Donald Judd's Library Goes Online

Donald Judd's Library Goes Online

Since Donald Judd died in 1994, the Minimalist artist’s enormous ranch and sculpture museum in Marfa, Texas, has been a necessary pilgrimage site for artists, scholars, and other devotees willing to travel to the former desert Army base. Now the Judd Foundation has returned the favor, bringing a compelling slice of the artist’s enclave directly to his fans — specifically the artist’s extraordinarily rich, idiosyncratic library, which is now available in virtual form online.

Consisting of 13,004 books in 40 languages, the library — divided between two spaces in the city-block-sized residence — was the product of four decades of collecting, and was meticulously arranged and tended exclusively by Judd himself. The new Web site provides a comprehensive view of the collection, allowing one to browse through all 576 shelves and zero in on clusters of books for a glimpse of Judd’s personal archival logic, and even on the books themselves, which with a click offer up their title, date, author, Dewey Decimal number, and even advice on how to find it at one’s local library. (The Marfa collection does not itself lend.)

Judd, himself a prolific writer who penned criticism for Arts Magazine between 1959 and 1965, had a insatiable appetite for books, beyond even what he was able to read himself. The titles in his library range from Norse literature to British naval histories; from Lampedusas I Racconti to Louisiana: A Narrative History; from Lionell Trillings collected essays to the Byzantine intrigues of Procopius (in ancient Greek). On the shelves one can also find first editions of Ulysses and Tom Sawyer, a pack of nude Danish playing cards (featuring both women and men), two snake skeletons, and other surprises that make the Web site a veritable treasure hunt. Then, of course, there are Judd’s art books: 3,129 in total.

Assembled over two years by a handful of people working with a digital programmer and Judd aficionado named Ryan Tainter, the library project is only one of as series of ambitious initiatives underway at the foundation to promote Judd’s legacy. In November, work began on the artist’s catalogue raisonné, a top-to-bottom restoration of Judd’s residence on Manhattan’s Spring Street is set to begin in June, a full inventory of his archive is scheduled to conclude in the next year and a half, and a number of solo exhibitions are in the works.

All of these projects are the fruit of a Christie’s auction that the foundation held in 2006, raising $24 million for its endowment — a sum that generates an annual draw-down of $1 million, which is supplemented by grants and seed funding. Since then, the foundation has been operating “like a start-up,” according to Barbara Hunt McLanahan, the organization’s executive director. ARTINFO spoke to McLanahan about the library project, Judd’s cataloguing style, and the more ornery side of the artist's legacy.

What was the aim of launching the library project?

Our mission at the foundation is to increase the understanding of Donald Judd's legacy, the range of his interests, the range of his knowledge, and the range of his vision. We do our best to get people to come to Marfa, but realistically we know that not everybody is going be able to come out there. So we thought of this project as a way of bringing the library to them.

What led Judd to gather such a vast, wide-ranging collection of books?

Judd had an incredible love of books. Physically he appreciated handling them and enjoying them as much as reading them. Whenever he traveled he loved to buy books, and he was incredibly generous — he would often buy three or four copies of a book so that he wouldn't have to lend it, he could give it away, whether to his studio assistants or to other people. And when he was very established in his career he was often traveling between Europe, New York, and Marfa, and he would often buy three copies of book so that he wouldn't have to carry them around. We actually have 2,286 duplicates in the library.

Since Judd clearly did not read all of these books himself, what were the kinds of books that he enjoyed reading personally?

He read the philosophies, books about ancient civilizations. My own sense was that he was much more interested in factual reading than fiction. I look at his library, and I see Judd as a true humanist, whose interests were incredibly diverse. And he was remarkably well-read. I know from anecdotes that he loved to debate, that he was a great conversationalist and could hold a conversation with almost anyone on almost any topic, and loved to meet people who were equally great conversationalists. And apparently he also read at least three to four hours every day.

After his death we've been preserving these spaces, and people who knew him say that the one thing that might be different than when he was alive is that books were everywhere, open books and journals. Wherever he was working there were open journals and open texts, since he was reading many things concurrently. They also say he always had bowls of fresh fruit around. Those are the only things that people say are missing from the spaces.

Why did Judd insist on managing the library alone?

He would ship boxes of books to Marfa from all over the world when he was installing exhibitions in different locations, so when he would arrive in Marfa there would be all these boxes of books. Rainer [Judd, the artist's daughter] tells a story about seeing her dad carrying these boxes of books stacked high across the courtyard and telling him, 'You know, Dad, you could have one of your studio assistants do that for you.' And he would say, ‘Absolutely not.’ He personally arranged those books on the shelves, he didn't want somebody else to be organizing his books there.

Touring the library online, it’s interesting to note the different objects placed here and there on the shelves.

Isn't that the case for everyone? Don't you have objects placed on your bookshelf? When you go to someone's home, it’s always intriguing to look at somebody's bookshelf and see what books they have and also the small objects they've collected from different travels around the world. It gives an incredibly interesting portrait of the owner. On Judd’s shelves, there's a piece of volcanic rock, there are little wooden objects, there's a beautiful magnifying glass. There are lots of rocks, since Judd often used them as paperweights.

As one would expect, the library contains a wealth of art books, ranging from the Renaissance and ancient art to Judd’s contemporaries. How did he approach this section of the library?

Did you know about his unusual cataloguing system for the art books? In the library amongst the art books there is sheaf of papers in Don's writing where he lists the artists’ monographs that he has, and next to each name he has the artist’s birth date. And so he started to catalogue his art books by the birth date of the artist as opposed to their names. So you should zoom in on that section. I don't believe it was a comprehensive project that was ever completed, but it was begun.

At the Spring Street residence in New York, everything has very carefully been kept exactly as Judd arranged it, with the various design elements cohering into a unified whole that conveys his aesthetic sensibility — in other words, it has been preserved as a work of art. Is that the aim with the library as well?

It’s not that it's an art project, but I think that if you go to the library I think you start to understand how thorough and complex and interesting an artist he was. You get it. We always talk about this in the foundation: you go to the library and you get it, you really do get more of a sense of who Donald Judd was as a person. And sometimes museums do a wonderful job, but often in a museum — unless it’s a retrospective — you're always seeing the work in a group show or mixed in. And this was Judd's whole premise, that the way you see the work in a museum, no matter how great the museum is, it may not be the way the artist intended, and there may be many other conflicting factors that you're having to filter. Judd really wanted people to understand his work and to see the work as he intended, and that's why we maintain his installed spaces the way that we do so that people can see his work the way he saw it.

Today Judd is widely revered as a seminal artist, but he is nearly as famous for having a prickly personality that became increasingly cantankerous as he got on in years. His bitter feuds with the townsfolk of Marfa, for instance, are legendary. Is this online library project in any way an effort to show a side of him that isn’t so bad-tempered?

And I would also challenge that, because we've been doing an oral history project where we've been filming people, and the stories we've got are actually the reverse — a man who's incredibly kind, incredibly generous, very funny, who had an incredible sense of humor. A lot of people talk about him having a twinkle in his eye, a little naughty, a little mischievous. I think the art world doesn't necessarily want to hear from an artist who has very strong views about how their work should be presented, and so perhaps that's a view that the art world's had for whatever reasons because he was an artist who was standing up for himself and defending his rights. Judd had very clear views on museums and how his works should be shown, and perhaps wasn't tolerant of bad behavior on the part of museums.

So the foundation is not attempting to soften Judd’s personal reputation?

Not really, no. I think all we're trying to do is show the complexity of his work, and his knowledge, and his legacy. There's no single view, and this is something we're also finding from the oral history. I think that art history likes to put people into boxes, and I think that's what we're challenging — a simplistic reading of Judd that is too easy and maybe is lazy. We want people to take the time to understand Judd.