by Joao Ribas
The largest exhibition of work by Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd in nearly two decades has just opened in New York, but its not a major museum survey or even a blue-chip gallery showits an auction preview.
Hosted in a 16,000-square-foot loft spiffed up by Christies with the help of Judds son, Flavin Judd, the preview is the first U.S. exhibition of the artists work since the 1988 retrospective at the Whitney Museum. All of the 36 works currently on view on the 20th floor of the Simon & Schuster building will soon be on the block, as the Donald Judd Foundation tries to raise a $20 million endowment to support the 16 permanent installations by artists such as Judd, Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain that it oversees in Marfa, Texas and New York.
The work, to be auctioned on May 9th, ranges from free-standing pieces from the early 1960s, to a late plywood and Plexiglas wall-piece from 1993, considered the centerpiece of the sale with an auction estimate of $2-$3 million. Most of the sale consists of works from the 1980s and early 1990s.
The auction record for a Donald Judd work is $4.6 million for an untitled set of six stainless steel and yellow Plexiglas boxes from 1967 that sold at Christies in 2002.
The Judd Foundation has reportedly settled on a guarantee with Christies that is over the $20 million sale estimate; while the foundation claimed assets of $200 million in 2004, according to a spokesperson for the foundation, it is said to be relatively cash-poor, hence the need to a raise a substantial endowment somewhat urgently.
The sale has raised some eyebrows. One of the main criticisms aimed at the foundation is whether it should be selling the work at auction rather than talking to a major museum about possible acquisitions. Some have argued that by working with the board or a major donor of an American institution, the Judd Foundation could both raise the necessary funds for an endowment and secure the works a place in specific museum collections. That would fulfill its fundamental role in preserving Judds legacy better than auctioning off the work to the highest bidder.
Questionable decisions aside, the preview itself seems disingenuouspresented as a substantive exhibition complete with iPod tour. As an auction preview, the display punctuates the contentious nature of the sale: This may very well be the last timeat least for a whilethat these 36 works are seen by the general public before going into private hands, a situation seemingly at odds with a foundation whose aim is to foster a wider appreciation of Donald Judds art.
The lots on view are reportedly installed to Judds fairly rigorous specifications, which include strict rules such as: a 34"-inch maximum possible reach of an adult all the way to the wall when the modular boxes are installed 8 apart. To Christies credit, that kind of careful attention to detail, key for an artist for whom the spatial context in which art was shown was a signal concern, is more than some museums can claim. For example, MoMA still has a major Judd piece, Untitled (1989), installed on the diagonal, rather than against a wall, something which has irritated many critics and art-historians since the museum reinstalled its collection.
The real question surrounding the sale is of course whether the market can really absorb so much work by Judd in one go. Not only have Judds auction prices taken a 40 percent dive in the last three years, but nearly 14 percent of the Judd lots offered at auctions failed to sell last year, according to Artprice.
Of course, with the Christie's guarantee, the Judd Foundation will get the money either way.
All images © CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2006