from the mouth of James Murphy
from the mouth of James Murphy
TWO statements by the artist Donald Judd turned out to be remarkably prescient about the ramshackle-beautiful cast-iron building on Spring Street he bought in 1968 for use as his home and studio.
“One threat,” he wrote about the blocks around him — which only then, three years after he moved in, were becoming known as SoHo — “is that some of the attributes of Greenwich Village may develop: tourist shops and restaurants, bad art and high rents.”
In light of how quickly and thoroughly that threat came to pass, the second statement seems like wishful thinking. “I’ve always needed my own work in my own space,” he wrote, adding dramatically, “The brief time of gallery and museum exhibitions would be ultimately fatal if it were not for the permanence of my own installations.”
There was never any guarantee of permanence for 101 Spring, as his building was widely known, after Judd’s death in 1994. The neighborhood transformed into a high-end mall and condo complex, and 101 Spring sat in its midst like a stately time capsule, just as Judd had left it, his own works arranged meticulously, floor by floor, with his furniture and possessions (even his bed) and pieces by many of his favorite artists, like Carl Andre, John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin and Frank Stella.
For almost two decades, few people saw the inside of this unusual collection and shrine because it was not equipped for public visits. And it was also falling apart, slowly shedding its facade. But beginning in June, the building will emerge from a three-year restoration to become what it has long promised to be: one of the most stunning artist-house museums in the country and just the second in the city, whose real estate imperatives have not been kind to its cultural history. (The only other fully preserved artist studio residence in New York is the Staten Island home of the documentary photographer Alice Austen, which was restored and opened to the public in the 1980s.)
Now, by appointment, visitors will be able to see not only the kind of rough, big-boned space that nurtured and deeply influenced artists when they colonized SoHo in the ’60s, but also the only intact, single-use cast-iron building left in the neighborhood. Perhaps best of all, they will encounter a part of the city’s structural history as re-envisioned by Judd, one of the most important artists of the last half-century, whose architectural interventions have come to seem as important as his Minimalist sculpture.
Judd did very little besides clean and repair the building, which had originally been a kind of department store and then was divided into machine shops and other places for light industry.
“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 wrote in 1989, adding: “It is a 19th-century building.”
But the small things he did — removing baseboards on the third floor to leave gaps at the bottom of the walls, making the floor itself seem to be a separate plane; installing high baseboards on the fifth floor, using the same oak as the floor, to make the floor appear recessed — left the building unmistakably his.
The $23 million renovation by the Judd Foundation — led by the artist’s son, Flavin, 45, and his daughter, Rainer, 42 — has been, if such a thing is possible, even more obsessively precisionist than Judd himself, because the goal has been not only to preserve everything he did but also to freeze-frame the building as he left it in 1994, down to the books in his library and the pencils and set-square ruler on his drafting table. It is the kind of place where simple lighted exit signs, which had to be installed to make the house accessible to the public, seem as out of place as flashing neon in a cathedral.
“If you want to know about whether we decided to make a change or not make a change, it depends on what square inch of this place you’re talking about,” said Flavin Judd, who, like Rainer, grew up in the building and in Marfa, Tex., where their father established a much larger permanent repository for his works and collection.
Ms. Judd added: “This has all been toward the goal of having people experience this place as if none of these things we had to do were ever done. And from the beginning it’s been a battle between preserving the art and preserving the building.”
When she was young, she said, the huge windows that ring the floors were always thrown open in the summers to the city air, and noise. Now that the building is painstakingly climate-controlled to protect the art pieces, that will not happen again, though it seems to cause Ms. Judd almost physical pain to contemplate.
“I don’t think there could be a way that we could have this place without at least some windows that open,” she said.
The first time I walked through the building, almost a decade ago, Judd’s presence still seemed almost palpable. It reminded me of visiting Leon Trotsky’s home in Mexico City, which has been preserved as a museum, and looking through the bathroom door to see a can of Trotsky’s tooth powder still sitting on a shelf above his sink. While 101 Spring is not quite as much of a reliquary, there have been discussions about how to respond to the potential disintegration of period pencil erasers.
“People never think of Don this way,” Ms. Judd said, referring to her father, “but I kind of think of him as a secret pack rat. Somebody should write an essay on his bowl collection alone.”
When I visited the building recently, almost all the art and possessions were still in storage, affording the rare opportunity to see the sweeping old industrial-commercial floors even emptier than Judd had left them, preserved so that cracked and mottled plaster remains mostly cracked and mottled, true to its history.
At this late date, the building still harbors pieces of its past. When ceilings were opened during the renovation, liquor bottles and ancient millinery business cards rained down.
One of the most surprising secrets to me was the building’s role not just in the actual SoHo but in a Hollywood simulacrum of it, the 1986 movie “9 ½ Weeks,” in which Kim Basinger plays a chic art gallery assistant. Judd, needing money at the time, overcame his deeply protective nature to allow some gallery scenes to be filmed inside 101 Spring. (“I made a fortune from that movie,” Flavin Judd recalled, smiling. “They hired me as a 24-hour security guard for the set — because I was living in it.”)
How do they think their father would feel now about the building, whose permanence is assured, but whose existence will soon change for good, becoming both more historically fixed and more public?
“Don never even let the Fire Department in,” Mr. Judd said, but he added, “I think we’ve done our best to honor what he did: to get so specific about something that it becomes something other than what it ordinarily is.”
“A table is a lot like a building. The Topboard is like a roof, the legs like columns. You could almost see it as an archetype of architecture “.
**The following text is loosely translated from Spanish via Google Translate
To what extent should we rethink the design of a table?