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Specific Objectives: The Complex Task of Preserving Donald Judd’s Legacy

Flavin and Rainer Judd photographed on June 22 in the kitchen at 101 Spring Street. KATHERINE MCMAHON

Flavin and Rainer Judd photographed on June 22 in the kitchen at 101 Spring Street.


One recent afternoon in Donald Judd’s old house in downtown Manhattan, the late artist’s children—Flavin and Rainer—were discussing their father’s career. Flavin has a boyish, unlined face framed by reddish-blond hair. Rainer inherited her slender build from their mother, dancer Julie Finch. Flavin, standing in the kitchen, froze abruptly, his pale eyebrows furrowing. “The meat thing is in the wrong place,” he said.

“No!” his younger sister said, stricken. Absorbing this sacrilege from a balcony, she reconsidered. “Which meat thing? Oh! That meat thing. I actually moved it.”

The meat thing was a morsa, a hefty, surgical-looking clamp designed to slice prosciutto. Flavin regarded the displaced device with consternation. “It’s not supposed to be here,” he said.

“You can move it back,” said Rainer.

Dust motes, let alone morsas, don’t usually move in 101 Spring Street, the five-story cadet-blue cast-iron building in SoHo at the corner of Mercer, where Rainer and Flavin spent their early childhood. The building is now the headquarters of the Judd Foundation, established in 1996 to protect and preserve the artist’s work. In the basement are the foundation’s offices; on every other floor is an astonishing feat of conservation.

The top floor glows violet in the aura of a fluorescent sculpture by Dan Flavin, Judd’s friend and his firstborn’s namesake (Rainer is named for Yvonne Rainer, the dancer). Judd’s wool jackets and work shirts hang in small closets. Near the low walnut platform bed, a Judd design, is an example of his early work: a dense assemblage of steel and cadmium red–painted wood that he made by hand in 1961, before he famously began outsourcing fabrication to industrial factories. Down on the second floor, the kitchen and dining area are flooded with the same scorching sunlight causing clothes to stick to tourists on the street below, but with none of the heat, honks, or grime of the outside world. The silent rooms remain almost exactly as Judd left them when he died in 1994. Nothing is arbitrary or accidental. Gingerly exploring the home-studio engenders an acute awareness of oneself as an interloper, a messy unplanned element in this hyper-considered realm, like a germ infiltrating an operating theater. Unlike when Judd lived there without air conditioning, the space is now cool, its temperature perfectly calibrated to keep Judd’s residence, and legacy, on ice.

Born two years apart, in 1968 and 1970, Flavin and Rainer present a tightly unified front. Earlier that June morning, they sat barricaded behind an enormous mahogany table. It is a formidable piece of Judd’s own design: clean, deliberate and utterly uncompromising, rather like the artist himself and the foundation that bears his name, of which his children are co-presidents. The siblings talked about making their father’s prodigious output accessible. “The Judd Foundation is one big tool box,” said Rainer, evoking the archive of Judd’s writings, his carefully installed properties in New York and Marfa, Texas, his 13,000-volume library, and his artwork and furniture. “I mean, hell if we don’t need a tool box right now,” she added.

In November, David Zwirner Books, the publishing imprint of the gallery that represents the Judd Foundation, will release, in collaboration with the foundation, Donald Judd Writings, a tome containing the artist’s obscurely or never-before published essays, personal letters, and notes. These are woven in amongst the texts collected during his lifetime which were published as Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975. Better known as the Yellow Book, it was reissued by the foundation this past March. Donald Judd Writings augments the known essays on art and architecture—clear, direct and tersely unequivocal—with welcome shades of nuance. In ruminative asides, we witness Judd working through his ideas.

The new book is a prelude to a larger moment for the artist. By now, Judd’s influence is so widespread, so casually ingrained in contemporary art and design, it’s easy to forget it’s there. That will change over the next year. Since 2009, the foundation has been updating Judd’s catalogue raisonné—a previous, necessarily incomplete one was published during his lifetime—and put out a call for works this past May. Next fall will bring a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York curated by Ann Temkin. The long-awaited survey will be Judd’s first in the United States since 1988, when 30 works went on view at the Whitney Museum, and will provide a fresh opportunity to consider his incisive originality and lingering impact.

Meanwhile, Rainer and Flavin preside over a sprawling kingdom. They became executors of their father’s estate when they were 23 and 25, along with Marianne Stockebrand, the German curator who was Judd’s companion for the last four years of his life. (The estate’s assets—including artworks, 101 Spring Street and numerous live/work spaces in Marfa­­—were ultimately transferred to the foundation.)

The children each inherited $300,000, millions in debt, and a request that would determine the rest of their adult lives: Judd wanted his properties in New York and Marfa to be preserved the way he had so carefully installed them. In Judd’s will, this was his wish; for the heirs it was a commandment. They had no choice, they felt, but to protect these spaces. Others with a stake in Judd’s career disagreed. Controversy has followed the artist posthumously, raising the question: What is the right way to steward an artist’s legacy when some of his most significant works are not objects that can be bought and sold?


The exterior of 101 Spring Street in New York.


Judd purchased 101 Spring Street for $68,000 in 1968, when the neighborhood—a warren of sweatshops and small factories—didn’t have a supermarket, let alone Stella McCartney. “There was no SoHo when Judd bought his building,” artist Carl Andre said. Working floor by floor, Judd transformed the building into a forceful expression of his aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations, installing artworks and objects in harmony with the architecture.

Judd spent the final decades of his life in Marfa, however, leaving 101 Spring to languish, a Minimalist version of Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. Chunks of cast iron crumbled off the facade. Judd looked into repairing the structure in the early ’90s, but balked at the expense.

Judd’s children would realize the restoration their father could not. The siblings searched for the least invasive compromises possible, shackled to both building ordinances in a very different SoHo and to their father’s sometimes wildly impractical installations. Their adherence to his preferences was unbending and obsessive.

But the question was how to fund this extensive $23 million overhaul, which would include replacing the building’s 60 giant windows with UV- and temperature-regulating glass that still undulate like the original panes, and swapping the open spiral staircase corkscrewing through the space with an enclosed stairwell to meet modern fire codes. In order to create an endowment that would allow them to pursue grants and donations, Rainer and Flavin opted to consign to Christie’s 36 of Judd’s works, none of which had ever come to market. Twenty-five of them sold in a single evening auction in 2006.

The sale sparked fierce protest from people who had been close to Judd, including Stockebrand, who sat on the board of the Judd Foundation, and Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Gallery, which represented Judd at the time of his death.

“I didn’t like the idea [of selling] all those works at auction,” Stockebrand said. “I thought that it was too many and it came too quickly, and I resigned from the Judd Foundation board when that decision was made, because I didn’t want to be responsible for it.”

Glimcher agreed. “That auction got rid of all the best stuff in the inventory,” he said, naming Richard Schlagman, then the owner of Phaidon books and a foundation board member, as the architect of the sale. “I think Schlagman did a terrible job with the estate by getting rid of most of the works at bargain prices.” Some of those who had known Judd were relatively tolerant of the sale—New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, who worked for Judd briefly in the ’70s, wrote that he “might have viewed the sale with a certain pragmatic equanimity. . . . He remarked more than once that one purpose of his smaller, portable sculptures was to make money to pay for bigger projects.” Others thought that his children had carted off some of his best work—work that altered the course of art history—in favor of maintaining a shrine. The three-year restoration of 101 Spring Street was completed in 2013.

“It’s almost a little unpleasant,” said Paula Cooper, who represented Judd for six years before he left for Pace in 1991, of being inside the renovated building. “Maybe for those of us who knew him, it’s kind of creepy.”

Rainer and Flavin have given over their adult lives to their father, weathering criticism from those who, they say, don’t understand what Judd would have wanted. “Nobody whose opinion I respected opposed [the auction] so it wasn’t much of a problem for me,” Flavin said. If certain people in Judd’s cadre saw vultures circling around the Christie’s auction, Flavin has much the same opinion about the sale’s detractors. “When he died, there were already dark forces gathering,” said Flavin, conjuring wolfish bottom-liners who saw Judd’s properties and artwork as so many assets to be liquidated. “It was very obvious that the stupidity was at our doorstep,” he added. The Judd children saw themselves as the only thing standing between their father and prospectors looking to make a quick buck off Judd’s sizable reputation. “No, we didn’t think 22 years later we’d still be doing it,” Flavin said of the foundation. “But we’re not done yet.”

Financially, the Judd Foundation appears to be in good health. Its revenue was $5.4 million in the 2013 fiscal year, according to tax returns. The foundation’s director of operations, Richard Griggs, earned around $100,000; Rainer and Flavin each received salaries of roughly $150,000. The operating budget as of June 2016 was $3.1 million.

“There’s this weird, subtle, unspoken thing that we expect good people doing good things to be struggling financially . . . and I think we need to embrace good people [making] smart, wise business choices,” said Rainer. “Good people who are doing good things can be financially organized.”

Donald Judd, Rainer Judd, and Flavin Judd in Marfa, Texas. ©2016 JUDD FOUNDATION, NEW YORK/COURTESY JUDD FOUNDATION

Donald Judd, Rainer Judd, and Flavin Judd in Marfa, Texas.


Born in Missouri in 1928, Judd roared onto the New York art scene in the late 1950s. After receiving a master’s degree in art history from Columbia University, where he studied philosophy as an undergrad, the artist rapidly asserted himself as a vocal fixture in the downtown milieu. Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, Judd shaped the cultural discourse of his time—not only through his radical sculptures, but with his prolific writing on his peers. He championed the artists he admired (Yayoi Kusama, John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg) and succinctly eviscerated those he did not. Judd espoused utter contempt for contemporary figuration, and he lambasted lazy art historians who lumped the new work he, Andre, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, and others were making under narrow terms of convenience like “Minimalism,” as they had lumped Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline under “Abstract Expressionism.” (Of the young painters who aped the Ab Ex titans, he wrote: “The situation is grotesque.”)

“[We were] not only hostile to postwar European art, but hostile to 10th Street art,” Stella said of his generation’s far-reaching belligerence toward members of the old guard and the avant-garde alike. “We were pretty hostile to just about everything.”

Judd preferred entertaining at home—the reverently preserved bottles at 101 Spring Street reflect his fondness for Scotch—but he occasionally hit Max’s Kansas City, the beloved downtown art bar, where Andre once watched him nearly come to blows with Robert Morris. “It was an incredibly fertile time,” said Andre.

Judd initially showed with Leo Castelli, the keen-eyed dealer who had championed Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Judd’s stark box sculptures, industrially fabricated from his own designs, eventually came to define the art being made in New York in the 1960s as much as Pollock’s drip paintings had the decade before. His success was hard-won, however. Describing a 1966 exhibition at Castelli, Hilton Kramer of the New York Times was in awe of Judd’s boldness (“it is work that consigns to the trash can of history most of our conventional beliefs about sculptural craftsmanship”), but also lamented “the sense of loss that one feels in seeing art carried to such an extreme of depersonalization.” No other artist of such renown had the “But is it art?” question lobbed his way more often than Judd. He left Castelli for the Paula Cooper Gallery, and had his first show there in 1985.

“We helped him be resuscitated,” Cooper said in her office, her hands resting on a pale Judd desk with built-in slots for papers. “He was respected, but his work was not selling at all, he wasn’t having museum shows. Nothing was happening, and we just believed so fervently in him.”

Cooper and Judd enjoyed a close friendship, frequently meeting for drinks and long talks about art and architecture. Despite his reputation for apoplectic rants, largely born out of his writing, he was soft-spoken in person. Videos show a pensive artist with a sense of humor, prone—as his children are—to studying patches of tabletop while speaking, or to scanning far walls, as though his thoughts were written there in runes only he could decipher.

Douglas Baxter, a longtime director at Cooper’s gallery, would also befriend “Don,” as he was known to everyone, including his children. When Baxter left Paula Cooper to work for Pace Gallery in 1991, Judd followed, along with other artists Cooper represented, including Joel Shapiro, Robert Mangold, and Elizabeth Murray.

“It was one of the most rewarding relationships in my life, I guess because Don did have this reputation for being so demanding and difficult,” said Baxter. “I think maybe he cultivated that, which made getting past it all the more special. I don’t think there were a lot of people who did get past that . . . maybe a couple dozen.”

At the time, Judd’s fabrication and his pared-down forms, which were about negative space as much as the solid industrial materials, were radical departures from the history of sculpture. Judd’s innovations may have still packed a bit of shock value at the time of the Whitney show in 1988, but by the time of the Tate retrospective in London in 2004, Minimalism had become a lifestyle. Calvin Klein, for instance, shot a 1995 ad campaign at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa.

“I remember seeing these ads for Calvin Klein Home,” said Chris D’Amelio, who works with the Judd Foundation as a director at David Zwirner. “They were like white walls, a wood floor, bed practically on the floor, white comforter with pillows, and a single lamp.” It was Judd-Lite.

Zwirner began representing the Judd Foundation in 2010, a year after it brought in the estate of Dan Flavin. In recent years the gallery has become one of the foremost stables for blue-chip artists and distinguished estates in the world, and a major player in Minimalism. Arne Glimcher said that Pace would have been chosen to represent the foundation had the gallery agreed to buy from the foundation around 20 pieces from a group of modestly-sized Judd works called the Menzikens. Glimcher felt the price was too high, and passed.

“It was a holdup, and I didn’t want to be held up,” said Glimcher. “I think Zwirner needed it badly, so he paid for the name.” Flavin Judd said the foundation “selected David Zwirner as our gallery partner because of the strength of its program and interest in scholarly research.”

Although the foundation insists that Pace has never had access to its complete holdings—something the foundation keeps private—Glimcher believes that few large artworks remain in it after the 2006 sale. In a move that riled Paula Cooper, Dan Flavin’s former dealer, the Flavin estate decided to begin completing editions that were left incomplete at the time of Flavin’s death in 1996, and those works have sold through Zwirner. There is no comparable scenario with Judd, however, who didn’t work in edition or leave plans for unrealized works. “With Judd, nothing is being fabricated at all,” said D’Amelio. “It’s only what he made during his life.”

Zwirner intends to bolster appreciation for Judd’s existing oeuvre and to establish a Judd market in China, where his work—not to mention Minimalism in general—is virtually unknown. Even in the United States, Judd has been something of a slow burner.

“Twenty-six years ago, when I first started working, most of the people I would speak to about Judd would laugh at me for saying, ‘look at this, this is really great,’ ” said D’Amelio. A small base of collectors sustained the market, while “most people thought, ‘No, come on, it’s a box on the wall. I don’t want that.’ ”

Judd never concerned himself with the market or viewed his practice as a get-rich-quick scheme. “He would talk about how he and Claes [Oldenburg] never expected to make money,” said Rainer. “They were artists and that was just the way it was, that they were going to make art, and things would get a little better than grapefruits and oatmeal all day long but . . . they couldn’t foresee that art was something that was going to make a lot of money.”

When Christie’s sold Judd’s 1963 wall sculpture Untitled (DSS42) in 2013, it set a new auction record for his work of $14.1 million, silencing any remaining speculation that his market had been damaged by the 2006 sale. Still, its high price was partly attributable to its large size and pristine provenance. Judd’s prices at auction may now outstrip those of Andre, Flavin, and the other giants of Minimalism, but they still lag behind the consistently stratospheric sums commanded by painters of his generation who had kindred preoccupations, such as Robert Ryman. (D’Amelio said Judd’s work has sold for more privately than at auction.)

According to D’Amelio, having collectors come around to Judd “is a slow and beautiful process.”

The fifth-floor bedroom at 101 Spring Street. CHARLIE RUBIN

The fifth-floor bedroom at 101 Spring Street.


Judd’s old SoHo building, which is open by appointment for tours, functions as a kind of Donald Judd museum, a space consecrated to his life in its daily particulars and highest ideals. That the two so often overlap within the spaces he created speaks to the artist’s singular vision and consummate philosophy. On the third floor, a meditative realm of right angles, carefully arranged rulers and other precision instruments rest on an antique drafting desk, echoing the Platonic geometry of the giant aluminum box dominating the loft, a Judd sculpture from 1970. Its metal sides glow in the sunlight, appearing almost liquid at certain times of day, an effect one might contemplate while availing oneself of the Ethiopian headrest set on the floor nearby.

One wonders what the ever-opinionated artist would have made of his upcoming retrospective at MoMA. If 101 Spring Street is a museum retrospective in perpetuity, Judd installed it that way partly in reaction to conventional institutions. Museums have never been ideal settings for experiencing his work, and no one felt this more strongly than Judd himself.

“Temporary shows and group shows in museums are insufficient and are damaging to the idea of art and actually, to the work,” he wrote in a letter to artist Annabelle D’Huart, one of the previously unpublished writings that will appear in the new book. “The space in the museums is seldom right, as it is usually awkward and pretentious architecture. There is not enough time to think out the placement of the pieces. And why, if an exhibition is somehow well done, destroy it after a month?”

Judd was not the first artist to chafe at the growing commercialism of SoHo in the 1970s, but he responded more drastically than those who simply found new digs elsewhere in New York. Judd started searching for a refuge distant from the claws of a rapidly transforming city and increasingly mercenary art world. He “was always trying to get as far away from people as he could,” said Andre.

He found his haven in Marfa, a sparsely populated ranching town in west Texas, deep within the Chihuahuan Desert. It was here that his vision would reach its apotheosis. He dreamed up a bell jar where his work, along with that of his friends John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin, could stand forever. With help from the Dia Foundation, which famously funded projects beyond the means and conceptual parameters of most museums, Judd bought Fort D. A. Russell, a 340-acre property studded with disused army barracks and warehouses, in 1979. In the mid-’80s, when Dia attempted to sell off some of the works Judd installed in Marfa due to financial woes (the foundation ran on oil money), Judd threatened to sue, winning control of the fort and its contents in an out-of-court settlement. In 1986, he reopened the property as the Chinati Foundation, a public, permanently installed exhibition space.

Marianne Stockebrand began visiting Judd in Marfa not long after, and he traveled to see her in Cologne. Douglas Baxter remembers joining the couple in Germany in 1993, on his way to Istanbul. They visited a museum, and Baxter could hear Judd’s laughter echoing in the next gallery.

“I’ll never forget hearing him laugh,” said Baxter. “The next day he went to the doctor in Cologne, and basically that’s when he got the news that he was very sick. It was like one day he’s laughing, and the next day he’s dying.”

Judd was diagnosed with lymphoma. He died a few months later, on February 12, 1994, leaving vast projects in limbo. Chinati, for instance, had no staff, no operating budget, no formal opening hours. Judd kept the amorphous organization financially afloat during his lifetime, and it could easily have ceased to exist when he died had it not been for Stockebrand. Marfa is now known as a mecca for art-hipster hajjis, but when Judd died, the town was still desolate.

“There was no functioning hotel,” Stockebrand recalled. “There was—you couldn’t say it was a restaurant—but there was a place where one could find food. It was quite curious and fun to be there, but it was sometimes very difficult to have guests when you couldn’t accommodate them.”

Stockebrand became director of Chinati when Judd died, and it was up to her to transform the project into a proper institution. She moved to Marfa in 1994 and began visiting potential donors for the virtually unheard-of foundation. She raised around $140,000 the first year. By the time she stepped down from the directorship in 2010, the endowment totaled more than $10 million, and annual attendance had topped 10,000 visitors.


Donald Judd’s handwritten note ‘21 May, 1986.’


Judd’s uncompromising ambition was of the moment. The Minimalists were a dogmatic bunch. They always knew best and they liked making rules. Visitors, for instance, do not get to choose how much time they spend with Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), another Dia-funded installation, this one in New Mexico. They must spend the night with the spare expanse of evenly spaced steel poles, sleeping in a designated cabin.

Flavin Judd thinks of 101 Spring Street as a testament to that vanished time and a vital bastion against cultural amnesia. “There’s no awareness of history, so the present always [seems like] the best thing possible, which erases the need to preserve,” he said. The Judd Foundation is “fighting entropy by preserving knowledge.”

There is poignancy to Judd’s struggle against inevitability, a nobility to standing in the face of decay and degeneration. But his wishes—and those of his children—run counter not only to how the art world works, but how history works. The efforts to preserve every pencil eraser in Judd’s home just as he left it recalls King Canute enthroned on the beach, staring down the advancing tide. For an artist who studied philosophy and art history, whose library testifies to his voracious appetite for perspective, Judd was adept at ignoring temporal (and financial) realities.

Nevertheless, reality occasionally infiltrates Judd’s hallowed ground. The first floor of 101 Spring has hosted a variety of events. The record label Mexican Summer, along with the nonprofit Ballroom Marfa, organized a music festival called Marfa Myths last March inside Judd’s west Texas temple. (“The anti-Coachella,” Billboard magazine called it.)

With an artist so outspoken, so specific about his own work, one constantly wonders, said Stockebrand, “What would Judd have thought? What would he have said? What would he have decided? And you can’t really, you can only take guidance insofar as you are trying to understand his principles, and then you still have to make a decision. Not everything can remain exactly the way it was meant to be. Case by case, you have to make these decisions. It’s tricky.”

Judd once held a fairly optimistic view of history. “It is not surprising that art should progress, since societies do,” he wrote in a previously unpublished note from 1963, included in the forthcoming book. Another note, written 20 years later, betrays a wearier stance. In it, Judd writes, “There is not so much progress as change.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 110 under the title “Specific Objectives.”

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