The Donald Judd Foundation Offers a Glimpse into the History of a Different SoHo [HISTORY]

Posted on: May 5th, 2016 at 9:29 am by

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5th Floor, 101 Spring St, New York, NY. Photo by Joshua White @ Judd Foundation Archive.

New York City is made of neighborhoods, which, like many New Yorkers, are constantly changing and reinventing themselves. In today’s era of warp-speed hyper-gentrification, it has become increasingly difficult to keep track of what came before; but that only makes it seem all the more important.

For more years than we care to admit, we have walked by a massive cast-iron loft building at the corner of Spring and Mercer Streets, wondering what it looked like inside. We knew only that it had been the home studio of artist Donald Judd.

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101 Spring Street. Photo: NY Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Last week we finally got to go inside this mystery space.

Donald Judd (1928 – 1994) was trained in philosophy and art history. He was a prolific writer and art critic, but was better known as a “minimalist sculptor.” However, he hated both the term and the individual words. Instead, he considered his work as “maximal,” and thought of “creating spaces” as the art itself. He saw 101 Spring Street as the space to do that.

When he bought the building in 1968, SoHo was a very different place. It wasn’t yet called “SoHo” back then, having been previously known as Hells’ Hundred Acres and The Valley and, more recently, the Cast Iron District. It was a neighborhood composed of 19th Century cast-iron buildings that had been adapted for manufacturing uses that were, in the 1950s and 60s, in the process of abandoning the city. In that vacuum, as so often happens, artists began to move in, living illegally in loft spaces that usually had no heat on nights and weekends and were fronted with soot-covered, drafty windows. The blackened windows served a purpose: they hid the illegal spaces. The neighborhood was empty at night, with no services like supermarkets. But it was full of cheap, high-ceilinged, open spaces. In other words, perfect for artists. The vast size of the loft spaces enabled them to create larger works, influencing a whole new look and feel for artists in New York.

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A typical loft in “move-in” condition. Photo: SoHo Memory Project (https://sohomemory.com/)

101 Spring Street was built in 1870, and before Judd took it over, was a textile factory, replete with four feet of garbage on at least one of the floors. He worked there until his passing in 1994. His will specified that the space remain exactly as he designed it. In the mid-90s, it was turned into a foundation, and his two children raised money to repair the building (it was in such deep disrepair that scaffolding had been erected to catch falling chunks of the building) and bring it up to code.

It was no easy task to accommodate both Judd’s and the building department’s requirements. Some clever solutions were arrived at, such as hidden sprinklers on each floor and, because Judd had hated artificial light and had almost none, using a Dan Flavin light sculpture as emergency lighting.

Today the building is the only single-use cast-iron space remaining in SoHo.

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Spring and Crosby Streets, 1978. Photo: Thomas Struth/SoHo Memory Project.

By the early to mid-1970s, Judd felt that the SoHo neighborhood had become “an artist’s Disneyland,” and wanted to spend most of his time in exile. With quite a visionary knack for real estate, he bought up massive amounts of land in Marfa, Texas in the early 1970s.

Marfa, which is three hours away from the nearest town, was the polar opposite of New York City, and Judd fell in love with the area. Utilizing the vast and empty landscape to create larger installations, Judd helped put Marfa on the map as an important artist’s destination. From that point on, Judd was in New York for about one week per month at his space on Spring Street, and spent the balance of the time, living in the middle of nowhere.

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Exterior, 101 Spring St, New York, NY. Photo by Joshua White @ Judd Foundation Archive.

By 2013, 101 Spring St had been restored to Judd’s specifications, and the Foundation opened to the public. The tours, which are by appointment only, are led by artists who have had months of training, and are kept to very small groups, all of which makes the experience quite special.

When one first walks into the space, it does seem extremely, well, minimal (sorry, Mr. Judd). As our vibrant guide Susan pointed out, there are fascinating details and continuity on each floor. Furniture on one floor lines up with art on another floor. A baseboard on one floor echoes a detail of a sculpture on the next floor. A wood-planked ceiling is intended to match the flooring under it so that one sees the space differently.

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2nd Floor, 101 Spring St, New York, NY. Photo by Joshua White @ Judd Foundation Archive.

Judd traded art with friends and, over time, amassed an enormous collection. Aside from Judd’s works, visitors can view art by many others, including Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, Ad Reinhardt and Larry Bell.

One wonders if this type of space could ever exist in New York City again. Could someone acquire five floors and create a pristine, exacting live and work space? Judd bought the building once he was successful, using the income from a show at the Whitney. Could a Whitney artist even afford a building these days? And if so, where would it be?

If there can’t be another SoHo, at least we have this bit of history amid a sea of new buildings lacking any sense of the past.

The Judd Foundation is located at 101 Spring Street. Tours are by appointment only, and advance booking is highly recommended.

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