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Rob Perrée: Woon- en werkplaats van Donald Judd

Woon- en werkplaats van Donald Judd

The New York Times

June 2, 2013
Donald Judd and the Art of Living

NEW YORK — There will be lots of reasons to visit 101 Spring Street, the old textile factory in the SoHo district of New York City where the artist Donald Judd once lived and worked, when it opens to the public later this month after three years of restoration.

One is to explore the home and studio of one of the most important artists of the late 20th century. Another is to see Judd’s artwork as he installed it, as well as beautiful pieces by others, including Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg and Marcel Duchamp. A third is to glimpse what SoHo’s 19th-century cast-iron buildings, like this one, looked like before Victoria’s Secret invaded the neighborhood.

But there is a fourth reason for trooping around 101 Spring Street: to reflect on Judd’s contribution to design. Not only has his treatment of the building had an enduring influence on interior design. Judd, who died in 1994, made a spirited contribution to the often thorny issue of design’s relationship to art in his writing.

Let’s start with Judd’s impact on the design of other people’s homes and workplaces. For me, the most surprising thing about 101 Spring Street was how unsurprising so much of it looks now. Not that Judd intended to influence mainstream interior design, quite the opposite, but it is partly thanks to him that the neo-industrial aesthetic associated with the restoration of disused factories and warehouses, like 101 Spring Street, has become so popular.

When Judd bought the derelict five-story building with two basements for $65,000 in 1968, he was 40 years old and had just had his first major exhibition, at the Whitney Museum in New York. Like other newcomers to the area, he was drawn to it both because he admired the gutsy robustness of its cast-iron architecture and because it was one of the few parts of Manhattan with a plentiful supply of inexpensive buildings, which were big enough for artists and their families to live and work in.

Having bought 101 Spring Street as a wreck, Judd cleared out the junk and stripped the interior back to bare plaster walls and wooden floors. The goods elevator was renovated, as were the factory staircases. Any additions were in keeping with the building’s industrial roots: whether they were antique, like the cast-iron potbelly stove used to heat the floor where Judd, and his wife, the dancer Julie Finch, their son, Flavin, and daughter, Rainer, ate their meals, or new, such as the stainless steel catering appliances in the kitchen. If he couldn’t find the type of fixtures he wanted, Judd improvised: for example, by designing stainless steel washbasins for the children’s bathrooms, and asking Bernstein Brothers, the Queens workshop that fabricated his metal sculptures, to make them.

Similarly, he bought a few pieces of furniture, mostly wooden ones designed by Modernist pioneers, like Alvar Aalto and Gerrit Thomas Rietveld, whose work was then so unfashionable that he could pick it up cheaply, and designed the rest himself. Judd devised wooden chairs, tables, beds and shelves whose simple, geometric forms echoed those of his sculpture, as well as being frugal and expedient. Many of them were designed so he could ask a lumberyard to cut standard pieces of wood, and screw them together himself. Artist friends contributed, too, notably Dan Flavin, who made a spectacular light sculpture to illuminate the top floor, where the family slept and watched television on a tiny black and white set.

Not that Judd was alone in mixing industrial salvage, Modernist antiques and contemporary art in a reclaimed commercial space at the time, but his interiors were among the most visible, albeit accidentally.

After his marriage ended, Judd moved with the children to the remote town of Marfa, Texas, in the early ’70s and bought a number of buildings there, including a bank and supermarket, gutting the interiors and filling them with furniture of his own design as he had in SoHo. By then, his furniture was fabricated by skilled artisans, and was sold to collectors. Photographs of Judd’s exquisitely detailed pieces standing in the spaces in Marfa were widely published.

The interior of 101 Spring Street, which Judd had kept as a New York base, became unexpectedly visible when he was strapped for cash in the mid-1980s and rented it to the producers of the 1986 movie “9› Weeks” for some scenes of the art gallery where Kim Basinger’s character worked. The film, a flop in the United States, was a hit in Europe, introducing Judd’s lovingly renovated factory to a mainstream audience, many of whom went on to live in reclaimed industrial buildings with stainless steel kitchens of their own.

If only all of those neo-industrial interiors had been designed as adroitly as his. Familiar though some elements of 101 Spring Street appear to a contemporary eye, Judd executed them with exceptional sensitivity. In accordance with his will, the building has been restored by the Judd Foundation, which is run by Flavin and Rainer, just as he left it. I’d never been convinced by his furniture until I saw it there. Judd had positioned it so thoughtfully that each piece enhances its surroundings, while drawing your gaze to its nuances, like the grain of the wood, or the precision with which the height of a table matches those of the surrounding chairs.

All is explained in Judd’s writing on design, which is as eloquent as his reflections on art. My initial ambivalence toward his furniture stemmed partly from the presumption by some sections of the art world that, as the work of an artist, it was somehow superior to a designer’s. Judd himself had a more sophisticated understanding of the distinction between art and design. In a 1993 essay titled “It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp,” he wrote, “The art of a chair is not its resemblance to art, but is partly its reasonableness, usefulness and scale as a chair.” Quite.