Flavin Judd

After the death of artist Donald Judd in 1994, his two children, Flavin and Rainer, found themselves with the mammoth responsibility of caring for their father’s legacy. For anyone familiar with the American artist who revolutionized sculpture and space in the latter half of the 20th century, this was obviously no small task; it proved particularly complex because much of Judd’s work needed to be preserved as permanent installations in the very buildings and homes that make up the Judd Foundation. Since 1996, both Flavin and Rainer have served on the board of this foundation, overseeing the endowment, the diverse body of work, and the maintenance of 22 buildings on 12 properties, including the five-story loft building at 101 Spring Street in Manhattan and the many spaces in Marfa, Texas.

Partnering with David Zwirner Books, the Judd Foundation has released the new Donald Judd Writings, a brick-thick bright-orange tome with more than 40 texts by the late artist that have never before appeared in book form. It is the most comprehensive survey of Judd’s writing in one volume, including essays from his graduate study at Columbia University in the 1950s and criticism he wrote toward the end of his life. The book also allows for a glimpse into the intimate corners of his practice, with the addition of personal notes, most of which were transcribed by Flavin and his co-editor, Caitlin Murray. There is also an extensive number of footnotes referencing material drawn from Judd’s personal library, cataloged and on view at his Marfa home.

One common misconception is to consider Judd as synonymous with Marfa, the once sleepy Southwestern town in the Chihuahuan Desert that practically claims the artist as its unofficial founder. After all, Judd first visited Marfa in 1971, and it’s where Flavin and Rainer were primarily raised after Judd separated from their mother, the choreographer and dancer Julie Finch. Nevertheless, the town’s current iteration—what 48-year-old son Flavin refers to as a “SoHo-ization”—is an unlikely art-world capital far from the “cow-town” he found there as a child in the 1970s. “People have it flipped. They think Don had this idea for all these buildings and went there to do it. It’s the reverse,” Flavin explains when we met up at the Judd Foundation space on Spring Street this past September. (Note: both Flavin and Rainer call their father by his first name.) “We started with just a little rental house. There were no plans. There were no buildings. It was all very simple and small.” When the house became too tiny to contain Judd’s art, several nearby buildings were rented and eventually purchased. “Don just drew circles on the map trying to like figure out where nobody lived and he found Marfa,” Flavin says.

Another misunderstanding is the relegation of Judd’s work to “minimalism,” a classification the artist very much denied. “Don was not a minimalist,” asserts Flavin. “To him, that was a lazy concept.” Many of the writings speak to Judd’s dismay at critics’ and art historians’ incorrect use of such broad, malformed constructs.

Flavin titled his introduction to the book ∴, which is the three-dot triangle symbol for therefore used in mathematics, and it’s a symbol that appears throughout Judd’s writings. Flavin writes, “His three-dimensional work is not subject to language and not made by it, but one can see how Don got to his ideas, how the work came from his specific understanding of the world.” In a sense, editing these texts and even piecing together the scrawled notes left by the artist was an opportunity for Flavin to spend time with his father. “It was like you’re with Don for a week or two again,” he says, “and you’re revisiting all of these old conversations.”

STEPHANIE LaCAVA: Your style of writing is similar to that of your father, very concise and straightforward. Did you intentionally use that writing style for this book?

FLAVIN JUDD: I suppose that Don and I share a distrust of language, so it’s better to be simple and clear. Also the language is always only partially representing a way of thinking. This is something that is never explained about my father’s work: the relationship between the art and thought and the way of living. Basically, everything is an entire system. It’s as if it comes out of the combination of a Midwestern farmer and, let’s say, a physicist. If you’re a Midwestern farmer, you know all about the weather, you know about the plants, you know about the conditions. And no matter what God you believe in or what you do on Sunday, those facts are not going to change. The plants are going to do what they do. That’s basically an attitude that Don brought to art and culture. The problem is that art and culture are symbolic. It is not about facts necessarily, but Don was going to make it about facts. He wanted that kind of fact-based clarity that an astronomer or a physicist or a doctor would have. That’s what he wanted for art. That is why his furniture is the way it is and the buildings are the way they are. They are all about themselves, and this becomes a moral issue.

LaCAVA: That reminds me of the therefore symbol that your father used in his writings.

JUDD: Everything is therefore. One of the books Don gave me—or Rainer, I don’t remember which—when we were, like, 6 or 8, was on symbolic logic. For Don, it was all thinking. Art was thinking.

LaCAVA: Can you explain your father’s disapproval of “literary art,” a term he mentions in his writings.

JUDD: Stories. I would say myths. That myths are made contrary to facts. If you’re making art about myths, then you’re making them contrary to facts. He disapproves of “literary art” in that it promoted myths, which bolstered the mediocrity within society and the power structures that were harmful to both art and people. For him, art was like science or geometry, because that’s what’s worth knowing, and that is what’s worth doing. Everything is a system. Don would say, “That person’s work is horrible.” People would respond, “Oh my God, you can’t say that. That’s terrible.” But for him, it was all or nothing; something was either true or it wasn’t. If you believe in one imaginary thing, then you have to believe in all of them, so all you can rely on are your empirical experiences. Judging work that way was as straightforward as, “Well, you can’t grow potatoes in the ocean, and that’s just a fact.” I ran into Anselm Kiefer last week, and he said, “You know, your dad didn’t like me.” I said, “It wasn’t personal!” Kiefer and I had a good time because he understood. I said, “It’s a sign of respect, because at least your work is so much yours. It’s not his or anybody else’s.” Ultimately, we need artwork to be different because people themselves are different. If work isn’t diverse and reflective of differing views, then nobody’s doing their job. Diversity and openness in art is a requirement for the culture.

LaCAVA: There are other artists whose work your father loves, like Yayoi Kusama, Lee Bontecou, Lucas Samaras, John Chamberlain, and Jackson Pollock. In a 1983 essay on abstract expressionism, for example, he writes about the “immediacy” of Jackson Pollock’s work: “No first-rate art after this is based upon the representation of immediate emotion. All first-rate art since is based upon its primary phenomena.” The same year, he writes a piece titled “A Long Discussion Not About Master-Pieces but Why There Are So Few of Them: Part I.” It discusses the decline of quality in new art: “There have been almost no first-rate artists in this time … Despite all that’s wrong in this society it’s the responsibility of the new artists to occur.”

JUDD: No whining allowed.

LaCAVA: Do you think your father was right? Do you see the decline in the quality of art all the way to what artists are doing today?

JUDD: My cutoff is 1986. Basically from 1986 on, it’s a slow slide downward … If Eva Hesse were doing her work today, she’d be the most radical artist alive. That’s pretty perverse. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s just an example. The same is true for Gordon Matta-Clark. I was reading Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Nobody writes like that today! It’s like post-Renaissance. You had all these people doing all this radical work, and now we just have people commenting on it.

LaCAVA: I love that Don was so interested in what other artists were talking about. In that same ’83 essay on masterpieces, he says, “I was delighted that in the new book on her, Frida Kahlo said that the United States looked like a chicken coop … and New York is a city coop, a ‘dense-pack’ commercial operation.” He picked out Kahlo’s comment, not on art, but on a sentiment they shared about urban planning.

JUDD: He cared about space. And cities to him were a negation of thought. New York is probably better than a lot of places, but he didn’t like cities. There was a great conversation between Don and Samaras, who is really sharp. Don is explaining, “Well, I live at the ranch. I don’t like cities. I want to work. I like the nature.” And Lucas said, “But there used to be people down in Marfa too, but they were all wiped out. So aren’t you taking advantage of that?” Samaras was one of the few people who actually thought about what Don was saying. [laughs]

LaCAVA: It’s funny that your father didn’t like cities, because he clearly loved the sharing of ideas. This exchange can be harder when you’re alone in the desert. That must be one way to explain why he loved books, vehicles for ideas. If you can’t be around ideas directly, you can at least—

JUDD: Libraries are a good thing.

LaCAVA: Libraries are the answer; all the ideas without the pain of people. [laughs]

JUDD: It’s not that Don was antisocial. But you have to remember that he spent a lot of time traveling around doing shows. He was spending nine months out of the year living out of a suitcase.

LaCAVA: But he also had this intense distaste for skyscrapers. That kept popping up in the essays.

JUDD: Because they’re symbolic. They’re ridiculous. The concentration of people and capital in one small island is kind of silly, too.

LaCAVA: In the essay “Art and Architecture,” from 1983, he says, “My aphorism is not that form follows function but that it never violates it.”

JUDD: Right. If you’re going to build a farmhouse, you don’t build it upside down just because you think it’ll look interesting. It’s going to be a nightmare. If you want to be interesting, find a better way.

LaCAVA: The question of function was primarily that of architecture. And he also notes a decline in the quality of modern architecture.

JUDD: During his lifetime, they built great buildings, like the Guggenheim, the Breuer building, and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. You have all those in about a 15-year span. You also have the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., which looks like a shopping mall. Anyway, the problem is, you had these three good buildings, and then you don’t have anything afterwards. So it doesn’t take much to come up with the notion that it’s been declining.

LaCAVA: Do you think there’s been anything built since that he would be a fan of?

JUDD: I think Zumthor’s buildings, the Kunsthaus Bregenz, the thermal baths in Vals.

LaCAVA: Why would he have liked those?

JUDD: They’re very sensible. You have to visit them to understand. There is also, for instance, the CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux, which is gorgeous beyond belief.

LaCAVA: He says largeness is not the goal.

JUDD: Yeah, the building in Bordeaux [originally built as a warehouse] is vastly superior to the Pompidou, which was built as a museum.

LaCAVA: Your father also offers guides of sorts, where he lays out how he feels about a city’s buildings, the art institutions, and what you should go see and what you shouldn’t see.

JUDD: There’s one from the ’60s in New York. He was very charitable to the city at that time. The reason he could write about New York like that back then was that the city did have a lot of artists who were living and working here. If you go to a gallery in Chelsea now, the artist could be from anywhere; the gallery could be from anywhere. There’s a complete dislocation from any kind of locality. And I think that’s pretty evident in radicalness and lack of radicalness. In the ’60s and ’70s, our neighbors were the who’s who of the avant-garde. It’s an incredible list. I asked my mom once, “Who are our neighbors?” And the list was unbelievable. It was Trisha Brown, John Chamberlain, Jack Wesley, Joan Jonas, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice and Helen Marden, Shusaku Arakawa, Yvonne Rainer, Bob Morris, and Frank Stella’s studio. And this was within like six blocks.

LaCAVA: Another passage that I love, which tackles aspects of the artist in that old New York, is from 1981 when he first talks about Leo Castelli. He writes, “Other than some artists, Leo Castelli is the most important person involved in art in the last 20 years, for good reasons and bad.”

JUDD: That’s on the brink of his rupture with Leo, right before it happened. They got a divorce. That was a big deal because Leo was among his “firsts.” His first art dealer was Richard Bellamy.

LaCAVA: What was his relationship like with Richard?

JUDD: I think Richard was hard to deal with. They got in a fight over an Oldenburg. One was an artist and one was an art dealer who just loved art and couldn’t keep records, so it was a nightmare. Like, “Oh, I lent it to you!” “No! We traded it for X.” But Richard Bellamy was great. He was really angry at Don for a long time after they split up, but after Don died, he was super nice. After Don died, everything flipped upside down.

LaCAVA: And then there was Leo.

JUDD: Then Don went to Leo. Leo wanted Don to come to his gallery originally, and Don said no because it was too big. Then he was at Leo for a long time.

LaCAVA: Let’s talk about the origin of your name.

JUDD: Obviously, I’m named after Dan Flavin, and my sister is named after Yvonne Rainer.

LaCAVA: What was the relationship between your father and Dan Flavin?

JUDD: They were very, very good friends. Don judged people by their artwork, so Dan Flavin was pretty far up there.

LaCAVA: Do you have any specific memories of their dynamic? How would you describe him?

JUDD: Dan came down to Texas, and if you knew Dan, he was not the kind who would want to be in Marfa, Texas. He was an East Coast or European guy. He was an interesting guy, a very nice guy. But we didn’t see him that much because he either lived in upstate New York or Long Island.

LaCAVA: When did you realize your father’s legacy would become your full-time job?

JUDD: The day after Don died, I asked the lawyers what would happen, and they said, “Well, what do you want to do?” I realized that the lawyers are just tools like hammers, and if you’re not careful, everything becomes a nail. In our case, we couldn’t find anybody else who could make decisions. There was no delegation possible. Immediately out of the gate, the estate was millions in debt and everything was a mess. The art market had recently crashed, and I thought, “I’ll do this for five years, and then someone else can take it over.” Well, that was 22 years ago.

LaCAVA: Are you happy being the curator and co-president of the foundation? Do you enjoy it?

JUDD: It’s a good thing. We get to do books. Who gets to do books these days?

LaCAVA: So many of the references in your father’s essays come from his own personal library—which, for those who haven’t been to Marfa to see it, is one of the most incredible personal artist’s libraries in the world. The annotations, some of which you have since added, seem to be beautiful, tangible examples of how Don would take in all this information and put it into his own work and thought. Do any specific books from the library come to mind?

JUDD: My wife, a curator, a dada expert, [Michèle Judd, now a psychoanalyst] gave me Richard Huelsenbeck’s Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, which I gave to Don in 1991. It wound up in an essay. I was studying ancient Greek history and philosophy at the University of Texas with Peter Green as my professor, and I gave all of his books to Don. They’re all over the place. This is very funny to me.

LaCAVA: Your father never stopped studying. In a way, he was self-taught, and it continued for his entire life. And it seems like his interests went in every direction and discipline.

JUDD: I thought everybody did that. I thought everybody was teaching themselves everything. Turns out, they’re not.

LaCAVA: And how was this ideal imparted to you as a child?

JUDD: The one budget without limit was for books. Going to a bookstore—everywhere we traveled, language barriers or not—was like Christmas. He was happy to buy something he thought I would find interesting. That was usually something that he found interesting at his own age, not something he thought I should have to read. Like, when I was a kid, I read lots of science fiction, so he bought me J.G. Ballard.

LaCAVA: Don mentions that, at some time in the ’80s, he took you and your sister to see a ballet by Balanchine about Noah’s ark. He writes, “It was embarrassing, boring trash, and to the children as well.” Do you remember that? It shows how you all were always on the same level.

JUDD: I don’t. But I have friends in Marfa who, to this day, say to me, “I liked Don because he talked to me like an adult.” And these were 10-year-old kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Again, everything was equal. Everything was on the same level. So if Balanchine can’t hack it, then that’s just too bad.

LaCAVA: Throughout the writing, there’s that huge demand for quality …

JUDD: Again, I thought that it was normal. If you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it as best you can. And your reasons for it being the best that it can be should be figured out; it should not be haphazard. I remember when Don bought one house in Marfa, and Rainer and I took over a small room in the back as an office. I decided we needed some bookshelves, so I designed them and didn’t ask permission. I just said we need some bookshelves and then I gave the drawing to Don’s crew, who built them. I didn’t think anything of it. Later, I heard Don showing the bookshelves to his girlfriend and said, “Oh, these turned out nice.” I thought, “This could’ve turned out badly had I designed the bookshelves the wrong way.” But, otherwise, when I was gluing together model F-18s, there was no quality control.

LaCAVA: What value do you ascribe to the critic?

JUDD: Well, they usually don’t understand. That’s the problem. It’s great if they’re making something new by thinking, but usually that’s not the case. The whole problem with the term minimalism is that it was a derogatory term for Don and his work and other people’s work by someone who didn’t understand it. So why would the artist accept it? It was a clear label due to misunderstanding. As I said before, it’s like calling every Italian restaurant in the entire world a pizzeria, and then not eating Italian food because you think it’s pizza. You are destroying your own possibility of enjoying spaghetti alle vongole or something. You are being the destructor by denigrating and generalizing. Not every Italian restaurant is a pizzeria.

LaCAVA: Your father seemed insistent on keeping the art and the activism clear and separate, as well.

JUDD: If you are making salsa, you don’t put ice cream in it, because you will water it down, and if you’re making ice cream, you don’t put salsa in it, because you will ruin the ice cream. In the same manner, if you’re making art, you don’t necessarily put the narrative of the politics in the art, because it will water the art down to a narrative, which is explicable in one sentence. And if you can explain art in one sentence, it fails as art.