate the kitchen and dining areas and form a cozy rectangular nook whose geometry contrasts beautifully with the bulging organic curves of the stove.

Chairs are a repeating element throughout the building. The third floor features chairs and companion pieces by Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, who, like Judd, was a proponent of gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. The curvilinear grace of Aalto’s bent plywood offsets the rigid right angles of Larry Bell’s 1970 transparent cube mounted on a transparent pedestal. But Judd’s over-sized 1969 four-sided box, which was placed in the building in 1970 and proved too heavy to move, dwarfs everything else in sight. I so much wanted to step inside the hollow womb of this huge piece but we were not allowed to touch anything. While Judd’s drawing table and a constrained array of tools identify this as a workspace, a woven mat stretched out below a wooden Chinese headrest indicates this is also a place for contemplation.

On the fourth floor Frank Stella’s 1967 Gur II, a mesmerizing shaped-canvas painting of colorful concentric circles, overlooks the space. Five groundbreaking wooden zigzag chairs by Dutch de Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld gather around a wooden table designed by Judd. Here too the top of the table lines up precisely with the top surface of the backs of the chairs. Another of Judd’s four-legged creations stands at the opposite end of the room. The hinged top of this table is folded back from the center revealing a hidden storage unit full of glassware and dishes. This is my favorite Judd piece, simultaneously table and cabinet, an ingenious hybrid form with function.

The original tin ceiling tiles retained on the first two floors were removed on the third floor and replaced by a white ceiling. On the fourth floor Judd explores the effect of parallel planes by applying wooden flooring to the ceiling in an identical pattern to the floor below. The resulting sensation is that of being encapsulated inside one of Judd’s three-dimensional containers.

The fifth floor is for sleeping—in the company of art by colleagues and fellow artists John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and Claes Oldenburg. Judd acknowledged their formative work, among others, and their unprecedented use of industrial materials in his 1964 essay Specific Objects: “The new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting. …The newest thing about it is its broad scale. Its materials are somewhat more emphasized than before. …The use of three dimensions makes it possible to use all sorts of materials and colors.” Crushed automobile parts welded together constitute Chamberlain’s work. Fluorescent tubes distinguish Flavin’s site-specific “situations,” as he preferred to call them. Soft, pliable vinyl defines Oldenburg’s work.

In the center of the room two mattresses rest on a wooden platform low to the floor. A mysterious Lucas Samaras beaded box stabbed with knives rests at the head of the bed. An elegant high-back settee from the past breaks my concentration on the avant garde. Its two front legs bow gently outward as they approach the floor interrupting the otherwise vertical and horizontal structure. The upholstered seat is covered in a delicate striped silk that echoes the repeating linear pattern in Flavin’s site-specific tribute, which angles through the space on a north-south axis and extends close to seventy feet. The blue and magenta fluorescent tubes cast an ethereal haze over the room. It takes getting used to. When my eyes adapt, the room has morphed into a breathtaking rectangular form of pure light.

I share Judd’s desire to preserve historical architecture and admire his decision to convert one of the few remaining cast-iron buildings in the neighborhood into live-work space. I appreciate the preservation of the building with artwork and furniture intact, with the aim of achieving a total work of art. For all of Judd’s precision, though, I am amazed at the lesser quality of the construction of his own furniture when compared to the Aalto and Rietveld pieces. Also the lack of precision with which many of the objects relate to the architecture is puzzling. Pieces could be more carefully aligned to floorboards. The relationship of furniture to windows could have been more carefully considered.

Although 101 Spring Street provides a glimpse into Judd’s life and work, it is difficult to fully imagine Judd, his family and friends moving about from floor to floor. There is little evidence of the everyday and the Judd Foundation has limited access to some spaces, such as the intimate library, which unfortunately is book-less as most of Judd’s books have been moved off site. Photographs or videos might clarify what life was really like within those walls, but such revelations do not seem to have been Judd’s intention. The fact that Judd lived there seems incidental.

He wanted visitors to 101 Spring Street to experience his selection of art in the setting in which he had installed it as opposed to being shown out of context and isolated in a gallery or museum. In his 1977 essay In Defense of My Work, Judd said, “The installation of my work and of others is contemporary with its creation. The work is not disembodied spatially, socially, temporally, as in most museums. The space surrounding my work is crucial to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as into a piece itself. …The interrelation of the architecture of 101 Spring Street, its own and what I’ve invented, with the pieces installed there, has led to many of my newer, larger pieces, ones involving whole spaces.”

To Judd, 101 Spring Street was an experiment, a laboratory of sorts, which provided a foray into designing permanent installations. It became the point of departure for his subsequent work, particularly in Marfa, Texas, where works of art are inextricably linked to the surrounding landscape.

What one experiences at 101 Spring Street is a well-scripted narrative through an extraordinary live-work space tidied up for guests. Judd’s alterations to the space are intriguing. It is thrilling to see common objects in dialogue with notable works by highly acclaimed artists and designers with whom Judd shared common bonds. But the mess is missing. There are no signs of work in progress, no indications of the physical challenges of making and installing art, no marks of the trial and error that led to creative revelations, no evidence of the conceptual processes required to solve design dilemmas. There is so much more of Judd that could be revealed at 101 Spring Street. But maybe this was just not part of his plan.

Judd died in 1994 but his spirit lingers in this gray cast-iron building located at the corner of Spring and Mercer. Here Judd’s intentions are revealed thanks to a meticulous restoration led by his daughter Rainer and his son Flavin, which they completed following their father’s lead. As Judd originally intended, the floor plan was to remain open; the right angle of windows on the southwest corner of each floor was not to be interrupted; and all changes were to be compatible. Everything was to be thoroughly considered and permanent. “It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully,” Judd wrote in the Chinati Foundation catalog. “This should not always be thrown away. Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be.”

Judd’s work is sorted under the moniker minimalism, a term that Judd never endorsed. He preferred the term “three-dimensional works” as distinguished from painting and sculpture. Painting, according to Judd’s 1964 essay Specific Objects, tended to be flat, rectangular, and descriptive; and sculpture adhered to a limited palette of materials and was less extended and environmental than the new work of the period.

Judd also thought in terms of permanent artistic installations. When the work is extracted from its environment and shown in isolation the elimination of non-essential formal features becomes the focus. But when seen in context at 101 Spring Street the pieces assume new dimensions by interacting with other objects and the space that they inhabit. Together they form a consolidated environment where single objects are viewed as part of a greater whole. By insisting that the work stay together in situ Judd ignores categorization and achieves his ultimate goal. Simply put: “Very little is left in any period with the original intentions evident. I’m trying to do this.”

View of the first floor gallery through the exterior door on Spring Street.

Full view of 101 Spring Street from the southwest corner of Mercer and Spring.

Learn more:


Architecture Research Office (ARO) website

Chinati/“Mission and History,”

Dehn, Georgia. “Rainer Judd interview: a childhood frozen in time,” The Telegraph. 7:00AM BST 14 Jun 2013.

Gregory, Hannah, Domus, “101 Spring Street,” July 18, 2013.

Hamilton, Adrian. “Space odyssey: Donald Judd—space, light and sculptures that take on a life of their own,” The Independent. Sunday 18 August 2013.–space-light-and-sculptures-that-take-on-a-life-of-their-own-8773262.html

Judd, Donald. “101 Spring Street,” Architektur, 1989. Posted on Design Observer, May 5, 2011.

Judd, Donald. “In Defense of My Work,” Complete Writings 1975–1977, Van Abbe Museum, December 1977.

Judd, Donald. “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965.

Kellein, Thomas, Donald Judd. Early Work 1955–1968. D.A.P. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York, 2002.

Lange, Alexandra, “Donald Judd’s House,” The New Yorker. May 13, 2013.

Michel, Karen. NPR Transcript. “For Judd Family, Home Is Where The (Rectilinear) Art Is,” July 21, 2013, 4:59 PM ET.

Raskin, David. Donald Judd, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010.

Smith, Roberta. “Donald Judd, Leading Minimalist Sculptor, Dies at 65,” The New York Times, February 13, 1994.

Smith, Roberta. “The Artist’s Force Field Frozen in Time,” The New York Times, May 30, 2013.

Vanhemert, Kyle. “Look Inside Donald Judd’s Home, Studio, and Muse,” Fast Company, June 6, 2013.

Photos by Susan Merritt

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