Making More of Donald Judd
Does the master of minimal gain when stuff enters the picture?
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 8/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
The minimalism of the 1990s created devotees verging on caricature. One could almost sense the anxiety caused by fingerprints, the aversion to anything not easily described by chilling Euclidean geometry. One wonders what such purists—and there still are many—would have thought of this summer's exhibition of Donald Judd furniture at A/D gallery in New York. During the show, Judd's tables and bookcases found themselves accompanying such non-minimal embellishments as a 19th-century English ceramic female nude, American armchairs, circa 1830, even an 1820 French clock sporting a bust of George Washington. "I had a green mohair throw that I thought would look perfect on Judd's bench," says A/D owner Elisabeth Cunnick. "It just wasn't right, though, so I bought a gray cashmere one, and it worked out well." A throw?
Organized with the Judd Foundation, the exhibition presented aluminum pieces by the minimalist sculptor, who began making furniture in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, the foundation itself installed similar tableaux at the nearby Mercer hotel. In both venues, pieces were shown for the first time as they might actually be used. Onetime objects on pedestals became, well, furniture.
"It took me eight years to feel bold enough to do this," says Madeleine Hoffmann, who was hired by the estate in 1994 and now heads its furniture division. "Before, people tended to think of Judd's furniture as sculpture." In a 1992 exhibition at A/D, a Judd bed was displayed without so much as a mattress. "People thought it was beautiful but said it couldn't possibly be a bed. It looked too uncomfortable," recalls Cunnick. This time, she added pillows and a blanket.
At the height of '90s minimalism, putting a blanket on a Judd bed—at least in public—was inconceivable. But 1992's sacrilege is today compelling. "People have been very interested," says Hoffmann, explaining the new approach from a marketing standpoint. The foundation hopes to increase income derived from furniture sales—to operate the Judd compound in Marfa, Texas, among other activities—and wants to reassure the otherwise intimidated that it's indeed OK to put a mattress on a Judd bed and sleep on it. Judd presumably did the same.
But what about that George Washington clock on Judd's aluminum cabinet? We're forced to acknowledge that he might very well have placed it there himself. Only a block from the Mercer, two from A/D, is a cast-iron building that he purchased as his home and studio in 1968. His foundation maintains the building largely as he left it, and passersby have come to expect the imposing Judd and Dan Flavin sculptures behind its street-level windows. What casual observers may not notice, however, is Judd's seemingly out-of-place oak rolltop desk and armchair. And upstairs, accessible only by appointment, furniture he designed stands alongside Thonet chairs, a Victorian potbelly stove, and an Etruscan oil lamp. A Biedermeier settee occupies the bedroom, where an oriental rug adorns a Judd-designed table.
"His tastes were a lot broader than people think. He appreciated objects as achievements of their time, just as he thought that artists of his time should push forward, not mimic the past," says the foundation's art supervisor, Peter Ballantine. Judd's minimalism is more strongly rooted in an abstract notion of integrity than in any particular aesthetic, so an Empire clock may be acceptable, whereas a derivative, Empire-style clock almost certainly wouldn't. Of course, there's no way of knowing for sure: Judd possessed a fastidiousness bordering on neurosis, and his thinking about space and objects was enormously complex. We can, however, be certain that he drew an inflexible distinction between art and design. When it came to the latter, he was somewhat of an eclectic. After all, this patron saint of minimalism hated being called a minimalist.