Donald Judd was an artist who could build a box in a room and have both be transformed into a single, beautiful piece. A father of minimalism—though he rejected that term—Judd played with the space around his objects as much as the objects themselves. 101 Spring Street in Manhattan, the building where he worked and lived, is itself considered art as one of his “permanent instillations.” After a decade of renovation, it is now open to the public.
SoHo in 1968 was a commercial slum of run-down lofts, sweatshops, and warehouses. At night, it was deserted. The seedy neighborhood had earned the nickname “hell’s hundred acres” because vagrants routinely set fires around the area. But while most people wrote off SoHo as a wasteland, a young artist from Excelsior Springs, Missouri, saw it as an extraordinary opportunity: huge, empty spaces full of light were available for almost nothing. Donald Judd had a vision of what he could do with that kind of potential, and he set out to realize it.
Judd arrived on the New York art scene after serving in Korea for the Army and graduating with a degree in philosophy from Columbia University. He had begun his career with woodcuts, then moved on to working with industrial materials like concrete and Plexiglas to create three-dimensional work. He did not classify what he made as sculpture. As he explained in his 1965 “Specific Works” essay, “The new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting.” One reason for this was that he believed his pieces interacted with and were tied to their setting more than traditional sculptures, and he wanted to shrink the distance between his work and its environment. For someone exploring ideas about large three-dimensional forms, a cheap abandoned building was a dream come true.
In November of 1968, Judd bought a cast-iron building at 101 Spring Street, right in the middle of where the Lower Manhattan Expressway was supposed to run. Luckily the ill-conceived elevated highway was never built, the historic area was never bulldozed, and Judd’s building stood. Originally built as a department store, it was later divided with each floor sectioned off for small shops (think sewing machines and car parts, not the current trendy boutiques). With 8,500 square feet, it was five stories tall, with two basements, and cost all of $68,000.
This was the beginning of a renaissance for SoHo. Artists, attracted by tales like Judd’s, flocked to the once-dismissed neighborhood and created what became the center of the art world around the globe. The huge galleries and lofts became a staple of the area, and are credited with influencing contemporary art itself—pieces were allowed to be bigger and more grand than previous conditions had allowed.
Once he moved in, Judd did very little to the structure of the building. He wrote in 1989, “I thought the building should be repaired and basically not changed.” The interior, however, needed a lot of work. He cleaned the machine oil that had seeped into the floor, got rid of trash by the bagful, and mapped out the floor plan. “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.” He wanted to keep the space open, doing justice to the artwork and giving the whole place a sense of unity that walls and rooms didn’t afford.
Each of the five floors was assigned a single purpose. The ground floor was the public studio, used to display art and greet visitors. The second floor was for dining, with a well-stocked kitchen, though there was rarely a home-cooked meal—Judd liked to collect kitchenware rather than use it. The third was the more private studio, followed by the living space for him, his wife, and two children on the fourth, and finally the sleeping quarters on the fifth. Then came the vital step of choosing where to put the artwork. “I spent a great deal of time placing the art and a great deal designing the renovation in accordance,” he said. “Everything from the first was intended to be thoroughly considered and be permanent.” His precision and focus are evident by where he put every Dan Flavin light sculpture, Ad Reinhardt painting, and Marcel Duchamp readymade. The floors were blooming with incredible pieces, and the result was a wonderland of modern art.
The family lived there for eight years, until the couple divorced, prompting Judd to move to Marfa, Texas, where he created a sprawling artist’s compound. But he kept 101 Spring Street, and, what’s more, kept it exactly as the family had left it. Judd died suddenly in 1994, leaving behind a directive to establish a foundation dedicated to preserving his art and the buildings where he made and installed it. By then, SoHo had become a glorified shopping destination, and the building was in disrepair. Scaffolding had gone up to catch pieces of the façade that were in danger of hitting the revenue-producing shoppers below. Once again, there was work to be done.
The foundation, led by Judd’s children, proceeded to raise $23 million dollars to restore the place as identical to its original state as possible and open it to the public. After more than a decade of renovation, the building opened this summer, with every aspect of the setting excruciatingly considered. Each pencil’s eraser was considered, discussed, and analyzed.
Stepping into the building is stepping into the past, and a perfectly realized vision of an artist’s residence. There, it is easy to understand how Judd was able to have revolutionary ideas about space and forms. Inspiration flows through the floors like a gentle breeze. The space is a testament to the beauty of living among art and having a daily interactive relationship with it—just as Judd had envisioned.