On Spring Street

Alex Abramovich

‘I wrote criticism as a mercenary and would never have written it otherwise,’ Donald Judd wrote in 1974. ‘Since there were no set hours and since I could work at home it was a good part-time job.’ Caitlin Murray quotes this in her introduction to a new collection of the artist’s writing. Like everything I’ve read by Judd, it’s matter of fact, utilitarian – plain in ways that conceal the effort that might have gone into the actual work.

Judd, who studied philosophy before turning towards art, was as precise on the page as he was in his sculpture. Take that syllogistic word ‘since’, which appears again and again in his essays, sometimes several times in the same sentence. In November 1968 he bought a cast-iron building in the Cast-Iron District of New York City, at 101 Spring Street. ‘The Building was built in 1870 and designed by Nicholas Whyte, whose only other cast-iron building is in Brazil,’ Judd wrote.

I don’t know the first purpose of the building but suppose that something of cloth was made on the upper floors and sold on the lower ones, since many buildings in the area were stores, since the façade is fancy not like that of a warehouse, and since it is mostly glass.

The building in SoHo – which, much to Judd’s dismay, is what New York’s Cast-Iron District came to be called – has been open to the public since 2013. There are five floors, not counting the basement and sub-basement, where the Judd Foundation has its offices, and each floor is stripped down to its specific purpose: a gallery, once Judd’s studio, at street level; an open kitchen and dining area, one storey up; and so on up to the top where Judd slept, surrounded by works by John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, Claes Oldenburg, and Lucas Samaras. It’s the last single-use cast-iron building in SoHo, out of place in today’s neighbourhood, which has become a vast, outdoor mall for financiers and wealthy tourists. Judd bought the building for $68,000, spending money from a Guggenheim Grant, having almost bought a painting by Barnett Newman instead.

‘It would be a mistake to think that after reading nearly nine hundred pages of Don’s writings you will know him,’ Judd’s son Flavin warns in Donald Judd Writings, ‘but that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to find something within the writings that is useful, something that can be a tool for future use.’ These lines came back to me as I walked through Judd’s building, which feels very much like walking around in his head. The individual floors are enormous – since the cast iron’s structural, there’s no need for columns or other internal supports – but perfectly scaled and meticulous, in ways that reminded me of Wittgenstein’s designs for his sister’s house in Vienna.

The building contains artwork by Larry Bell, Marcel Duchamp, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella and not a few others. There are Gerrit Rietveld zig-zag chairs; stools, armchairs and a children’s desk by Alvar Aalto; day beds, dining tables and chairs of Judd’s own design. There are open shelves in the kitchen, where industrial appliances scale up to the size of the room, and hidden delights like the puppet theatre that Judd designed for his children. But 101 Spring Street may be the most uncluttered place I’ve found in the city. From the 1970s, Judd himself spent less and less time there. By the end of the 1980s (he died in 1994), he mostly used the building as a stopover between Marfa, Texas, where he was now based, and Europe. In effect, the artist had turned New York into flyover country, though not before leaving his stamp on the city.


  • 17 November 2016 at 9:44pm
    suetonius says:
    Friends of my parents, together with someone who ended up on my Ph. D. Thesis committee (it's a small white petit bourgeois world) bought a building on the corner of Grand and Wooster in 1968. NYC was very very different then. I remember going to visit as a kid, while they were busy fixing it up. They've hated the neighborhood for decades. Nothing left to love. In 68 everything down there was dirt cheap, since Robert Moses had plans to put a highway through on Broome street.

    • 17 November 2016 at 10:57pm
      Alex Abramovich says: @ suetonius
      Yes, Judd writes about the expressway in his essay "101 Spring Street." He and his wife at the time, Julie Finch, co-founded Artists Against the Expressway, which helped to defeat Moses' plan.