Flavin Judd is artistic director of Judd Foundation and the son of Donald Judd. He oversees art installations, book designs, and architectural design for Judd Foundation. He is codesigner and coeditor of the recent publications Donald Judd Writings (2016), Donald Judd Interviews (2019), and Donald Judd Spaces (2020). Photo: Alex Marks © Judd Foundation
Kara Vander Weg is a senior director at Gagosian, New York, where she has worked for more than fifteen years. She manages a number of the gallery’s established artists and estates, among them the Richard Avedon Foundation, Walter De Maria Collection and Archives, Michael Heizer, Neil Jenney, David Reed, Richard Serra, and Mark Tansey.
Kara Vander WegThank you for joining me over tacos. Let’s start by discussing the installation of this work from 1980. How important is the surrounding architecture to this particular work?
Flavin JuddThe space is important aesthetically. It needs to be neutral and clean, with natural light being a huge benefit. Because the piece is eighty feet long, there are not a lot of choices in terms of installation, but the Gagosian space is good for it.
KVWWhen the work was originally installed, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, it was partly illuminated by natural light. Was your dad particular about artificial lighting on his art?
FJ He wanted neutral lighting, the reverse of a dark room with a spotlight on the precious object.
FJYes, let the art do the drama, not the lighting.
KVWWhen Roberta Smith reviewed the Castelli show, she called the work “environmental” because it is eighty feet long. This is the longest Judd work made, correct?
FJWell, the longest indoor work, yes, because it’s a single piece. There are long works at Dia Beacon but they’re separate pieces.
KVWDid your father intend to show it in a compressed space, so that viewers would be unable to see it from a single perspective? At Castelli you couldn’t view it fully from one end of the room or the other, you had to walk by the work to entirely see it.
FJI think the Castelli space was a bit of a squeeze. I think it will look better at Gagosian because you’ll have more room in which to see it.
KVWTypically, how would Judd work when he was making a work for a particular installation? Did he adapt the design to the space?
FJHe would have seen the limitations of the space and kept that in mind, but otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have tailored the piece to the space. In no way is it site-specific.
KVWI was reading something that Judd wrote for a book on Leo, where he talks about how extraordinary his support was for this particular work, saying: “Leo has always accepted the necessity of doing new work, usually large, expensive, and unsaleable. . . . I think no dealer and certainly no museum would provide the space and most of the money to construct the large plywood piece of mine that was recently in the gallery on Greene Street. For there to be serious art, these things have to be done.” Did your father see dealers as necessary to his business, even if he remained wary of them?
FJYes, his thinking was that the art that went out the door was sold so that he could continue to keep and look at other art. All of the works were really expensive to make, and he didn’t have the luxury of being a painter, where the cost of materials is negligible. So he had to engage in a whole system of support.
KVWDid he see any benefit in having a work on view in a commercial gallery, where it would have reached a different public than in his spaces in Marfa, for instance?
FJWhether it was at Marfa or the Museum of Modern Art, it didn’t matter to him in the sense of exposure—the art just had to be up somewhere.
KVWWas the public important to him?
FJHe saw the public as an unknown. He made works for himself and assumed that if he found it interesting, other people would. You can’t generalize about an American versus a French or Swiss public, so why even bother?
KVWRoberta Smith describes the work as a significant evolution in your father’s practice, the equivalent of going from silent movies to talkies. For many people at the time, it was a revelation to see work like that.
FJYes, that kind of radicality has been totally forgotten. So it will be nice to see the piece again. It’s radical within what’s known of Don’s work, which is what can be discerned from the “greatest hits” of single stacks or progressions in museums around the world.
KVWWhat strikes me as particularly interesting about this work is that it emphasizes space as a form.
FJThere’s no negative space, right?
KVWWell, the negative is a form. And this work also emphasizes absence through its lack of applied colored, the lacquered paint that Judd was known for.
FJThe plywood has such a lustrous surface, it’s a multitude of colors at once.
KVWWas Judd involved in selecting the wood for the work? I know that Peter Ballantine constructed it.
FJDon would only have indicated that it should be made from Douglas fir plywood, that’s all.
KVWDid he prefer that the grain line up in a certain way?
FJThat had been decided through previous plywood works. There were long discussions about the fabrication of plywood works and how things went together with Peter, and in the case of the metal works with Bernstein Brothers.
KVWIn a world that has speeded up exponentially in the last several decades, where “seeing” an artwork is taking an Instagram photograph of it, do you think there’s today a particular benefit to art that makes you slow down to look at it?
FJThat’s projecting onto the audience again, so who knows?
KVWWhat’s your own experience? You’ve been looking at your father’s work for a long time.
FJWell, it’s like watching certain movies that might seem slow and complex, but the payoff is commensurate with the effort that the viewer puts into it. Instagram is like a shorthand for aesthetics, and it’s limited.
KVWJudd was not a fan of most museums.
FJNo, because they treated the work as a temporary interloper in the museum, and the works would ship back damaged.
KVWWere there curators he respected?
FJHe was friends with and liked Rudi Fuchs, Brydon Smith, and Bill Agee. But that didn’t mean he agreed with them on everything.
KVWThis work was said to have been damaged by the Saatchi Gallery, but that was not the case.
FJ The installation and deinstallation of this work was supposed to be overseen by a representative of Don’s, Peter Ballantine. Saatchi ignored that request and took the piece down alone. So Don got very angry, and though he never saw the piece after that, he declared it destroyed. We later found out that it wasn’t damaged, the only issue was that Don’s representative had not been present. It was just an argument and the piece is fine.
KVWIn terms of the work’s formal qualities, it has twenty-eight sculptural elements and only the first two and the last two repeat. All of the others are unique. Is this developed from another work?
FJNo, that’s him playing with the math. Given a height, a length, and a depth, what can you do? And it goes from there: if you have an open front box you can have a division. Then you can have a division that’s slanted. Then you can have two divisions that are slanted. Et cetera. So you’re adding complexity to the simplified boxes of the piece. It’s just a way of going from simplicity to complexity and back, in a pattern analogous to music. The link is math.
KVWWas Judd interested in mathematical theory?
FJHe was interested in math as a language for figuring out the world.
KVWWhat about the idea of legacy around these works? Judd conceived of his foundation in 1977, when it was prescient for an artist to think so far ahead about his future. Were there things that precipitated his planning?
FJWell, he was going to turn fifty the next year. But also he realized that Marfa wasn’t going away. By 1977, things were really established in Marfa. He had gone to Australia and loved it, but he realized it was too late for that—he’d spent years in Marfa, installing works, restoring buildings, and it was already too much effort to abandon. That’s where everything was going to be.
KVWDid he talk to you and your sister, Rainer, about his wishes?
FJWe were clearly told there would be a foundation eventually. There was no question about what was supposed to happen. But the “how” was left out.
KVWHow you were going to pay for it, who was going to run it . . .
FJNone of that was figured out.
KVWAt twenty-five years old, you and Rainer became codirectors of the foundation.
FJ Yes. I assumed that lawyers would take care of everything because I thought that was their job. But as soon as Don died, the lawyers, who didn’t know anything at all, said, “What do you want to do now?” It became clear that Rainer and I would have to take care of everything because nobody else knew the combination of weird things that a) Don wanted and b) what Don did and how to put it all together.
KVWThat’s an incredible responsibility.
It’s a way of going from simplicity to complexity and back, in a pattern analogous to music. The link is math.Flavin Judd
FJWe decided we had to try. And we didn’t put a time limit on the trying part, so we’re still trying.
KVWI would imagine that there are circumstances where you and your sister look at one another and say, “What would Don have done?” And then you have to make decisions based on that.
FJThat happens every day. That’s what our job is. And that’s what we can’t delegate, because it’s judgment.
KVWAre there situations where you’ve made a decision knowing it’s different from what your father would have decided because you think it’s better for his legacy?
FJI don’t really know where the divergence from his possible wishes happens because we have to make decisions regardless.
KVWWould he have wanted the Museum of Modern Art show that’s coming up?
FJHe would have agreed to it, but he would have attached a lot of conditions that we didn’t include. We agreed to it twelve years ago, so it’s been in the works for a long time. We’ve had offers to do things that we know Don wouldn’t have wanted, and we’ve said no, based on that.
KVWAre there conversations that you and Rainer have about how to keep Don’s legacy alive for the future?
FJI think institutions become things, and they have institutional memories, and they have institutional patterns and habits. You train the institution to have good habits. We have a really great board and a really great staff who will do things in a way that’s totally in accord with how Don would have wanted them done. So it works.
KVWYou’ve taught them.
FJYes. Or Don taught them.
KVWDo you have institutions, foundations, or families coming to you and asking for advice as they’re making plans?
FJYes, because for better or worse we’re one of the ones who went through all this, starting from having $200 in the bank and owing millions of dollars to where we are now. It’s a path that could have gone wrong in many different ways.
KVWYour father was very close with and supportive of some artists. Do you think that that was unusual at the time?
FJNo, I think it was more the rule than the exception. It was a much smaller community. When my parents lived on Park Avenue and 19th Street, and then Spring Street, in the early ’70s, they were surrounded by their friends. Within six blocks, there was the who’s who of the art world, and it was much closer. I can’t speak for the art community now, I’m only in it by accident. I think it’s much broader, and the Internet has changed it to be flat.
KVW I would imagine that in New York at that time, because everybody was in a small geographical area, there were creative evolutions.
FJ It was amazing and really radical. And I don’t think it has happened anywhere since.
KVW As a kid, did you know how extraordinary it was to have such accomplished artists coming to your house at night and talking to your dad and mom?
FJNo, I thought that was what everybody did. If John Chamberlain and Roni Horn came over for drinks, that’s what happened every week, so, so what? All I had to compare my life to when I was really small was my friends at school who lived on the Upper East Side in little shoeboxes and were really proud to do so. I was totally mystified as to why they would want to live in those shoeboxes.
KVWIf you had to advise a midcareer artist who is thinking about her or his legacy, what would you say was something to consider?
FJIf you do plan on dying, assume it’ll happen tomorrow.
KVWThat’s good. Plan accordingly.
Donald Judd: Artwork: 1980, Gagosian, West 21st Street, New York, March 12–September 4, 2020