“Judd’s home has become as stoic and sanitized as his work. It is a space that blurs the lines between museum, gallery, historic landmark, education space, memorial, and archive.”
(212) 431-6189 is the telephone number displayed on a black rotary phone near Donald Judd’s bed on the fifth floor of his home at 101 Spring Street in New York. It’s been a nonworking number since 1994, when the artist died. And while the last phone call was made some twenty years ago from this address, you can now visit the space and see the phone, amongst other personal objects, that Judd used in his lifetime.
In the 144 years that the cast iron building has stood in SoHo, its role has morphed from a textile factory in 1870 to Judd’s home and studio in 1968. And now, after twenty-three million dollars of intense structural and cosmetic preservation, it stands proudly as a shrine to one of America’s most important minimalist artists.
Nina Yankowitz is a SoHo artist and previous neighbor of Judd. She reflects, “[Judd’s] works, devoid of emotional expression, reflected the cold, industrial, commercial America as it was and still is.” Judd’s home has become as stoic and sanitized as his work. It is a space that blurs the lines between museum, gallery, historic landmark, education space, memorial, and archive. And while there are domestic artifacts that clue one into the idea of a living space, any warmth or haphazard placement of objects that make a house a home and give it casual comfort are conspicuously absent.
When Judd bought 101 Spring Street, he was taken with the openness of the wall-less rectangles, all five stories of them. By the 1950s, the area had become known as “Hell’s Hundred Acres,” an industrial wasteland, full of sweatshops and small factories in the daytime, but empty at night. Judd was one of several artists wooed by the tall ceilings and giant windows of the empty manufacturing lofts. His presence helped change the character of the neighborhood. From its exterior, 101 Spring Street seems poised to honor that influx of local artists. Yet, once inside the space, Judd’s spirit and energy is somehow stifled.
The first floor, which was one of Judd’s main studio areas, reads like a gallery. It is empty, aside from a few permanently installed Judd works, a stack of wobbly bricks assembled by the artist Carl Andre, and Judd’s desk. What is missing today is the energy of work being made and the conversations Judd had with students, artists, and other visitors entering the space. Looking at old photographs from when Judd actually lived and worked in that ground-level space, there is liveliness in the way his work is strewn about. You can see several projects going on at once. In photos, a big wooden desk—which is currently rolled down in a closed position—is open to either serve as a place for Judd to sit while he chats with his students or reveal his stationery and telephone that surely served as his hub for communication. That is all lost. What remains is a reception room as formal as a doctor’s office. Your tour guide will take your coat and bag and anything else you are carrying that may knock about and introduce you to a few of Judd’s most classic works that hang on the wall rather than stand freely.
On the second floor, Judd’s life becomes more visible. A restored iron stove from the original building sits, not-quite-centered in the space, with a high-back daybed facing it, providing a floating hearth to gather around. (Having visited Judd’s Marfa compound, it was endearing to see his tradition of a bed in every room continued in his city dwelling.) There is also a kitchen towards the back, with shelves of dishes and supplies. Judd always preferred his wares and ingredients to be accessible; there is no storage, as the artist wanted everything visible. Well-made objects and utensils are carefully laid out—excessively so. This is to allow the visitor to see more objects, yet it gives a misleading clue that Judd may have actually arranged the objects like this. Again, looking at photos of Judd in this space, there is a disheveled quality in the way his children’s toys had priority in the space that contrasts with the order now maintained.
Surprisingly, Judd had built a puppet theater for his kids here. If you do not ask about closed wooden rectangle that floats in the wall, this sweet detail would be forever unknown. And while two small, antique, wooden high chairs are propped behind the daybed in the room, one with random coins on its tray, it is the puppet theater that tells the real story of how Judd may have related to his young children. It becomes evident that this space is not necessarily frozen in time. It is a space that reflects layers of time, compressed in the end by Judd’s own will to preserve the space according to his particular wishes. And they were very particular as one might deduce from the geometric, giant artworks that were his creative expression.
In the center of this room is a large wooden table, with fourteen chairs—Judd’s own creations—which he used for most of his entertaining. Had the Judd Foundation decided to show and not tell you, there would be a pitcher of milk on this table because the artist felt the carton it came in was not worth presenting. A red painting by Ad Reinhardt watches over the dining space from an adjacent wall. And, while this floor once served as his former wife Julia’s dance studio, that detail is also only verbalized. The dance bar that was installed at one time is gone. While Julia once expressed that living at 101 Spring Street was a “glorified form of camping,” you don’t get any sense of that experience now. This is a polished space, carefully laid out and manicured. Part of the renovations included preserving a 1970 fresco by Judd’s friend, artist David Novros.
The five floors act mostly as a gallery for both Judd’s art and his personal collection of works by his close friends, who were in their own right important artists. As he wrote in 1989, five years before his death, in an essay titled 101 Spring Street:
My requirements were that the building be useful for living and working and more importantly, more definitely, be a space in which to install work of mine and of others. At first I thought the building large, but now I think it small; it didn’t hold much work after all. I spent a great deal of time placing the art and a great deal designing the renovation in accordance.
In many cases, the art dwarfs any human-scale objects or furniture in the space. On the third floor, which served as Judd’s main workspace, one of his works—an enormous, stainless steel, open rectangle—frames a pair of Aalto chairs and a small desk. It was too large to move during the three-year renovation.
Judd took liberties to make some structural interventions, which take the form of miniature rooms for bathrooms, closets, sleeping lofts and nooks for his children. He also knocked down banisters when they were in his way. Some of his alterations were sublime, like the way he would install a hardwood floor and reserve a half-inch gap between it and the wall, to exaggerate the change of planes. Or the way he would leave some of the old floorboards exposed around the base of banister. Most of his significant architectural interventions are on the fourth floor, where the ceiling painstakingly mirrors the hardwood floor, board by board. It serves to frame a breathtaking Frank Stella painting, Judd’s handmade thinking benches, and a few early Dan Flavin works. In 1962, Flavin had just begun experimenting with light features in his work, and Judd has several of these on display. Judd and Flavin had a friendship bond so strong that Judd named his son “Flavin” after his dear friend.
As you ascend, the floors of 101 Spring Street become more and more private. The top floor is reserved as sleeping areas for Judd and his children, although the kids’ spaces are significantly smaller than his own, just as they are in Marfa. Here, the installed artworks take center stage: there is the “Soft Light” work by Claes Oldenburg; the 1961, mangled-metal sculpture by John Chamberlain; and the quirky “Box 48” near the bed by artist Lucas Samaras, which is made of pencils and stabbed by steak knives. Judd would keep curious items in here including a miniature globe. The most stunning work is Flavin’s site-specific, florescent-light sculpture that spans the entire seventy-five-foot length of the floor. Following New York City’s true north, it dissects the room at a subtle angle and illuminates it with a warm light that swells throughout the room. Yet, viewing a photo of the bedroom from 1970, little of this set up is evident, aside from the bed in the center of the room. Again, this begs the question: What period of Judd’s life am I looking at here?
Upon leaving the space, the takeaway seems to be more about the art collection than Judd’s life, which is fine if you love art galleries. One can only piece together Judd’s true activities in his studio and home by visiting photographs taken in the space between 1968 and 1994. With all due respect to Judd and his will, it would enhance the visitor’s experience to have the archived photographs on site to show a more accurate picture of the lives within it. The rich oral history is also lost. What plays did the children put on in their puppet theater? What recipes would Judd make for his guests? Did any art ever fall off the wall? Did Judd ever cut his finger on the terrifying meat slicer displayed in the kitchen? What was the house cocktail? With so many objects on display (like his liquor collection) it’s hard not to feel more puzzled than informed about the artist’s life. What is certain is his dedication to permanently installed space, which sets him apart from other artists. Judd felt that art galleries were too transient. And it is this reason alone that we are able to see Judd’s work, and even his telephone number, in a more personal context, even if much of his personal life and personality remains a mystery.