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Judd Foundation

  • By Chris Wiley
  • Issue 18
  • Shelf LifeJanuary 2017

“Nook” is the word that came to mind when I was feeling around for a way to describe Donald Judd’s library in his singularly beautiful five-story loft in the heart of SoHo. The library is tucked away in a corner of what was once Judd's working space, a floor of the building that is as bracingly spare as any of his hard-edged works. Though the space is sprawling enough to make a current New York resident sick with envy, it contains only fourteen objects outside of the library nook: three artworks (one giant work by Judd himself—a rectangular, open-ended cuboid form in industrial steel—and one work by the California artist Larry Bell); three plywood chairs designed by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, which look uncomfortable (I was told that they are not); two Aalto stools; two woodblock prints; a West African headrest with an accompanying woven mat (a sort of spartan daybed); an Aalto child's desk set (for use by either his son, Flavin, or his daughter, Rainer); and Judd's own standing desk (he was nothing if not a pioneer). So it is with the rest of the house: every object has been selected with laser precision, like a sniper would pick off his mark. 

In the library, objects are allowed to proliferate. They deck the thick, built-in shelves: a taxidermied bat pinned to a plank; surreal, palm-sized ceramic sculptures made by Flavin; two cowboy hats; a memento from Western Union, where Judd's father worked; a Russian ushanka; an empty whiskey bottle; the carapace of a horseshoe crab. Books are rather few and far between. There are perhaps only fifty volumes—by Cicero, Chomsky, Shaw, Stein, Twombly, Milton, Mumford, Wright, and others—on the shelves, huddled in a couple of lonely corners. The rest of his library, which comprises a staggering 13,004 volumes, lives in downtown Marfa, Texas, where Judd and his children moved in the late 1970s, and which has now become a mecca for Judd fans and art folk.

Judd began buying property in the tiny desert town in the 1970s, and his holdings eventually grew to encompass a campus-like collection of buildings in the center, a local military base (which now houses the Chinati Foundation and features a collection of permanent installations by artists that Judd admired), and three ranch properties arrayed along the Mexican border. The New York art world, according to a Vanity Fair reporter writing about Marfa in the 1990s, was a scene Judd “hated with a grand passion.” Nestled in the shelves of his New York library, there is a sort of portal to the largest of his ranches, Las Casas, in the form of a panoramic view stitched together out of drugstore prints. It was made for Judd by his children at the end of his life, when he became too sick to leave New York. After his death, in 1994, he was buried at Las Casas, and became a fixture of the landscape itself.

Standing in the largely empty library in New York, I tried to square the unbridled scope of Judd's interests with the monkish restraint of his work. Even a cursory glance at a list of his library's holdings gives a sense that he was a man of uncommon intellectual ambition: it ranges across an almost parodically motley array of topics, from the quirkily down-to-earth (Harmony with Horses: An In-Depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship, 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey) to the esoteric (Native American Astronomy, Introduction to Differential Topology). His works show no such wandering tendency: they are reliably Platonic and pared-down.    

I made my own pilgrimage to Marfa in 2010. My tour of the Chinati Foundation ended right around sunset, and I was left to wander the edge of the property, where Judd had installed large box works in cast concrete on the high desert plain. I had seen the works in pictures before, but now, in the slanting, buttery light, one detail became clear: each section of the boxes had been cast using plywood of a baroque grain, and had not been polished. The swirling, celestial imprint of grain stood in stark contrast to the clean-lined geometries of the boxes, and called to mind a similar dichotomy that I had seen in Zen rock gardens in Japan.

Chris Wiley is an artist and writer. He is a Contributing Editor at Frieze magazine and writes regularly about photography for The New Yorker.

All photos by the author except where noted. by Mauricio Alejo © Judd Foundation. Licensed by ARS