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PRINT Summer 2004

Wear and Care: Preserving Judd

I have to defend what I’ve done; it is urgent and necessary to make my work last in its first condition.
—Donald Judd, “In defense of my work” (1977)

THE PEOPLE CLOSE TO DONALD JUDD’S WORK HAVE LONG BEEN AWARE that its apparent sturdiness belies a great vulnerability. In fact, the issue of care and repair constituted an ongoing source of vexation for Judd. In his “Complaints: Part II,” published in 1973, the artist was already fulminating (“in a spirit of cheerful revenge”) against the stupidity of the shippers and museum staff members who handled his art. Moreover, he wrote, “the public is awful and the guards don’t mind.” When the art was new, both its appearance and its industrial fabrication led people to assume that these were objects one might lean against, or set a drink on, or place outdoors. Judd illustrated “Complaints” with two photos of sculptures on which shippers had directly affixed their adhesive labels. Thirty years later, things are not entirely different. The Museum of Modern Art’s files alone reveal a rich catalogue of abuses inflicted on his work. The painted steel piece of 1968 on display in the sculpture garden tempted countless children to crawl through it like a playground tunnel. Passersby scratched a Progression of 1967 that sat unwrapped in a heavily trafficked work area. A poetic conservator’s memo tells of a little girl who one morning kept alighting “like a butterfly” on a polished-brass Box of 1968, despite repeated admonitions.

The problem is, of course, compounded by the demands the sculptures place on their display. The normal protection afforded traditional sculpture in a home or gallery is unsuitable for work by Judd. The artist’s insistence that his “specific objects” be installed without any physical mediation precludes the platforms, cords, or Plexiglas cases that would normally repel shoes, mops, backs, and fingers. Peter Ballantine, art supervisor for the Judd Foundation, admits to a certain grim satisfaction when a work comes back from loan with scuff marks: At least he knows it was not inappropriately installed on a plinth or behind a barrier. Judd’s enormous investment in the establishment of permanent sites for his work was based in part on his wish to protect it from the risks presented by vehicles, homes, and galleries.

The inevitable damage that has befallen Judd’s work sets it within a complicated tangle of issues that are aesthetic, ethical, historical, physical, economic, and personal. The questions are fundamental. What is acceptable in terms of damage? What is acceptable in terms of treatment? For years, it was a “Wild West” situation, says Judd’s son Flavin, vice president and treasurer of the Judd Foundation. Early on, a collector might have had a scratched work repainted at his local auto-body shop. Current market values of six and seven figures have largely eradicated such casualness. But even well-intentioned restorers have unwittingly extended the harm inflicted by owners or shippers. It was not long ago that a damaged painting by Barnett Newman was thought to be reparable by a now-unthinkable repainting of its surface. The repair of damaged works by Judd has endured a similarly unfortunate early history, with common reliance on harsh washing, polishing, and chemical stripping techniques that today are known to be destructive. Preservation of original materials has not necessarily been a priority: Countless pieces have new paint surfaces or replacement elements (a Plexiglas panel, a metal box), which might subtly but critically alter original effects of color, texture, dimension, and unity.

Consensus as to what is proper is almost impossible to imagine. “Ask twenty people and you will get twenty different answers,” says Rick Bernstein, current owner of Bernstein Brothers, one of Judd’s early fabricators. James Dearing, Judd’s assistant from 1969 to 1983, notes that “democracy does not have a set of rules. It has a set of ideas that need to be constantly interpreted.” “None of us is right,” warns Judd’s daughter Rainer, president of the Judd Foundation. “We all have our own memories and our own opinions.”

What was the artist’s position on the possibilities for repair? Judd’s extensive writings are remarkably silent on this issue. Nor do we find a guide in his behavior, which reflected an always-shifting equilibrium between pragmatism and ideology. It is not surprising to learn from former assistants that Judd’s responses to given situations varied greatly over the course of three decades. Besides such variables as his schedule, there were factors such as his feelings for the work’s owner or the reason for the damage. Rarely, Judd would offer to refabricate the piece on the condition that the owner destroy the damaged one. More often, he agreed to have the piece repaired under his supervision by somebody he designated. In worst-case scenarios, he tersely informed the owners that his records now listed the piece as “destroyed.”

In lieu of a consistent model, one turns for guidance on matters of repair to Judd’s articulation of his broader artistic intentions. He did not mince words in speak- ing of his pieces as unique and exact creations. Judd stated this most forcefully in his protracted public battle against Count Giuseppe Panza. In the 1970s Panza purchased a large group of works by Judd, some of which existed only on paper. Years later he had them fabricated without alerting Judd. In the ensuing dispute, Panza asserted his conviction that for artists of Judd’s generation, the work of art was defined by the concept, or “project,” and not its execution. Divorcing himself from any notion of a “project,” Judd wrote that “work made without my supervision is not my work.” Describing the pains he took in the selection of materials and methods of construction, the artist insisted, “It’s better that the work doesn’t exist than be wrong. It’s not made to be wrong.”

It is not for nothing that Judd used the term “specific objects.” Talking to Judd’s assistants, fabricators, and conservators, it quickly becomes clear that the particular- ities of the artist’s chosen materials were all-important. Content and formal considerations were inseparable in the selection of plywood, metals, and paints. Marianne Stockebrand, director of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, explains Judd’s unique palette not only as a visual choice but as the result of his desire for colors that were “totally modern, completely artificial, very, very contemporary.” These colors answered Judd’s call for a new art that severed its ties with the old. Just as important, the Harley-Davidson paints that he favored could be sprayed onto the galvanized metal in coats so thin that its spangled pattern still showed through the paint. During Judd’s lifetime, federal toxicity regulations removed those paints from the market. Because no other paint would adhere to the metal in the same invisible way, Judd instructed his assistants to scour the country and purchase all the remaining supplies. The artist’s exactitude applied even to the type of spangles on a galvanized metal or the size and shape of screws. These were decisions with which Judd was passionately involved, if not always directly, through the agency of assistants who had years of experience and a thorough sense of his aesthetic desires.

Judd’s specific preferences also extended to the fabricators who made his work. The first was his father, Roy Judd, who had been helping the artist even before he began making three-dimensional work in 1962. In spring 1964, Judd began working with Bernstein Brothers, which since 1913 had operated as a roofing and heating and ventilation business a few blocks from his Manhattan studio. Over the years, the production of Judd’s work became the mainstay of the business. Ed Bernstein and his staff collaborated closely with the artist, who sought to imbue the fabricators with his ideas and desires. Bernstein’s son Rick explains that “Don was king” when it came to aesthetic decisions such as the colors and types of materials or paints but that he and Bernstein together “would figure out the most cost-efficient and structurally sound way to make a piece.” The rough sketches that Judd brought to the shop were what might be called conceptual; only the mechanical drawings prepared at Bernstein would actually show how to make one of the sculptures.

For work that looks so simple, the complexity of the fabrication was “mind-boggling,” says Bernstein. Before long it became clear that there was one man at Bernstein Brothers most capable of realizing Judd’s intentions. This was José Otero, who became the chief fabricator of Judd’s metal pieces. When the works began to be marked with numbers and “Bernstein Brothers” for the purposes of documentation and authentication, Otero’s initials would be stamped, along with Judd’s, on the back of a sculpture. Ed Bernstein and Judd fell out in 1977, and Judd’s studio manager spent two years experimenting with the work of other fabricators all over the country. Finally Judd returned to Otero, realizing there was no substitute for his expertise and commitment. At that point, however, Judd’s staff members became the main liaisons to Bernstein Brothers. They also served as contacts with several other suppliers and fabricators in the United States and Europe. Ellie Meyer, Judd’s assistant in the mid-’80s, recalls that they made many of the smaller decisions themselves, while any major ones were brought to the artist for his consideration. Did Judd look at each finished work to give it his stamp of approval? Not always. His staff members agree that a final inspection was far less significant than all of the research, conversation, and preparation that preceded the making of a piece. Yet Rob Weiner, Judd’s assistant from 1989 until the artist’s death in 1994, explains that “looking at the newly fabricated work was as crucial a step as any in the creative process.” The relationships between different colors and materials could be fully assessed only on seeing a whole piece. The next series of sculpture was often premised on what Judd felt was answered—and unanswered—by a fresh group of finished works.

The fact that Judd’s work was made in a factory encourages the assumption that it should always look shiny and new—a misconception that has had profound consequences for its treatment. The questionable fetishization of a fresh surface is a classic dilemma in conservation. Occasionally it erupts in the public eye, as in the controversy in the 1990s over the cleaning of the Sistine ceiling, but in the case of Judd’s work, it has so far been an insiders’ debate. The choice of materials not previously used for art was integral to Judd’s conviction that his art be of his own time. This decision, however, hinged on a commitment not to novelty for its own sake but to artistic honesty—his work could not share the materials of the art of a defunct European culture and philosophy. The fallacy is that Judd was looking for a permanent New. Stockebrand notes that Judd was a man with a deep knowledge of and respect for history. For something made in 1966 to look as if it were made in 2000 would bluntly violate such values. Perfection is achieved at the expense of history, an erasure that amounts to falsification. Indeed, Judd’s materials often did not start out as “perfect.” The important issue was the behavior of the material he chose, and in some cases it did include irregularities. Plywood and Cor-Ten steel have inherent markings that inflect the sculpture’s surfaces. The one hundred milled-aluminum boxes made for Marfa—Judd’s largest work, deployed throughout two buildings—retain the striations of the milling process. After many samples had been tested, Judd decided that this was the precise metal he needed to achieve the desired reflectivity, and he accepted the trade-off of the marks. Judd’s longtime dealer Paula Cooper stresses that there was no substitute for the artist’s intuition in judging what “looked good. Every little millimeter was crucial.”

Judd’s profound regard for history can be seen in his renovations of the buildings he acquired in Marfa. No matter how extensive his own architectural modifications may have been, he took care to preserve the evidence of the buildings’ former lives. As for his artworks, Judd had a great deal of tolerance for wear in the pieces he lived with at Marfa. Often visitors are shocked to see how many of the pieces show their age. They wonder whether this appearance should influence their own taste. If this is how Judd liked to live with his work, should we as well?

The conservation field itself has no answers to these questions. Instead it struggles over how to address the physical challenges the work presents. Eleanora E. Nagy, a sculpture conservator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, notes that “we are all on a learning curve” in the nascent endeavor of investigating the materials embraced by Judd’s generation. Materials such as plywoods and sheet metals were developed for functional, not aesthetic, purposes. While a discoloration, hairline scratch, or shallow dent is not a problem on a skyscraper facade or a highway divider, it is in the context of Judd’s art. Like that of many of his peers, Judd’s work is extraordinarily resistant to established methods of conservation. Moreover, any disruption is difficult, if not impossible, to disguise within the uniform surfaces of his sculpture, which are far less forgiving of cosmetic repair than a surface with plenty of compositional noise.

Conservators and fabricators agree that the most difficult works to maintain and treat are those made of uncoated, highly polished metals such as brass or copper. Oils and salts from fingerprints will etch into the surface in as little as a week. Ideally, each of these pieces would have a round-the-clock guard with a cloth at the ready. Once the surface has been scarred, the question of polishing arises. Yet whereas polishing is an innocuous method when performed on cast and patinated bronze, it actually alters the properties of Judd’s work. Because Judd’s sheets of metal are exceedingly thin, any polishing will affect their depth dimension, not to mention the surface’s hue and texture. Polishing is equally threatening to galvanized iron, which consists of a very thin layer of almost pure zinc atop the material below. The polishing of dings or scratches on a sculpture’s surface works away at the zinc layer, erasing its shiny finish and exposing the inner layers to inevitable rust. Whereas polishing has long been routine in the treatment of Judd’s work, many conservators now believe that it should be scrupulously avoided.

Aside from the effects of human contact, Judd’s highly polished metals are bound to tarnish merely as a result of exposure to air. Dearing draws an analogy to copper cookware. Some people polish theirs fiercely, while others let the surface undergo an awkward adolescence and are rewarded with a richly hued maturity. (A copper work in the latter state is illustrated on the cover of the catalogue of Tate Modern’s recent Judd retrospective.) During Judd’s lifetime, museum conservators tried to persuade him that an invisible and removable lacquer applied atop the metal—even if only while it was in storage—could reduce the problem. The artist acknowledged that the lacquer might be invisible, but argued that philosophically it was out of keeping with the unmediated nature of his work. “Don did not want anything to come between the work and the world,” explains Weiner, and thus he accepted the tarnishing that some people find troubling.

The problems continue with Judd’s industrial paint colors, which were never intended to survive decades, let alone centuries. Most are no longer in production, and even if they were, a new application of paint would not match a surface that had been exposed to light and dust for many years. Today an old can of paint can be found on eBay, but the plasticizers that enabled it to adhere to the metal will have deteriorated over the years. Unlike oil- or water-based paints, these synthetic paints cannot be adjusted by the tricks of a painter’s trade.

The breadth and depth of these challenges give rise to the compelling question of who should be trusted to work on these pieces. During his lifetime, Judd or his assistants would have supervised the repair of damaged works, and they would have used the original fabricators. Today this is to some degree still possible. Peter Ballantine, who worked with Judd for twenty-five years, repairs Judd’s sculpture, a business independent of his work for the Judd Foundation. He now works or advises on Judd’s art in all media, although he had been specifically responsible for making Judd’s plywood pieces. Rick Bernstein has now moved his family’s business to Long Island and runs it wholly for the purpose of sculpture restoration. Although all of the purchase orders and accompanying sketches were returned to the Judd estate, Bernstein says that he possesses and refers to the original fabrication drawings and in many cases employs the same equipment used during Judd’s lifetime.

While acknowledging such individuals’ vital role in the history of the work, professional conservators have strong reservations about people without scientific training making judgments today. Although they may have had long experience with Judd and are keenly sensitive to the artist’s intentions, they are not he. Moreover, an artist’s or fabricator’s intuitive relationship to his materials is not that of a conservator. It has become clear that the precise nature of Judd’s industrial materials—and therefore the effects of any interaction—exceeded even the artist’s awareness. In the conservation field itself, there was no reservoir of experience with these materials, and it is only now starting to form. For example, Nagy’s recent research has established that much of the disfigurement on the metal sculptures is due to unspecified chemicals used to lubricate the metals during the manufacturing process. Although Judd thought he was getting uncoated metal, in fact it was covered with what Nagy calls an “invisible cocktail” of various lubricants. She explains that the aging residue of these unevenly distributed compounds bears responsibility for the mysterious patterning that has recently been appearing on many of Judd’s metal surfaces.

Such a discovery suggests that the laudable instinct to do less rather than more, in accordance with the artist’s intentions, will not always serve the sculpture well. Aside from all the insults that Judd’s work receives from handling and display, it is now clear that some of his materials are to varying degrees inherently unstable. Apart from the sort of aging that Judd considered acceptable, like the tarnishing of a copper surface, problems such as those investigated by Nagy are manifold. Andrew Lins, chief conservator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a respected expert in the field of metals, has sympathy for the desire not to interfere with Judd’s materials. But he believes that this is not a luxury we can afford, unless we can be happy with effects such as allover white crusts on steel boxes oxidizing in a humid environment. When a surface is wholly changed, even Judd’s respect for history is thrown into question. Whereas the artist developed Marfa as a place for his work to “last in its first condition,” we now know that it will not do so without sensitive intervention.

What are the rewards for wider awareness of these challenges? At the very least, it should encourage more careful behavior in the presence of Judd’s work. It should also lead potential purchasers of a sculpture to ask for the history of treatments and seek a conservator’s opinion when told the piece is in original condition. It is a personal decision as to whether one wishes to acquire a work that has been re-lacquered, for example, but at least the decision will be informed. Beyond that, one hopes that many pieces may be saved from the fate of those that have already been irrevocably treated contrary to Judd’s intentions.

Many people agree that it is time for the creation of an official committee of experts to whom owners of Judd’s work can turn for advice. Rainer Judd believes that “a panel would be a wonderful thing,” whether part of or independent from the Judd Foundation. Such a panel would probably not be able to offer fixed guidelines or prescribe specific courses of action, since, as Flavin Judd points out, decisions must be made “piece by piece, dent by dent, nick by nick.” But it could provide a forum for discussion and offer counsel as to possible treatments. The extensive research that would inform such a panel is in its nascent stages, and time is of the essence. The people who worked with Judd must be interviewed while they are still alive and well. The treasure trove of documents in the archives of the Judd Foundation, still closed, themselves require careful attention. Conservators struggle to find research funding, while sculptures continue to be restored as before. Authenticity questions go unanswered pending the compilation of a catalogue raisonné.

Apart from the pragmatic concerns, awareness of these issues enriches one’s own experience of a work by Judd. You realize that its truth lies in the infinitesimally thin surface of paint on metal, the folding of a top plane over a side instead of the reverse, the alignment of a row of screws. Judd often lamented that people did not understand the content of his art. Wider comprehension of its materiality has profound implications for the interpretation of Judd’s work and for an understanding of it as a human and historical endeavor. Of course, a sculpture’s meaning lies no more in its vulnerability to age and intervention than in its apparent clarity and wholeness. Rather, it is important to ponder the tension between these two realities, and to keep it in mind as we contemplate the future preservation of Judd’s work.

Ann Temkin is a curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.