In 1993, I made a pilgrimage to Marfa, Tex., to view a magnificent installation of Donald Judd's work. The site represented the culmination of Judd's dream -- a permanent architecturally correct space in which to view his work and that of his peers. Marfa, which was funded by the Dia Art Foundation, lived up to its billing. Never had I seen a space that was more conducive to viewing art. The most memorable aspect was how it "put you in the mood" -- the art and space were so perfectly in sync that you didn't want to leave.
After lingering as long as possible, I decided that I wanted to meet Donald Judd. I made a few brief inquiries and was told that he was in town and hanging out at a former bank that he had converted into a studio. After a 30-minute stakeout, I saw Judd emerge from the building and I rushed over to introduce myself. I explained to him that I owned a gallery and was a big admirer of his work. Then I said a few respectful words about his sculpture that indicated I was fully aware of the scope of his achievement. Judd stared at me for a moment, sized me up, and said, "I hate all art dealers."
As you can imagine, I was taken aback. But then I realized that his uncompromising stance on life and art was what made him such a great artist. Judd, who was a highly articulate writer, had often written about his abhorrence at the way that galleries and museums treated art. He claimed it was a matter of respect, or lack thereof. He envisioned a near-utopian art world and eventually applied his rigorous standards to the creation of his compound in Marfa. But even before Marfa, one look at the extreme perfectionism that went into the fabrication of his work was all you needed to know about Judd.
Along with Carl Andre, Judd radically altered the course of American sculpture. While Andre was the first to explore the flat space of the floor, Judd pioneered the three-dimensional exploration of the wall. Judd's "Stacks" -- individual rectangular metal and Plexiglas boxes that resemble drawers and were conceived to attach to a wall, often in units of ten with space between them -- remain his most significant contribution.
Last auction season, a "Stack" shattered its previous record of $286,000 to sell for $819,750 (Sotheby's, Nov. 2000). Not only that, but the year 2000 also saw Judd set records for all of the other major categories of his sculpture.
It would be easy to say that the art market is finally coming around to appreciating Judd. But that would be too simplistic. Instead, the art market is finally getting smarter by recognizing that there are so few true innovators -- that once they are identified they should be bought without fear of price. That doesn't mean a collector should buy any Judd just to have one in the collection. However, since Judd was remarkably consistent, it becomes a matter of choosing between "good," "better" and "best."
Despite a year of record-breaking prices, there is still a bargain left in Judd's work -- the Swiss pieces. These sectional works resemble the inside of an open candy box and are among the most colorful of Judd's output. In recent times, two examples, each good representatives of the smallest size works from the series, sold for $37,375 (Sotheby's, Feb. 2000) and $35,250 (Sotheby's, May 2000), respectively.
When you think about it, it's amazing that you can buy a unique work by one of the greatest sculptors this country ever produced, for approximately $35,000. There is no better deal in the art market.
The revival of interest in Judd's work is also indicative of the greater interest in sculpture in general. Many collectors and institutions are waking up to the fact that sculpture is under appreciated and undervalued.
While this is old news, it appears to be the first time that people are doing something about it. Not only does Donald Judd's work still have plenty of room for price growth, but so do the works of Carl Andre, John Chamberlain and Joel Shapiro -- especially their smallest examples.
It has been said before that it is much more difficult to create successful sculpture than successful painting. While that point is debatable, what is beyond doubt is that there are far fewer great sculptors than painters. For every Richard Serra and Mark di Suvero, there are at least 20 quality painters. If this is truly the case, it is then inevitable that the most important sculptors will continue to rise in value as the art market continues to become more focused on quality and innovation.