|Should you go?|
|Time spent||104 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||Donald Judd’s dining table looks exactly like Donald Judd designed a dining table.
Utterly simple wood with chairs that seamlessly, create a box when its 14 chairs were pushed in. It reminded me of one of those wooden cube puzzles where you remove one piece and the whole thing falls apart— symmetric perfection broken.
And it is the exact size of the windows in the huge, open, “eating” level of the building.
In 1968 the artist Donald Judd bought a building in then-dilapidated SoHo. Five stories high, the building was used for light industry — small factories that my guide did not call “sweatshops” but that probably were. Indeed, to this day some of the floors retain holes that show where an apparel manufacturer bolted down sewing machines.
Judd, his wife Julie Finch, and their newborn son Flavin moved into the place, and Judd proceeded to remake the four upstairs floors to his own design. Judd changed floors and ceilings, installed fittings and fixtures, and designed both art and furniture specifically for the place. He also installed art from his friends and fellow SoHo Bohemians. He made the place their home, but he also made their home a work of art.
Over time Judd and his family migrated to property he accumulated in the tiny town of Marfa, Texas, now an art Mecca thanks in large part to his (and later the Dia Foundation’s) intervention there. The SoHo building became less a residence and more a pure expression of Judd’s aesthetic and his meticulous belief in an ordered life.
When Judd died suddenly in 1994, there was uncertainty over what to do with the SoHo property. Eventually, the Foundation took over and made it stable, tidy, and up to code. The Foundation opened it for small-group guided visits starting in 2013.
Being Donald Judd
The experience of visiting falls somewhere in between visiting the artist’s home and studio and immersion in an extremely large Judd artwork, a total program that puts you, “Being John Malkovich”-like, in Judd’s head for a little while.
You see Judd’s bathtub (in what seems a very steamy, wood-paneled sauna of a room). Judd’s drafting tools, exquisitely carefully placed on his table. Also Judd’s alcohol collection, which helps humanize him. And his closet, complete with items from the Judd wardrobe. The elements of homey-ness reminded me a bit of the Louis Armstrong House, though where that home is warm and welcoming, this one overall is rather chilly and austere.
Working up from the ground floor the tour climbs successively to the Eating, Studio, Parlor, and Sleeping floors, all with characteristic SoHo high ceilings and two walls of immense windows.
As you might expect, Judd carefully selected the art in his home. Among other things on display:
- An abstract fresco on one wall of the Eating floor
- A John Chamberlain
- Many Dan Flavins, leading up to an enormous blue-and-pink florescent piece dominating the Sleeping floor
- A Claes Oldenburg
- An array of tribal masks
And of course multiple Judds.
The Devil in the Details
You get a sense of the immense care with which Judd liked to do and make things. His and Finch’s bed, on the Sleeping floor (literally), consists of a wooden platform at ground level, with two mattresses. The platform features built-in electrical outlets with a single swing-arm lamp plugged in, and an old-school black rotary telephone near the pillows. A single, eccentric, boxy artwork sits at the corner of the platform. At first it appears that the platform sits flush with the floor, until you look closely and realize that it cunningly floats, ever so slightly, millimeters above the floorboards.
Details like that accumulate over time. Eventually they overwhelmed me with their fussy beauty. It was a fascinating home to visit, but I’m not sure I could live in a place so planned out. I’d be constantly breaking symmetries and messing stuff up.
This Judd’s For You. Maybe.
I’m not so super into Donald Judd; his carefully crafted boxes of industrial materials feel, if you’ll forgive me, somewhat hollow. But I wasn’t so into Isamu Noguchi either, and visiting his outstanding museum reshaped my perception. I’m still not sure I like Donald Judd’s work. And I left his home/studio/immersive art experience feeling he was probably a difficult person to live with. But at the same time I understand his thinking better, and respect it more.
All of the guides at the Judd Foundation are themselves artists, which I found brilliant. Charlotte, the guide for my group, was fantastic — she had immense insight and information, as well as her own thoughts and opinions about Judd.
But she also let the group direct to some extent, allowing our questions and interests to drive the way she described the spaces and things we saw, and the people who inhabited them.
This is not a place for the modern art neophyte. Several of the eight people on my tour had been to Marfa. Not me; indeed, I may have been the person least familiar with Judd’s oeuvre. Still, if you are into either modern art or the New York scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, you will love this place. If you’re into prickly perfectionists (or if you are one yourself), you’ll also enjoy the “Being Donald Judd” -ness of it.
For a complementary artistic take on a SoHo space, I strongly recommend combining a visit to Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room with Donald Judd’s place. They’d make an excellent pairing.
Donald Judd’s scruffy, Bohemian SoHo is almost unimaginable in today’s world of impeccably restored high fashion boutiques and successful tech company headquarters. As a New Yorker, I’m grateful that his home remains as a monument to a long gone era.
|Address||101 Spring Street (at Mercer), Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $24|
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