The former studio and home of artist Donald Judd is in what used to be called the Cast Iron District of Manhattan. He bought the five-story building in 1968, long before the Gucci store and Ivanka Trump Boutique moved into the neighborhood. When Judd died in 1994, the house stayed in the family, with much of his stuff exactly where he left it. Now, after a three-year renovation, the general public can tour the building and see firsthand how Judd thought art and architecture could work together.
Judd was one of the most important artists of the last half of the 20th century. His son, Flavin, 45, oversaw the restoration. He lived in the building until he was 8 years old, then again as a teenager and for most of his 20s. Before Judd died, he and Flavin talked about what to do with the building, which, Falvin discovered, had originally been painted cream. He asked his father if they should restore it. Judd’s response was, “It’s been gray a long time, we’ll just let it stay gray.”
Like ‘Touching A Moon Rock’
The house’s interior isn’t all that colorful either; and it’s sparse, just like Judd’s work. The artist created boxes of straight lines and angled planes which others called “minimalist,” a label Judd disdained. On the ground floor there are just a few pieces of art, including a wall of Judd’s purple anodized aluminum rectangles and a pile of bricks by artist Carl Andre. It’s meant as a kind of spiritual space for the work to be shown just as Judd intended.
“Don’s art is very much about the sculpture as it existed in reality,” Flavin says. “It’s not referring to other things; it’s not referring to other theories. It’s very much about something that simply exists. The effect should be like, you know, touching a moon rock, or something just as big.”
Judd believed that art had a relationship with the space around it and he placed things very specifically in the building.
“That’s why it’s so important to preserve this,” says Rob Beyer, who also oversaw the restoration project, “because it’s not necessarily preserving the work but it’s preserving the work in an environment where it can be most appreciated.”
There’s art on all five floors. The second floor is where the family spent most of its time. It has furniture built by Judd and a puppet theater. Not far from the kitchen, there’s a potbellied stove that was the only source of heat for a very long time. The third floor has the artist’s studio, with Judd’s drafting table overlooking the street. On the fourth floor, tucked into the corner, there are a couple of chairs, a small table Judd made, some smooth stones, a few cowboy hats and books, including the collected works of Gertrude Stein and Richmond Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey.
Overall the effect is like Judd’s sculptures — sparse, deliberate, rectilinear and non-organic. As he said in a 1965 interview for the Archives of American Art, “I don’t want it descriptive or naturalistic in any way. So for the time being, I’m left with a fairly geometric sort of arrangement because that doesn’t have any of these things.”
Even the bedrooms reflect Judd’s preference for clean lines. They’re up on the fifth floor and Judd’s daughter, Rainer, says it’s her favorite space. Her father’s bed is on a low platform that he built. Right next to the mattress, there’s a work by Lucas Samaras — a box with knives sticking out of it.
“Somebody asked me my favorite artwork when I was a kid,” Flavin says. “This is it.”
But there’s one item missing. “Don bought his first TV in 1973 to watch the impeachment of Nixon. So the TV was across from the bed,” Flavin says. “And of course, thereafter, it was used watch cartoons, but you know that wasn’t its initial purpose.”
A Labor Of Love
Judd bought the building for $68,000, and the restoration cost about $23 million. There was pressure to sell, but the siblings resisted.
“We’re saving like every paint chip and every little splinter on the floor,” Rainer says. “I think that’s very sentimental. The whole reason this exists, in a way, is because we care about every little inch and, at the end of the day, because we were raised by somebody who was so generous to us and taught us so much that we want honor what he gave us and what he made in the world. So I think this whole project wouldn’t exist unless we were, to be really cheesy, just full of love.”
Given the way the neighborhood has changed, a bit of sentiment is kind of nice.