Wear and Care: Ann Temkin Charts the Complicated Terrain Surrounding the Preservation of Donald Judd's Work

Article excerpt

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.

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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.

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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. …