The Donald Judd Oral History Project
Donald Judd, Print Studio, La Mansana de Chinati, Marfa, Texas, 1983. Photographer: Jaime Dearing (© Judd Foundation/VAGA, New York and DACS, London)
After Donald Judd’s death in 1994, a small group of the men who regularly fabricated his sculptures and furniture gathered to design and fabricate one last and very specific object: Judd’s coffin. Their collective discussion centered around a particularly vexing question – how to design a box for the deceased sculptor’s burial that would not unintentionally seem a parody of his own work? After intense brainstorming a solution was reached: a plain pine structure, held together by beautiful, old, flat-head wood screws purchased on Canal Street in New York. It was later lowered into the ground in Marfa, Texas, accompanied by the sounds of a bagpiper playing one of Judd’s favourite melodies.
This poignant anecdote, recounted by Judd’s furniture fabricator Rupert Deese, is one of many that have emerged in the Donald Judd Oral History Project, an ongoing series of interviews organized under the auspices of the Judd Foundation and executed by Rainer Judd, Judd’s daughter. But such anecdotes represent only one part of the project’s larger harvest: according to its organizers at the foundation, the Judd Oral History Project has also yielded valuable conservation information concerning Judd’s work, insight into his personality and working processes, and group portraits of the communities Judd formed part of in Soho and in Marfa, Texas.
The Judd Oral History Project had its start in 2006 when a local public radio station in Marfa, Texas, wanted to air a series of interviews with people who had known and worked with Judd, whose abrupt move there from New York in 1972 radically transformed the sleepy prairie town into an outpost of the international art circuit. When the proposal reached the Judd Foundation, however, the foundation’s at-the-time newly arrived executive director, Barbara Hunt McLanahan, saw it as an opportunity to gather material for the Judd Foundation’s archive. Meanwhile Rainer Judd, the Judd Foundation’s President and Historical Consultant and a filmmaker in her own right, felt that voice-only radio interviews would not do justice to the rich store of material at hand: as she says, ‘you want to see their faces, don’t you?’
That first round of interviews was edited into a film entitled Marfa Voices that was screened in Marfa in the summer of 2006; the event, according to Rainer Judd (who directed the film) was a surprisingly moving experience. ‘These were people who see each other every day but who didn’t necessarily know about how much they shared,’ she says. ‘With the film they could look around and see each other as if for the first time. It was a way to bring people together and have some healing. It’s not necessarily the responsibility of an artist’s foundation to do this kind of thing. But it’s in the nature of my upbringing. There’s something to be said for all this community stuff.’
After the experience of the screening, Rainer Judd and Hunt McLanahan (who has a background in oral history projects) decided to continue the interviews, formalizing them with the support of an National Endowment for the Humanities grant as the Donald Judd Oral History Project, and extending their scope to include the fuller range of Judd’s colleagues, peers and friends, particularly those in New York; for instance, among those interviewed are Paula Cooper, Tony Shafrazi, John Chamberlain and Barbara Rose. There have been some 85 interviews to date, with approximately 100 more envisioned, although according to Hunt McLanahan, the list of interviews-to-do keeps getting longer – ‘There are so many untold stories!’ she says.
According to Hunt McLanahan, the goal of the project is two-fold: on the one hand, to compile an archive, which will complement the extensive Donald Judd Archive the foundation already maintains at Marfa (the full archive will be opened to researchers on-site in the fall of 2012 and will simultaneously be able to be consulted via on-line via an electronic finding aid.) The other projected goal is a full-fledged documentary film, similar to Marfa Voices but incorporating the material that will be available once the interviewing has been completed.
As director, the 41-year-old Rainer Judd – amenable, down-to-earth and eager to avoid being known only as Donald Judd’s daughter – says her filmic models include Errol Morris’s work, but that she also draws inspiration from literary sources, particularly with regard to structure; for instance, she cites the narrative fluidity of books such as Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo (an oral history-based biography of Hunter S. Thompson, published in 2007) and The Essential Gandhi, a 1962 anthology of Gandhi’s writings, as something she aspires to. Her aesthetic guidelines are few and her style, not surprisingly, minimal – interviewees are generally filmed head-on, with diagonals rarely used, and are usually located either in the left or right third of the frame. And when she films in Judd’s spaces, such as his loft on Spring Street in Soho and in Marfa, she aims to bring out the warmth of his use of unadorned materials, of the wood, the concrete and the adobe, which she feels is often lost when the work is transferred to gallery or museum settings.
Earlier this year, a selection of the interviews was screened at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, along with a 2010 25-minute version of Marfa Voices. (The Artist’s Studio: Donald Judd, a documentary by Michael Blackwood culled from footage from the 1970s, was also on the program.) The longer interviews, slow-paced and straightforward, included footage of Brice Marden self-effacingly discussing his thoughts on originality, spurred by Judd’s example; Lawrence Wiener thoughtfully describing his perception of the role of dignity in Judd’s work; and a lively Giorgio de Luca sharing anecdotes of what Soho was like in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The all-day Saturday screenings were well-attended by an attentive New York art world crowd, with Rainer Judd and Hunt McLanahan leading question-and-answer sessions (accompanied by Rainer Judd’s dog, Nandhi.) Finally, after the last screenings, Joe Brady, Jr., the bagpiper who played at Judd’s funeral, ceremoniously entered the gallery space, playing the same dirge he had played 17 years before. As Rainer Judd says – not the kind of thing organized everyday by an artist’s foundation.