There’s a shovel attached to the wall on the fifth floor of 101 Spring Street. “Why didn’t they keep that downstairs?” asked a recent visitor.
“It’s a Duchamp,” the guide replied.
It’s like that on every floor of the artist Donald Judd’s former home and studio. There’s a Stuart Davis in the baby’s room and a Duchamp bottle rack up in the sleeping loft. A 1967 Frank Stella protractor series painting has pride of place on the fourth floor, used for entertaining, but a drawing by Stella hangs against an (attractively) decaying wall in the stairwell, at home with the African masks. Judd surrounded himself with design that suited his aesthetic as well as his art. The high chair is Thonet. Zigzag chairs by Gerrit Rietveld pulled up to his own table. Czech glassware tucked into the clever, deep well of another table. The first thing Judd saw every morning: a 1969 Dan Flavin neon sculpture, chasséing the length of the room, tubes of red and blue light framing his western view.
Museum-quality art, museum-quality design, and the detritus of domestic life occupy all five floors of the former garment factory, now the only single-occupancy building in all of SoHo. After a three-year, twenty-three-million-dollar restoration process led by the New York-based Architecture Research Office, the building will open for guided tours in June, offering an opportunity to see Judd’s work as he intended it to be seen, and to dwell, for an hour or so, in an individual vision of life as a work of art.
Judd bought the 1870 cast-iron building, a former manufacturing loft, in 1968. Initially, Judd worked on the ground floor, at a roll-top desk that he found on the premises, but when that began to feel exposed, he cleared upper floors of junk and turned the street level into a gallery. As he wrote in 1989, five years before his death, in an essay titled “101 Spring Street”:
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.
The building is long and shallow at twenty-five by seventy-five feet, and has an unusually open façade, with windows taking up two-thirds of the façade surface. Judd was determined not to interrupt that right angle, which meant kitchen, bathrooms, library, and closets were pushed into the northeast corner on each floor. Judd designed these rooms as pine-panelled inserts, complete with tiny surprises. A closet built under the stairs on the second floor has a horizontal door on a string; the children used it as a puppet theater. One can’t help but browse Judd’s kitchenwares, which include a set of sponge-painted, oversize jars and a rather terrifying meat slicer. These items were obviously carefully selected, since they have nowhere to hide. If Duchamp could re-present industrial design as art, why couldn’t Judd?
Judd’s own furniture provides a sense of location in the wide-open rooms: a high-backed daybed faces the battered woodstove, creating a hearth in space. On the floor above, a five-foot-high steel floor piece, too heavy to be moved when the building was under restoration, frames a pair of Aalto chairs and a table. The bed is raised on a slight plinth and covered in a white duvet quilted in (of course) rectangles. When Judd did add something to the enclosure, he always left a trace: the new oak floor on the third level does not quite meet the plastered walls, leaving a reveal of the former battered planks.
That attention to detail proved constraining, if not a little inspiring, to the architects charged with preserving Judd’s installed spaces as he had intended while making the building safe for public access. “To achieve one of those goals, you are possibly jeopardizing the other,” said the A.R.O. principal Adam Yarinsky. Their work had to fit into the support spaces already defined by Judd’s pine panelling, as well as two levels underground (daylit via restored glass skylights set into the SoHo sidewalk), and up on the roof. Some engineers at Arup Fire devised a smoke-evacuation system that would allow the staircase to remain open, as Judd had altered it to be, between the fourth and fifth floors. The Stella and Ad Reinhardt’s “Red Painting” (1952) on the second floor, needed temperature and humidity control. The outside of the building was also dismantled, and approximately four hundred of its thirteen hundred cast-iron pieces were recast. Occasionally, there was a return of the repressed: sewing-machine oil once soaked the floor joists, which released the substance into the plaster in dark spots.
After you’ve climbed a few flights, everything starts to look like an installation. Judd worked at an antique standing desk, handsome and heavy, now covered in a knolled array of triangles and straight edges whose lines and metallic sheen closely recall those of his wall sculpture. Outside the nook-like library rests a set of wood panels with long rectangular raised strips. I asked where they were to go, assuming they were more panelled doors. But no: they are woodcuts, blocks used to make some of Judd’s geometric prints. Another visitor noticed an industrial enameled step-on trash can in one of the new, handicapped-accessible bathrooms in the sub-basement. It is plain and strong and monochrome. We all agreed that it is just like Judd would have bought
Originally published in The New Yorker blog