via NYTimes: Critic's Notebook
Christie's Presale Show: Light and Space Enough to Really See Judd
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: April 24, 2006
For the next two weeks, New York has something it may never have again: a small, unpretentious single-artist museum devoted to the achievements of the Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd.
This museum has been rather hastily assembled by an unlikely entity: Christie's New York. Its unlikely setting is two floors atop the Simon & Schuster Building, around the corner from the auction house at Rockefeller Center. The show is, in fact, the presale exhibition of 35 Judd works offered for sale by the Judd Foundation, established by the artist's estate in 1996, two years after his death. Everything on view is to be sold to the highest bidder on May 9, the final day of the show.
The works, which date from around 1970 to 1993, form a haphazard, partial and sometimes redundant survey of Judd's sculpture. They are clearly pieces that the foundation, which is in dire economic straits, has decided it can do without.
So I'm as surprised to be writing the following as you may be to read it: This exhibition is the most beautiful survey of Judd's work ever seen in New York, and the first to be displayed under conditions of space and light that the famously demanding artist might have found satisfactory. Christie's has made an unusual effort with this display, stripping the light-flooded space — there are windows on four sides — to its bare-bones cement surfaces. Judd's son, Flavin, who has some of his father's sense of proportion, had a role in planning both the raw-looking interior and the spare installation. And in the end the pieces work fairly well together, illustrating Judd's thinking about the box — the basic of unit of his art — as it moves between wall and floor, and from single-unit to multi-part pieces.
The conditions of the sale have been reported. Christie's is said to have guaranteed the foundation around $20 million, which it needs to pay off debts and establish an endowment; maintain the 16 buildings it owns in New York and in Marfa, Tex.; conserve the collections and library amassed by Judd; catalog his archives; and start converting his extensive unpublished writings into book form. His legacy, as complex physically as it is intellectually, is a national treasure that should be much more accessible to the public.
It has been argued that this sale, in releasing so many works at one time, could deflate the Judd market and that a slower, private, more dignified weeding process would have permitted more pieces to be placed in public collections.
Yet Judd might have viewed the sale with a certain pragmatic equanimity. I worked for him briefly in the early 1970's, mostly on his catalogue raisonné. He remarked more than once that one purpose of his smaller, portable sculptures was to make money to pay for larger projects.
The foundation Judd mandated in his will is a very large project. He might even have liked the bold gesture of one big, widely publicized get-it-over-with auction. Besides, he famously hated museums, especially American ones.
Questions will always remain about whether the foundation exhausted all fund-raising possibilities before setting this course. And only time will tell if the influx of money can solve problems that may be more than simply financial. Adding peripheral heat to the discussion is the spectacle of Christie's promoting this presale show as the largest exhibition of Judd's work in this country since 1988, the year of his second retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. First auction houses supersede galleries, then they move in on museums? Christie's has even provided an Acoustiguide.
Christie's has indeed behaved like a museum — or at least in a way more museums should act. Basically, it has put art before architecture in an uncluttered display that makes the work optimally visible. The presentation is undoubtedly a fantastic sales tool, but it is also a temporary gift to the city, one that every museum professional should see.
Judd went to Marfa because he found the conditions under which New York museums displayed contemporary art to be deplorable. His point remains a good one: art cannot be fully understood if it is not fully experienced. And if not fully experienced, it cannot meet one of its chief responsibilities: to give subsequent generations of artists something to build on. Looking at the Christie's show, New York can finally see what Judd meant. It makes his case with his art, on his home turf, in the city that nurtured his genius.