by Nora McCready
On a brisk March evening a friend and I ventured downtown to SoHo to visit Donald Judd’s New York home and studio.
Donald Judd was a significant modern artist, most famous for his minimalist architectural sculptures that deal with issues of space, light and material. He is also famous for establishing an artistic community in Marfa, Texas – an unlikely hub for artists amid an otherwise blank expansive landscape.
Donald Judd bought the building in New York, located at 101 Spring Street, in the 1960s after it was abandoned by a textile manufacturer. The building is a 19th century factory building, one of many that crowd the streets of SoHo. The façade is almost entirely windows. Judd’s appreciation for space and light made the building attractive, with its substantial spaces characterized by delicate floor to ceiling windows.
The first floor of the building is a meditation on space. The space is large and open, with floor to ceiling windows lining two walls. Near the door is an antique writing desk and a wooden bench. On two of the walls are small Donald Judd sculptures, unassuming but present. Before the tour people stand in the middle of the quiet room looking out at the busy street. This is the only floor where photography is permitted, so people take pictures of the floors, the ceiling, the other structural elements of the room. The emptiness allows full appreciation for the fundamental elements and inherent quality of the space.
The second floor of the building houses the kitchen. One end of the room is empty save a David Novros fresco – inspired by the colour palette of the Italian Renaissance. The early evening light filters into the room and illuminates part of the installation. A large table stands in the middle of the room, made entirely of Marfa pine. The chairs fit like blocks under the tabletop, forming a nearly perfect wooden cube in the center of the space. Ceramic dishes are displayed on long tables, utensils are laid out individually on shelves, rather than hiding in drawers.
One peaks through a doorway in the corner and finds a claw foot tub in the center of small room. The room is made of warm wood and plaster. The spaces seems timeless because of the deep appreciation for simple objects. An industrial sink, an old dishwasher, and an even older stove are reminders of the modernity of the space.
The third floor is Judd’s studio. Two large sculptures of Judd’s dominate the room. The larger one is made up of four steel plates welded together to form a rectangular corridor. The sculpture occupies a large portion of the room, however, when looked at from certain angles it almost disappears because of how thin the steel is. The piece makes the viewer sit with the material. The steel is utilitarian, but only because we’ve assigned it that purpose. It is tactile and beautiful when it abandons its supposed intention. It simultaneously takes up space, creates space, and slips away from space.
Against one wall of the studio is Donald Judd’s standing desk. Supposedly he did all his drawings while standing up. On the desk is a collection of drawing tools arrayed geometrically – taking on a sculptural character through their organization.
The fourth floor is the parlor, intended for hosting parties and displaying art. A Frank Stella hangs on one of the walls, and the eye meditatively follows the lines of the painting and then travels beyond the canvas, the lines seeming to extend into the rest of the room.
The fifth floor is the family’s bedroom. Judd’s and his wife, Julie Finch’s bed sits on a wooden platform on the floor, the single lamp in the room installed at the head of the bed. A John Chamberlain sculpture hangs on one of the walls, contrasted by the immaculacy of the room. A Dan Flavin sculpture takes up the entire opposite wall. The sculpture is a site-specific permanent installation that extends from wall to wall, and the blue and red fluorescents provide some of the only artificial light in the room. The sculpture was a gift to Judd and Finch for naming their son Flavin. Flavin’s loft and Rainer’s crib room are also on this floor. However, the children spent most of their childhoods in Marfa.
The spaces in this building exude generosity. It seems that every item is alive. Everything is fully appreciated through a deeply penetrative practice of space-giving: A fork sitting on a pine shelf. A rug laid out individually beside a glass cube. A protractor with its flat side resting parallel to the edge of an antique table. Judd’s prolific collection of art makes the experience of the spaces even more enjoyable. Just as every utensil is given room to breathe, every sculpture, painting, drawing, is installed in a perfect place for thoughtful contemplation. Every piece asserts itself through space and the viewer understands the art as belonging.
101 Spring Street is located in lower Manhattan and is part of the Judd Foundation. It is open to the public through guided tours. Tours are scheduled on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and last about 90 minutes.