DONALD JUDD AND 1O1 SPRING STREETby Phong Bui
Nicholas Robinson Gallery | March 2nd – April 17th, 2010
In his landmark essay, “Specific Objects,” published in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965, Donald Judd emphatically declares that “most of the best new works of the past few years have been neither painting nor sculpture.” As he elaborates on their similarities and differences in accordance with his rejection of residual European influences in favor of the new application of fabricated objects and industrial products, we realize that his argument is part of his greater advocacy for the works of the artists of his generation (similar to what Clement Greenberg wrote a decade earlier in 1956, in his equally significant essay, “American-Type Painting”), and further deriving from his own artistic output at the time.
By 1965, he had already made his classic and mature works. By adhering to mathematical and geometric structures, they not only renegotiate the whole issue of speculative claims of authorship, but make the very concept of perceiving the work at the outset as a unitary whole, rather than arranging it part-by-part over time, possible for the first time. This was a year before Kynaston McShine’s Primary Structures and Lawrence Alloway’s Systemic Paintings exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and Guggenheim. During this period, Richard Wollheim coined the term “Minimal Art.”
More importantly, and true to his concept of freestanding “specific objects” in relationship to the space they inhabit, in 1968 Judd bought a five-story cast iron building on 101 Spring Street that allowed him to install his own works and those of others in a more permanent situation than was possible in gallery or museum exhibitions. I remember clearly an occasion in late June of 1989, a few weeks after the “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square appeared on CNN. I was standing on the northeast corner of Spring and Mercer waiting for a friend who never came. I didn’t know that right behind me there stood the future Judd Foundation. (Conceived in 1977, it was only realized 1996). It was a faded and mysterious gray edifice, among the last examples of cast iron buildings in New York City, which couldn’t have been more strangely located in the middle of the city’s fashion district. I was a young, naïve artist and it took me a while to notice. After peering through the ground floor’s front and side windows, I went inside to look closely at Judd’s “Untitled” floor piece with iron pipe, five stainless-steel-and Plexiglas boxes affixed to a the main wall, and Carl Andre’s stacked piece of eight bricks, “Manifest Destiny.” On the second floor on the southeast corner wall there appeared quite prominently David Novros’s monumental fresco, the painter’s first so-called “painting-in-place,” which was commissioned by Judd in 1969. Novros’s commission was in some ways a reaffirmation of Judd’s concept of permanent installation. It’s as if both artists have shared a deeply vested interest in the continuum of art history—a looking backward in order to move forward. Then on the fourth and fifth floor there were works by Frank Stella, Lucas Samaras, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Arp, and last but not least, Dan Flavin’s light installation, entitled “To Don Judd, The Colorist.” A handmade platform bed, Rietveld Zig-Zag chairs, African masks, and other objects were integrated into the living space.
This summer, in advance of the building’s closing for three years’ restoration, Nick Robinson and Maurice Tuchman, whose Soutine exhibition at Cheim and Read was the best group show of 2006, have co-organized an exhibition at the Judd Foundation as a commemorative evocation in which every single work of art has been selected to correspond to those in the Spring Street building. The result is more intensely compressed for the gallery’s space than one would expect. However, the pairing of Novros’s “Untitled” oil on canvas, (15 parts) (1969), which was shown in his last memorable exhibit at Paula Cooper last September of 2009, and Judd’s “Untitled” (1989), a Douglas Fir plywood piece, was splendidly tuned, partly because it’s an interesting exchange of two artists, one, a logical empiricist who aspires to be an idealist, the other, an idealist, who thinks himself a logical empiricist.
It was exciting to see Novros’s watercolor study for the Judd-commissioned fresco. I felt the Arp, “Owner of the Heidelberg Cask” (1962), along with Samaras’s “Box Number 2” (1962), were first rate. So was Reinhardt’s “Art Comics and Satires,” originally published in the newspaper PM in 1946. In addition, one of the two Flavins in the downstair space, “Untitled (In honor of Harold Joachim) 2” (1977), is another example of an artist who embodies, the post-Frenhofer syndrome. (Frenhofer, the protaginist of Balzac’s short novel The Unknown Masterpiece, who failed to unify line and color therefore destroyed his so-called “masterpiece. ” Joachim’s volume The Nature of Truth, 1906, was generally regarded as the definitive formulation of the coherence theory of truth.) Overall, it’s a wonderful homage to Judd’s definition of “specific objects” without strict adherence to his concept of permanent installation. Leaving the gallery I thought of the essay’s third paragraph, “The disinterest in painting and sculpture is a disinterest in doing it again, not in it as it is being done by those who developed the last advanced versions. New work always involves objections to the old, but these objections are really relevant only to the new.”