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101 SPRING STREET

Donald Judd's five-storey art installation that his daughter Rainer calls home

101 SPRING STREET,
NEW YORK,
USA

Interview ELIOT HAWORTH
Photography JAMES TOLICH

Pic alt
The artist Donald Judd’s former home is now the New York City headquarters of the Judd Foundation, of which his daughter Rainer, opposite, is co-president. The bed on a plinth is Donald Judd’s own design; behind it on the wall is a soft hanging sculpture by Claes Oldenburg.
When Rainer Judd’s father, the great artist Donald Judd, purchased 101 Spring Street he transformed it into a live-in installation. The five-storey building was part family home, part permanent exhibition, and it was in this unique household that Rainer and her brother Flavin grew up in the 1970s and ’80s. After Donald Judd died in 1994, he instructed that it should be preserved exactly. The building is now the New York base for Judd Foundation, of which Rainer serves as co-president, along with her brother. Everything from iconic Judd artworks to cooking utensils has been frozen in time, but Rainer still shuf-fles across the floor in her socks with the unmistakable ease of someone at home.

Eliot Haworth: Was this the first building you ever lived in?

Rainer Judd: I was brought here straight from the hospital, in a Volkswagen van.

EH: When was that?

RJ: August 1970. My brother, Flavin, was born in 1968 and he was brought home to 19th Street, to a building very similar to this one. The ceilings weren’t quite as high, but it was a beautiful little building. It was the same shade of grey, too. I don’t know if Don purposefully made Spring Street more like that building, but they looked so similar.

EH: How old is this place?

RJ: It’s from the late 19th century – 1870s. It’s a cast-iron building, which are a whole thing to discuss in and of themselves.

EH: Maybe it’s just me, but the first time I heard the term “cast-iron architecture” I had this fantastical vision of huge iron fortresses and big boxes of solid metal. But in reality, they are very open spaces and have these amazing high windows.

RJ: It is said they are the predecessors to skyscrapers, because with the iron in the structure they were able to make larger windows. It’s very fitting for New York City, because it led to the grandiose storefronts, fashion, elegance.

EH: What are your very early memories of the building and the area from when you were a child?

RJ: Most of the buildings around here, this one included, had been connected to the textile industry. There were loads of trucks with these great bridges – like gang-planks. If you look down from here, can you see how the doors are elevated off the street?

EH: Oh yes, I see.

A 1967 Frank Stella Protractor Series painting opposite Gerrit Rietveld zigzag chairs and a table designed by Donald Judd.

RJ: They would lay out these long metal bridges from the trucks directly to the building and roll in fabric or completed garments. A lot of my early memories of walking down the street are of ducking under those bridges. Aside from textiles, we had a little bit of Little Italy. There were the Sicilian sausage guys on Thompson Street.

EH: What about your memories of 101 Spring Street itself?

RJ: I’m not sure how much I can remember from when I was very, very young. Memories blur, you know? I slept on a little crib mattress on the fifth floor. It’s more of a feeling that I remember about that floor. There are smells I remember. There’s heat, and cold – very hot, humid summers, then very cold winters. But also I remember the feeling on the fifth floor – and I can’t tell you whether this is a very early memory or one from later that has mingled in – of the lovely distance there was from the noise, and the traffic, and the two-in-the-morning trash guys down on the street. You’re just far enough away where it’s a romantic, distant sound. Rather than “Raaaagh! Honk!”

EH: Where in the building did your father work? Am I right in thinking the ground floor was a studio for a while, before that moved upstairs?

RJ: I actually feel that the ground floor space was always a bit of a studio. It was given over to a show every now and then, but it was much more of a public studio. It was like a little Grand Central Station. Artworks were shipped, received, looked at – change was about. Whereas the third floor was always a very quiet, private studio. You’d only get art brought in when it was going to stay there. The third floor once received this very large piece...

EH: This is the big metal piece that’s in there now?

RJ: Yes. It really took up the space. It really defined it. It wasn’t going anywhere and that was it – ta-da! We have this great interview with my dad’s studio manager and friend, Jamie Dearing, talking about that piece and how it was the moment when he realised that this building could possibly be small. Because first, at 19th Street, there was one floor, then there were two floors, and then they started putting cacti on the roof and he thought that was a lot to deal with. Then when my parents got this building, he was, like, “Jeeeesus! What are you going to do with all this space?” But with the installation of that piece, he realised for the first time, “If you’re going to put something like that on each floor, you are going to need more space.” And at that point he started hearing my dad talking about needing more space – and West Texas. So I feel like the piece on the third floor is part of the trajectory to West Texas.

The cast-iron facade; windows take up two-thirds of its surface. The building was designed by architect Nicholas Whyte and completed in 1870.

EH: Could you tell me briefly about the move to Texas and the town of Marfa? Because it forms this interesting chunk of time where you left Spring Street for some years and then returned when you were older. It must have been so different from New York.

RJ: Yes, although we had been going there since I was very little. The village quality of New York prepared me quite well for moving to Marfa in terms of the social tools I needed. I wasn’t afraid of talking to people and engaging with a small community. But there was definitely an extreme contrast between the two places – the vastness of the desert, the lack of people – and that was very meaningful for me.

EH: So, after some time in Texas, you moved back to Spring Street?

RJ: Yes. We came back for high school. I must have just turned 13.

EH: Was the way you used the building different?

RJ: I was living in a different part of it. Flavin and I had our rooms built in the basement, just above the sub-basement. We had our own rooms and a kitchen; it was our own crazy teenage scenario. I think it worked really well.

EH: What was down in the sub-basement?

RJ: It was mainly dirt, and rocks, and boulders. But it was also where Judd furniture got made. Don’s assistants would go down early in the morning and do carpentry. I once made a short film down there, too.

EH: Tell me about that.

RJ: I made it with my friend Ford. I planted some cabbage in the earth and then I made him lay his head down so it was growing out of the ground. I think that film was called Sprout but I don’t remember the storyline. The earth here smelled fantastic, by the way. There were these metal grids in the ceiling so that the air was just flowing between the sub-basement, the basement and the ground floor, so when you opened the front door to the building there was this fantastic smell of earth. One of our staff members was aware that I was quite sad that, as a result the restoration project, all the earth was going to be covered up with concrete. So she made me a jar of the stuff and it’s called “Eau de terre de Spring Street”. I’m supposed to go to that jar whenever I miss the smell.

EH: Where do you keep it?

RJ: In my house, on a bookshelf.

EH: Tell me more about the restoration. The basement has been concreted over and I also heard that your old bedroom is now an office. How much has the building changed compared to how you used to know it?

RJ: The restoration here was our first major building project; we maintain 22 buildings in total if you include our Marfa spaces. With all of our work, the preservation of Don’s spaces is the guiding principle, so really the work here was to bring the building to a standard to protect the collection. One big change is the air conditioning. I don’t particularly like air conditioning, but we have it now as it’s important for preservation. We have many new systems and things in the building, but they are always based precisely on the original design. Like the radiators. Or the glass. All the window glass is new and UV protective, but it’s wavy in the same way the original glass was. Can you see that wave?

EH: I can.

HANDSHAKE OF A BUILDING (Nº 3 — 101 Spring Street)


This painted pull handle is fixed onto a door on the third floor of Donald Judd's former home in New York City. It is diminutive but also invitingly tactile.

RJ: It’s made by a company in Germany. We had to get the right kind of wave. It’s also a double pane, for climate control, but we designed this little piece in between. Usually when you see double pane it’s perforated aluminium, but we couldn’t stand for that so we did many window tests and came up with this non-perforated middle part.

EH: That’s incredible attention to detail. How long did it take to finish the entire building?

RJ: About ten years of research and planning with twenty months for the works. Grand Central Station took ten years. The building opened to the public in 2013. Select spaces in Marfa are open as well, though we are just beginning restoration projects to open more. We have to get it exactly right and buildings take time. My brother has a way of saying we are fighting entropy.

EH: This place keeps making me do double takes. Earlier I was walking past a shovel on a wall and realised it was actually a Duchamp. What was it like being surrounded by so many amazing artworks? Did it feel like living in a gallery at times or was it quite relaxed?

RJ: It was quite fluid. If you wanted to go and look really closely at the florets of a galvanised iron artwork, then you could go for it. But we learned we weren’t supposed to touch the art – I have one memory of running through a plywood piece, and that wasn’t good. But beyond that, I don’t really remember ever touching the work. I wasn’t entirely interested in it, actually. I was out doing ballet, or I was doing Greenpeace across the street. Part of my role as a kid was figuring out how to be my own person.

EH: You didn’t find it inspiring?

Rainer in the kitchen of the building she called home as a child. Next to her is the hatch of a puppet theatre her father designed for the children.

RJ: I remember I would always quiz him, “Is there a system? Is there a pattern? What’s the order here? What’s going on?” There were artists that for whatever reason I liked and I personally wanted in my room. I had a poster of my dad’s work. John Wesley, a painter friend of my dad’s, made a little Popeye on a sailboat that was small enough to fit in there. And later when I told him I was in the basement and asked if he had a big painting I could put in there, he gave me a huge painting of a window with snow outside. It was perfect for my living situation! The other artist I liked was Agnes Martin. I liked her posters and drawings, and my dad would help me get things by her.

EH: How has growing up with this building had a lasting impact on the way you live now?

RJ: I definitely feel most comfortable in old buildings. All of the buildings we maintain as Judd Foundation, here in New York and in Marfa, are previously existing structures. I’m also very particular about the tactile quality of things like chopping boards and having the right kind of furniture. But you know what I’ve been thinking about recently? This is a very big building – five up, two down – but I’ve come to realise in retrospect that I really didn’t see it as a large space. What a great thing to have that much space as a kid and not even be conscious of it. I would run all the way up to five just to say something. I would leap up the stairs two, three at a time. And on the way down, not skipping but going, “Du, du, du, du, du,” taking loads of tiny quick steps – how fast can you go? I became aware recently that I still run up and down stairs at exactly the same pace. I’m 47 – you’d think I would’ve stopped running up and down the stairs by now. Hopefully I’ll keep at it till my last day.

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