In November of 1968, the artist Donald Judd bought 101 Spring St., a five-story cast-iron building in what would soon become known as the SoHo neighborhood in New York City. At the time, the area was derelict and the building was in disrepair. Judd wanted to clean up the property–he planned to use the address as his residence and studio–but his vision for the renovation was as restrained as his art. “I thought the building should be repaired and basically not changed,” he wrote years later.
Instead of reconfiguring the interior, Judd poured his energy into his own unique brand of interior design, searching tirelessly for furniture, art, and other objects that would complement the original space–and vice versa. Over the course of several years, floor by floor, Judd settled on a series of “permanent installations” for the building, including his own works and those of other notable artists. Now, after an exhaustive three-year restoration, the minimalist monument is finally open to the public.
On one level, 101 Spring Street is fascinating simply as a glimpse into the private space of an important artist. Just like looking at photographs of Picasso’s studio or the Eames House in California make us feel closer to those great minds, you can see 101 Spring Street as an embodiment of Judd’s life and work. It’s Donald Judd in his purest form.
But at the same time, the building is different from those other places. In a way, you could say it’s a work of art itself. For 101 Spring Street was the first canvas for one of Judd’s most consuming artistic projects, that of the permanent installation. It’s something he would investigate on a much larger scale at his sprawling site in Marfa, Texas–essentially the idea is an artwork’s surroundings shaped how it would be viewed. Judd thought museums, ever-changing and susceptible to the whims of curators and directors, weren’t permanent enough for this purpose. So he approached Spring Street as a sort of hermetically sealed museum of his own. He explained the process in Architektur, in 1989:
The given circumstances were very simple: the floors must be open; the right angle of windows on each floor must not be interrupted; and any changes must be compatible. 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. I 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, as, despite several, it still is.
Judd took great pains in his role as curator. The site ultimately included artworks by Jean Arp, Carl Andre, Larry Bell, John Chamberlain, Stuart Davis, Marcel Duchamp, Dan Flavin, David Novros, Claes Oldenburg, Ad Reinhardt, Lucas Samaras, Kurt Schwitters, and Frank Stella, among others. The furnishings include pieces by Alvar Aalto, Michael Thonet, and Gerrit Rietveld.
But 101 Spring Street wasn’t just a residence and studio. It was also a muse. In a 1977 essay titled “In Defense Of My Work,” Judd explained how his installations there informed later works. “The interrelation of the architecture of 101 Spring Street, its own and what I’ve invented, with the pieces installed there, has led to many of my newer, larger pieces, ones involving whole spaces,” he wrote. “Several main ideas have come from thinking about the space and situation of that building.”
In that essay, the defense Judd was mounting wasn’t against critics. It was against galleries and dealers and tax collectors and governments–the institutions that, with ill intentions or not, often end up moving art to and fro, like money from bank account to bank account. For Judd, 101 Spring Street was the defense. It was, he writes, a way to “make my work last in its first condition.”
It was, in short, a place that he’d be glad to see so painstakingly preserved. “My work and that of others is often exhibited badly and always for short periods,” he wrote in that same essay. “Somewhere there has to be a place where the installation is well done and permanent.” There is. It’s at the corner of Spring and Mercer, and now you can tour it for yourself.
101 Spring Street opens June 18. Read more here.