Donald Judd's Lofty Installation at 101 Spring Street: Specific Objects, Specific Conservation

posted on 21 Apr 2015 12:17 by Hanna Hoelling
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By Cabelle Ahn
“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.” Donald Judd, “101 Spring St.” 1989

On a rainy Tuesday, our class Revisions—Art, Materiality, and Continuity in Fluxus (Vis. Prof. Hanna Hölling) found ourselves the subject of curious gazes of pedestrians and shoppers of Spring Street in SoHo. Ensconced behind lofty windows, we were gathered together inside the ground floor of Donald Judd’s studio-cum-house on 101 Spring Street, where Judd his vision of a “permanent installation.” The building is, in fact, the only surviving single-use cast-iron building in SoHo. Constructed in 1870 by Nicolas Whyte, the five-story building was a former textile factory until Judd purchased it in 1968.

Donald Judd is often cited as one of the foundational figures of Minimalism and is best known for his geometric installations created from industrial materials such as Plexiglas and stainless steel. Judd sought to expand upon the concept of the readymade (as formulated by Marcel Duchamp) and sought to create a standard vocabulary of repetitive forms in order to challenge pre-existing divisions between painting and sculpture. Donald Judd identified his work as “specific objects,” a term intended to describe his three-dimensional works that were divorced from organic lives and instead dependent on architecture and geometry. In his essay “Specific Objects,” (1965) Judd stated, “actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface. Obviously, anything in three dimensions can be any shape, regular or irregular, and can have any relation to the wall, floor, ceiling, room, rooms or exterior or none at all. Any material can be used, as is or painted.” Nearly two decades later, in his article “On Installation” (1982), Judd pushed for a permanent installation, urging: “The main reason for this is to be able to live with the work and think about it, and also to see the work placed as it should be. The installations provide a considered, unhurried measure by which to judge hurried installations of my own and others in unfamiliar and often unsuitable places.”
From 1986, 101 Spring Street thus became the locus amoneus for his “specific objects,” and works by his peers. Judd explained later in 1989 that he “spent a great deal of time placing the art and a great deal designing the renovation in accordance. Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and to be permanent.” Each of the five floors in the Judd House is dedicated to a single function and the current placement of the objects preserves their positions from 1994.

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To return to our afternoon tour, we began on the ground floor, which was used as an exhibition space by Judd. At the far corner of the vast space was Carl Andre’s Manifest Destiny (1986), which featured found Empire brand bricks stacked on top of one another—supported only by gravity. As a class, we discussed the ever-complex issue of conservation and the concept of originality. We debated whether the work would still be original if a brick was replaced by another found brick on the street, and whether restorative conservation would be appropriate if one of the bricks was broken or missing.

The second floor functioned as a kitchen and living space during Judd’s time. Many of us were intrigued by the kitchen, particularly after our tour guide shared with us that Judd specifically installed restaurant-grade appliances to accommodate the vast open interior in the loft. Also found on this floor were furniture designed by Judd including a day bed and a dining table and chair set. Here, we discussed the concept of musealization, as many of these objects were taken from its primary “functional” context, and re-presented to the gaze as memorials rather than interactive objects. The idea of musealization has been a subject for critics since the birth of public museums: Quatremère de Quincy famously propounded that a museum “kill[s] art to in order to write its history” and Theodor Adorno expanded upon the phonetic analogy between a museum and mausoleum asserting in the essay, “Valéry Proust Museum” (1953) that works must be sent to “death” in order to live—that art objects had to be separated from every day use to fit into a given narrative of a museum. Other objects that caught our interest was David Novros’s Untitled Fresco (1970), whereupon we learned that Novros himself added additional fresco layers and thus muted the initial shade. During the recent conservation of Judd House, these later layers were removed in an attempt to restore the mural’s “original” condition.

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The third floor was used as Judd’s studio. It holds a small library, a standing desk, a smaller almost child-sized desk, and a large untitled piece by Judd from 1969. The most fascinating element about this floor was that Judd left a one-inch gap between the walls and the floor, defining the floor, according to Judd, “as a plane.” Judd adds in his 1989 essay, “101 Spring Street” that the concept behind this transformation served as precedents and inspirations for his later pieces. The fourth floor was primarily used for entertaining and held a large Judd-designed table accompanied by Gerrit Rietveld’s Zig-Zag Chairs and a large Frank Stella painting, titled Concentric Circles (1967). Again, in Judd’s seminal essay “Specific Objects,” (1965) Judd analyzed that Stella’s shaped paintings were examples in which a painting defied illusionism to instead transform into a “three-dimensional work.” Alongside the staircase were Dan Flavin’s memory drawings, that both served as momentary archives and mnemonic devices for Flavin.

The fifth and uppermost floor was a bedroom, largely consisting of an elevated mattress on the floor and a large neon sculpture by Dan Flavin from 1969 that spanned across the complete length of the west wall. At the end of our tour, we briefly considered the Flavin unplugged, and again returned to the issues earlier raised by Andre’s Manifest Destiny. What happens to Flavin’s neon works when the lights go off?

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Leaving the fifth floor, a bottle rack, near identical to Duchamp’s bottle rack from 1914 greeted us. Some of the members our class mistook it for Duchamp’s “original.” Near it was Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964)—an authentic Duchamp, so to speak. Once more, in his 1965 essay, Judd identified Duchamp’s bottle rack as an example of a readymade that are “seen at once and not part by part,” a characteristic that Judd also sought to achieve in his “specific object.” Judd sought to create objects that would undo traditional composition and sought to reinvent readymades as modern industrial and technological fetishes. In this, Judd recognized early on that the afterlives of his specific objects via installation and re-presentation would be equally important. In this, the Judd House preserves Judd’s visionary intentions. Rather than a mausoleum for Minimalism, 101 Spring Street is a three-dimensional realization of Judd’s theories, with Judd’s writings seemingly coming alive at every corner.

Cabelle Ahn is M.A. student at the Bard Graduate Center

All images: Judd Foundation website, Spring Street 101, New York

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