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The restoration of Donald Judd’s SoHo loft

Fifth floor, 101 Spring Street, with art works  by Dan Flavin, Lucas Samaras  and Claes Oldenburg, and furniture by Donald Judd

Fifth floor, 101 Spring Street, with art works by Dan Flavin, Lucas Samaras and Claes Oldenburg, and furniture by Donald Judd

In mid-June my eldest daughter and I took a walking tour of Paris’s 16th arrondissement. A freshly minted architect, Katharine was my guide and the target she had set for us was Le Corbusier’s Villa La Roche (1923–5). Our trajectory took us past numerous vintage examples of 1920s and ’30s Moderne, a dozen or so turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau extravaganzas by Hector Guimard and, doubling back further in time, the last house lived in by the 19th-century novelist Honoré de Balzac who fled his city debtors by going to ground in the then-remote suburb of Passy.

Corb’s house-museum is impressive as much for its haunting near-emptiness – the absence of its legendary designer assuming a quasi-presence thanks to an aura of institutional reverence – as it is for its generally small, beautifully chambered spaces decorated with examples of his sculptures, paintings, furniture and period fixtures. Add to these little-visited landmarks the studio-museums of Eugène Delacroix, Auguste Rodin, Ossip Zadkine and other figures and one could easily spend months mapping the history of modern art by paying house calls on the ghosts.

It is too soon to say whether New York has entered a period when its past is more of an attraction than its present, but that time may not be far off. In readiness for that eventuality, various constituencies are busily historicizing parts of the metropolis. The projects that the Dia Art Foundation sponsored in SoHo starting in the 1970s were precursors of this trend, and Walter De Maria’s Earth Room (1977) and his Broken Kilometer (1979) remain open to the public as artistically vivid but increasingly poignant shrines to the hopeful marriage of old money patronage and the costly ‘less is more’ aesthetics as realized on a grand scale by maximizing-Minimalists and materialistic Conceptualists.

Donald Judd was among the original squad of paradigm-changing art­ists to have been tapped by Dia for long-term support. However, his huge ambitions and persnickety standards exceeded even its initially vast means, and so – after much Sturm und Drang involving the artist, Dia and a succession of dealers – Judd established the Chinati Foundation to oversee the real-estate-hungry permanent installations of his own work and that of friends such as John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg and Ilya Kabakov in Marfa, Texas. Meanwhile, Judd maintained a five-storey pied-à-terre in New York at 101 Spring Street. It was – and is – a majestic cast-iron loft building in the once romantically desolate now boutique-clotted, cash-cold heart of SoHo. Purchased for US$68,000 in 1968, it has recently been restored at the cost of US$23 million – anyone seeking a yardstick for art-world inflation as well as for the reasons why Manhattan is scorched earth for young talents need look no further than that comparison – and it is now open to the public for guided tours.

I have quite mixed feelings about the aesthetic and existential questions begged by one-person institutions of this kind. I also have problems with their economic semiotics given the discrepancy that exists between the ethic of the times when the artists made their contribution more or less on their own terms, causing bohemia to flourish, and the interim boom times when the ‘happy few’ became wards of great wealth and their avant-garde ideals were put on life support. Nevertheless, having previously visited the building shortly after Judd’s death in the company of his erstwhile assistant Peter Ballantine, I was curious to see how consistently the Judd Foundation tenants of 101 Spring Street had managed to fulfill their cultural obligations to the public and to the exacting spirit of the place.

I am pleased to say that, my apprehensions aside, the five accessible floors of Judd’s former New York redoubt feel much as they did the first time I was there. Except for meticulously designed and artfully constructed functional units – shelving, cabinets, closets, sleeping and storage lofts, bathrooms and a large kitchen, all conceived by Judd and realized under his supervision – the otherwise open floorplan remains intact. With high, uncurtained windows at the front and all the way down one side, each level is bathed in natural light with views open to the western sky on the top floors. Each area has its singular function: the kitchen and dining space occupies much of the second floor; a very low platform bed dominates the middle of the uppermost floor; while drawing tables and major works of art fill the rest. 

A rigorous, sometimes cutting critic of art he found wanting, Judd was also a remarkably generous, surprisingly pluralistic admirer of work he judged worthy of sustained attention. Marfa is full of it and so is 101 Spring Street. The stairwells are studded with African masks and shields and the bookshelves and tabletops are covered with Native American baskets, sea shells, animal skulls, stones and childish ceramics. A small office space contains a collage by Kurt Schwitters, a woodcut by Jean Arp, a screenprint by Stuart Davis and a lithograph by Honoré Daumier. Just outside the door on one of the storage platforms there is a print by Oldenburg, a box by H.C. Westermann and one of Marcel Duchamp’s edition of bottle racks. The major works are similarly eclectic, reminding one that the exceedingly narrow accounts of art of the 1960s and ’70s that have bedevilled us so long are not the baneful legacy of dogmatic artists – Sol LeWitt was another major figure who was strict in his own practice while immensely accepting of other types of equally demanding art – but rather result from the myopia of generations of academics and curators who read rather than looked, and hung out with each other in senior common rooms rather than with artists in bars.

The pièces de résistance are mostly by Judd himself. At street level, works by him include a four-part wall-mounted ensemble of galvanized aluminium cubes, a five-part set of stainless steel and blue Perspex boxes, and a long, graceful stainless steel and purple enamelled Fibonacci sculpture. Upstairs are two early, roughly fabricated wall reliefs on one floor, very large floor-mounted open and closed metal cubes on another, and fastidiously scattered examples of his custom-made furniture mixed in with chairs and tables by Alvar Aalto as well as desks, chairs, a collapsible ladder, a settee and a pot-bellied stove by both vernacular and high-end American craftsmen of the 19th and early 20th century. 

Works by his contemporaries include the stunning open-grid wall of red and white fluorescent fixtures by Dan Flavin that runs from front to back of the fifth floor roughly parallel to the long wall of windows, occasioning ravishing admixtures of natural and electric light in the shifting sun cycle and, on a lower level in the back corner, a pair of delightfully clunky early Flavin incandescent-bulb reliefs with companion drawings. Also of note is a soft hanging sculpture by Oldenburg, a vintage red oil on canvas by Ad Reinhardt, a major ‘protractor’ painting by Frank Stella, and a lovely mural-scale fresco by the underappreciated abstract painter David Novros, which was severely damaged by seeping moisture when last I saw it and now – proof of the seriousness of this foundation and the good that the best of them can do – has a full team of restorers at work on bringing it back from the dead. Lastly, as a grace note placed in the foremost corner of the building on the ground level, in full view of pedestrians who gaze through the windows wondering what on earth might be for sale in the stripped-down emporium, is a cairn of eight common bricks stacked on edge by Carl Andre; left there to tempt fate for however long they can be protected from ordinary harm’s way, in a manner that is emblematic of the entire artistic enterprise of his generation and Judd’s.

That generation ‘colonized’ Lower Manhattan, converting industrial lofts into what were at first monastic but latter became more luxurious living and working quarters for people who made, and – primarily amongst themselves – collected art. Most of the full-time makers have been driven out by full-time collectors and monied lifestyle mavens. Yet no one perfected the format more assiduously or more grandly than Judd, and 101 Spring Street is the masterpiece of the genre. I am glad I went, but doubt I will go again anytime soon. I’ve seen it twice now and it won’t change, which is good for those who seek to preserve the past, but bad for those who lived it. Plus, envy can be a powerful disincentive. But in honour of Judd and his cohort, I ended my visit by walking up Mercer Street to Fanelli’s Bar, the last of the traditional, truly democratic watering holes in SoHo. There I raised a pint of Guinness and a shot of Jameson’s to Judd’s empire-building shade. As evidenced by the bottles still in his larder he preferred Scotch, but no one can dictate all the terms by which one is remembered.

Robert Storr is a critic and curator.

Issue 157

First published in Issue 157

September 2013

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