Donald Judd’s 101 Spring St. – Ralph Lauren Magazine

Originally published in RLMagazine.

Legendary artist Donald Judd, shown here in 1991

It would be easy to overlook New York City’s 101 Spring Street, the former home and studio of late artist Donald Judd. Surrounded by high-end boutiques and quaint cafés, its unassuming façade does little to court attention, and seen through its towering windows, the ground floor appears suspiciously empty. Peeking in, one will spy only a secretary desk, two of Judd’s wall-mounted works and a Carl Andre sculpture composed of a modest stack of bricks.

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Judd hosting a seminar at his townhouse in 1974. Fellow artist Ron Clark is on his left. On Judd’s right? None other than Julian Schnabel.

Despite the lack of ceremony, 101 Spring Street in fact may be the most important landmark of cultural heritage in SoHo. It is a monument to that storied era in the mid-20th century when artists converged upon what was then an industrial slum and transformed its cast-iron buildings into lofts for work and play. Designed down to the minutest detail by its famous inhabitant, the modern master Judd, 101 Spring Street is a beautifully preserved relic of an entire generation.

When Judd moved to SoHo in 1968, he was an art star on the rise. With the earnings from a Guggenheim award, he purchased the 5-story building for $68,000, intent on transforming it into a comfortable place to work and live. The space was at first unsuitable for either. Floors were soaked with machine oil, a remnant of textile manufacturing; rooms were filled waist-high with debris. Still, Judd was undeterred. Preserving as many of the original details as possible, he assigned each level a specific purpose: a parlor and office on the first floor, the kitchen and dining room on the second, his studio on the third, an art gallery on the fourth and the bedrooms up top.

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Judd’s townhouse today. His “vision and goal,” says his daughter, was to create surroundings that best suited his art.

Judd believed the space in which an artwork is exhibited to be as important as the work itself. As his daughter, Rainer Judd, explains, his “vision and goal was to create spaces where he could install his work in surroundings—space, light and architecture—that best suited it. This was in contrast to his experience with museums, where…after much time and consideration being given to an exhibition, it would only be in place for a month or so.”

Thus 101 Spring Street became his personal gallery. Space was ample for experimentation with what would become his legacies: large-scale permanent installations displaying each artwork in an ideal setting to be viewed indefinitely. (This concept would be taken to the next level when he put Marfa, Texas, on the map for its dual role as massive art piece and exhibition space.)

“His only interest after he was gone was that it not be destroyed,” says Judd’s son, Flavin Judd, of 101 Spring Street. In 2009, after years of campaigning spearheaded by Rainer and Flavin, the city approved a proposal to restore and preserve the building.

It took four years to complete renovations, and in May 2013, the home-gallery hybrid opened its doors to the public as a fully functioning museum. Honoring the artist’s own principles, every part of the building that could remain intact was preserved.

One of the most striking aspects of 101 Spring Street is its scale. Cathedral-like ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows flood each room with light, and the open floor plan is in stark contrast with the cramped, shadowy streets outside. Oversize functional objects, many designed by Judd himself, include a Shakeresque couch with a back taller than any person’s head could reach and a dining table designed to match the windows’ generous dimensions.

In the kitchen, Judd’s attention to scale is realized most fully. Deciding that many objects for the home were too small to be compatible with an industrial space, he combed the restaurant district for industrial-size pots and pans, a stainless steel sink and a meat slicer, among other appliances and tools, to better complement the kitchen’s proportions. Meanwhile, objects traditionally stored in cabinets or drawers, such as plates, glasses and cutlery, are displayed out in the open. This look—the chef’s stove, brushed stainless steel, exposed shelving—is commonplace in urban apartments today, but back in the late ’60s, the aesthetic was brand new.

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The exterior of 101 Spring Street, where renovations of Judd’s townhouse were completed in May 2013

The construction of Judd’s large, industrial and abstract artwork was outsourced by the time he moved to SoHo, so his third-floor studio served primarily as a place for him to think and sketch. A large, hollow cube made from unpretentious-looking metal holds court in the center of the room, just one of the building’s many permanent installations.

A fourth-floor gallery illustrates the breadth of Judd’s personal art collection—many pieces made by friends and contemporaries, including Dan Flavin and Frank Stella—but the fifth floor, where Judd’s family of four slept, delights most of all.

There, a Marcel Duchamp shovel hangs from a wall next to the bathroom. The fluorescent glow of a Flavin installation crosses the western edge of the floor, tinting everything a reddish purple. An explosion of ’60s and ’70s art protrudes from the master bedroom’s walls, including works by John Chamberlain, Claes Oldenburg and by Judd himself. Furniture is scarce, with the notable exception of a futon perched on an austere wooden platform.

As a whole, 101 Spring Street offers a rare peek into not just the everyday life of an artist but also into how art and life can intersect with exhilarating results. Judd’s constellation of objects is a material expression of truly radical ideas. He was a philosopher who furnished the world with thought-provoking things—not just in art but also in everything else.