When Gary Mitschke, the chief of the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department, arrived at the Judd Foundation offices in Marfa, Texas, shortly after 12:30 pm on Friday, smoke came to a building “from everywhere he could escape,” he said said.
The fire was in Donald Judd’s office, in a two-story red brick building in that little desert town where Judd, a pioneer of minimalism, had lived and worked after leaving the New York art scene in the 1970s. He died in 1994. Fortunately, the office was empty: Judd’s architectural models, drawings, furniture and other design objects had moved as part of a three-year renovation of the premises, which was due to be completed on July 3rd.
“It is in a sad state,” said Mitschke. The roof was “pretty much collapsed” and large parts of the second floor were burned through.
The fire blazed for more than 12 hours before it was brought under control at around 1:30 p.m. by a team of about a dozen volunteer firefighters. No casualties were reported, no works of art or objects were damaged. The cause is unknown, said Mitschke, an investigation is ongoing. The building had a state-of-the-art sprinkler system that was still a week away from being connected.
The foundation, which has offices in both Manhattan and Marfa, said in a statement that it will rebuild – however long it takes.
“It’s a setback, not a defeat,” said Flavin Judd, the artist’s son and artistic director of the Judd Foundation, which oversees Judd’s living and working space in Marfa, in an email on Monday. “The effort is twice as high, but we will restore and open it.”
While the fire destroyed much of the building’s interior, the plan is to stabilize the remaining structure and see what can be saved, Flavin Judd said.
In 1990 Donald Judd bought what was then the Glascock Building as an office for his architectural office.
It contained furniture and objects that he had designed, as well as plans and models for projects such as the Ost Basel railway station and Eichholteren, his former residence in Switzerland. The building next door, Judd’s own Architecture Studio, serves as a gallery space.
The architecture firm SCHAUM / SHIEH worked with the foundation to draw up plans for the buildings in Marfa and cataloged, assessed and planned the preservation of Judd’s legacy and influence.
Troy Schaum, founding partner of the company and associate professor of architecture at Rice University School of Architecture, said in a statement: “This building is a unique piece of Marfa history and one of the oldest intact buildings in the city of Marfa. He added that teams of craftsmen had worked for several years to restore almost every element of the building.
“Although we are grateful that there were no human lives,” he said, “it is also heartbreaking to see how the care and love for the craft vanish so quickly in a moment so close to completion.”
The architecture firm closed in 2018 for renovation work in a first phase of the foundation’s restoration plan, which will ultimately restore six buildings on the Marfa campus in three phases. The first phase, which also includes part of the complex known as the Block, cost about $ 2 million. The ground floor of the office should be open to the public.
Flavin Judd told the New York Times in 2018 that he and his sister Rainer committed to the plan because Marfa is “one of the few places where you can see Don’s work the way it should be seen”.
“A work on its own in a museum is just not the same,” he added.
Donald Judd, best known for his “Judd boxes”, was a master at handling seemingly simple containers that he stood on the floor or stacked against the walls.
Shortly before the pandemic, the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of works by Judd, an artist who existed “on a smaller art planet,” far removed from the market-driven present, according to a review by Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic at New York Times.
“His art, once considered too strict to be beautiful (or maybe even art), now offers visual and conceptual delights that any audience can identify with with open eyes, and with which young artists can even identify can maybe shoot, ”wrote Cotter.
In recent years, the Judd sites in Marfa have become a popular pilgrimage destination for art lovers.
“I hope they can rebuild,” said Buck Johnston, a councilor for Marfa who owns a shop next to Judd’s office. “It was just this exquisitely beautiful example of monument preservation, and now it’s gone.”