It is unsettling that the first large-scale U.S. exhibition of the work of Donald Judd in almost 20 years has been organized by Christie’s auction house. Not because this isn’t a museum, although this fact gives pause. What’s unsettling is this isn’t a show at all. It’s a sale—some would say an unnecessary one. The Judd Foundation, led by new executive director Barbara Hunt McLanahan, under the guidance of the foundation’s board, has placed 35 Judd works on the block to be sold to the highest bidder this Tuesday, May 9. Various estimates set the total worth of the works between $21 million and $25 million. Many believe the final price will be three times this amount. Without a hint of irony, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s deputy chairman in charge of the sale says, “Christie’s is banking on this. If there’s a moment to sell, the moment is now.”
Many think the board and McLanahan, who has only been on the job for less than a year but who pointedly told The New York Times, “We have explored all options,” have acted incautiously. Most of the work being offered is very good. A few pieces are great. A number of the pieces were remade by Judd years after their original creation. This is fine. All these pieces are totally authentic. Much of what’s on view makes you understand that while there were other contemporaneous artists working minimalistically, without Judd there would be no minimalism, a term he despised. Judd codified the tendency into something larger than a movement and more like a philosophy. His work, which includes architecture as well as furniture design, is proof that art can change the way the world looks and the way we look at the world. Judd was a true revolutionary.
You can see that in this spectacular-looking display, an installation that even Judd himself, a notorious, almost pathological perfectionist, might have approved of. A visit to the ravishingly plain 17,000-square-foot showroom on the 20th floor of the Simon & Schuster Building on Sixth Avenue, where Christie’s has installed the work, in addition to affording breathtaking river-to-river views, allows you to track Judd’s extraordinary journey from two to three dimensions and his relentless attempt to illuminate the materiality and corporeality of space.
Only concentrate on space and you’ll see how Judd allows you to look into otherwise empty volumes—a box, cube, or whatever—and perceive the space inside it as a physical thing. He gets you to grasp that space is a substance, something
that can be articulated rather than just looked through. In one rectilinear unpainted plywood box a semicircular divot is set into the top surface; another similar work has a tube resting where the divot is. There are numerous plywood or aluminum boxes that Judd has divided in one way or another. The divisions correspond to the overall configuration and internal scale of the shapes. Yet each division is full of surprise.
Space was never mystical or metaphysical for Judd. It wasn’t a place for God, transcendence, or purity the way it was for so many modernists. Judd marks a turning point. He’s not interested in Platonic ideals or separate realities. He’s interested in this world, now. For Judd, space is a living substance, a thing or material. Figure and ground merge in his work. You start to feel the electromagnetic hum of space. People talk about Judd’s work as being as “macho” or “overbearing.” These accusations are totally false. Judd was a lovely colorist. He was decorative, even fussy. Screws all face the same direction; everything is just so.
The Judd Foundation needs money badly. There are the 120,000 square feet to maintain in 16 magnificent spaces created by Judd in New York and Texas. There is a catalogue raisonné to publish, salaries to pay, and a hefty debt. The foundation has to do whatever it takes to remain solvent. If we lose Marfa, Texas, we lose the greatest contemporary art pilgrimage in the United States. It would be more than heartbreaking. Judd set up the foundation before his relatively rapid death from lymphoma in 1994; nowhere in its charter is the foundation required to keep and maintain these works.
But one wonders if, perhaps, instead of selling these works one by one, the foundation couldn’t have rounded up five or six Texas millionaires and had them chip in $2 million each in order to buy a group of six or seven Judds and donate them as a group to some Texas museum. The foundation might have found a way for any one of a dozen museums to put together similar offers for a group of works. (A few institutions have since voiced regret at not being given ample opportunity to do this; although it should be said that museums are notorious slowpokes about things like this.) Still, any of many collectors might have stepped forward, purchased and donated a group of works to a museum.
None of this happened. So complaints, especially from the tonier echelons of the art world, are perhaps disingenuous. There’s nothing wrong with individuals owning artworks. The point is, in all likelihood this many Judds will never be on the market at once again. This is the last time any of these works can be kept together. In a few days all this will all be over. Let’s hope the Judd Foundation makes an enormous amount of money and that it will be used wisely.