JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Donald Judd is considered one of the most important artists of the last half of the 20th century, and he created some of his most important work in a five-story Manhattan building he bought in 1968. It stayed in his family after Judd died in 1994 with his artworks. Now, the general public can tour the building and see firsthand how Judd thought art and architecture could work together. Reporter Karen Michel takes us inside.
KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Donald Judd's former studio and home in what used to be called the Cast Iron District overlooks a Gucci store and an Ivanka Trump boutique, neither one of them here when Judd and his family were in residence. The artist's son Flavin, who's now 45, lived in the building until he was 8 years old, then again as a teenager, and finally for most of his 20s.
FLAVIN JUDD: I was living in New York right before he died, and I was working in construction. So I would be, like, grinding the paint off the building and say: oh, look. It used to be cream underneath. The original color, you know, I found the original color. And I said: Well, when we restore it, are we going to paint it cream, or is it going to be gray? And he said: No, it's been gray a long time. We'll just let it stay gray.
MICHEL: The inside isn't all that colorful either, and it's sparse, like Judd's work. He created boxes of straight lines and angled planes - minimalist, as others dub them, a label Judd disdained. On the ground floor, there are just a few pieces of art, including a pile of bricks that's Carl Andre's work and a wall of purple anodized aluminum rectangles of Judd's. This place is meant as a kind of spiritual space for the work to be shown just as Flavin's father, Donald, intended.
F. JUDD: Don's art is very much about the sculpture as it existed in reality. It's not referring to other theories. It's very much about something that simply exists.
MICHEL: Judd believed that art had a relationship with the space around it, and he placed things very specifically in this building.
ROB BEYER: That's why it's so important to preserve this.
MICHEL: Along with Flavin Judd, Rob Beyer oversaw the restoration project.
BEYER: Because it's not necessarily preserving the work, but it's preserving the work in an environment where it can be most appreciated.
MICHEL: The art is installed on all five floors. The second floor is where the family spent most of its time. Conservator Mette Carlsen leads the tour.
METTE CARLSEN: So this is the kitchen and dining space. We have the puppet theater.
MICHEL: Judd built the puppet theater as he did some of the furniture in the vast space. Not far from the kitchen, there's a potbellied stove that was the only source of heat for a very long time. On the fourth floor, Judd had a drafting table where he worked and, tucked into the corner, a couple of chairs, a small table, some smooth stones, a few cowboy hats and books, including the collected works of Gertrude Stein and Homer's "Odyssey," the Lattimore translation.
Overall, the effect is like Judd's sculptures - sparse, deliberate, rectilinear, non-organic, as Judd said in the 1965 interview for the Archives of American Art.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
DONALD JUDD: I don't want it descriptive or naturalistic in any way. So for the time being, I'm left with a fairly geometric sort of arrangement. There's certain type of quality that can't be gotten any other way.
MICHEL: Even the sleeping areas reflect Judd's preference for clean lines. They're up on the fifth floor. It's his daughter Rainer's favorite space.
RAINER JUDD: I always loved the fifth and the bedroom. I would take it in like a drop of a hat, but it's really for a wider audience than me.
MICHEL: Her father's bed is on a low platform that he built. Right next to the mattress is a work by Lucas Samaras.
F. JUDD: When I was a kid, this was the most fascinating object in the entire building. The imagination that went into making this is beautiful.
MICHEL: It's a spiky box with knives sticking out of it. Nearby is a work by Claes Oldenburg and a nearly wall-length sculpture of red and white neon lights by Dan Flavin. Donald Judd named his son after the sculptor. Flavin Judd says there's one item that isn't here anymore.
F. JUDD: Don bought his first TV in 1973 to watch the impeachment of Nixon. So the TV was across from the bed. And, of course, thereafter, it was used to watch cartoons.
MICHEL: Donald Judd bought the building in 1968 for $68,000. The three-year restoration cost about $23 million. There was pressure to sell the place, but the siblings resisted. Both Flavin and Rainer just cared too much.
R. JUDD: We're saving like every paint chip and every little splinter on the floor. I think that's very sentimental. The whole reason this exists, in a way, is because we care about every little inch. And at the end of the day, because we were raised by somebody who was so generous to us and taught us so much that we want to honor what he gave us and what he made in the world. So I think this whole project wouldn't exist unless we were, to be really cheesy, just full of love.
MICHEL: Given the way the neighborhood has changed, a bit of sentiment is kind of nice. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.
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