When Gary Mitschke, the chief of the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department, arrived at the Judd Foundation offices in Marfa, Texas, shortly after 12:30 a.m. on Friday, smoke at one building “was coming out of anywhere it could escape from,” he said.
The fire was in Donald Judd’s office, in a two-story red brick building in this small desert city where Judd, a pioneer of Minimalism, had lived and worked after leaving the New York art scene in the 1970s. He died in 1994. Luckily, the office was empty: Judd’s architectural models, drawings, furniture and other design objects had been relocated as part of a three-year renovation of the space that was scheduled to conclude on July 3.
“It’s in a sad state,” Mitschke said, noting that the roof had “pretty much collapsed” and that large parts of the second floor had been burned through.
The fire blazed for more than 12 hours before a team of about a dozen volunteer firefighters finally got it under control around 1:30 p.m. No injuries were reported, and no artworks or objects were damaged. The cause remains unknown, Mitschke said, and an investigation is underway. The building had a state-of-the-art sprinkler system that was a week away from being hooked up.
The foundation, which has offices in both Manhattan and Marfa, said in a statement that it would rebuild — however long it takes.
“It is a setback, not a defeat,” Flavin Judd, the artist’s son and the artistic director of the Judd Foundation, which oversees Judd’s living and working spaces in Marfa, said in an email on Monday. “While it will take twice as much effort, we will restore it and open it.”
While the fire destroyed much of the interior of the building, the plan is to stabilize the remaining structure and see what can be salvaged, Flavin Judd said.
In 1990, Donald Judd bought what was then known as the Glascock Building as an office for his architectural practice.
Inside were furniture and objects he had designed, as well as plans and models for projects like Bahnhof Ost Basel and Eichholteren, his former residence in Switzerland. The building next door, the Judd-owned Architecture Studio, serves as a gallery space.
The architecture firm of SCHAUM/SHIEH has been working with the foundation on plans for the buildings in Marfa and to catalog, assess and plan the preservation of Judd’s legacy and influence.
Troy Schaum, a founding partner of the firm and an 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 town of Marfa.” He added that teams of craftspeople had worked for several years to restore almost every feature of the building.
“While we are grateful there was no loss of life,” he said, “it is also heartbreaking to see the care and love of craft evaporate so quickly at a moment so close to completion.”
The Architecture Office closed in 2018 for renovations in a first phase of the foundation’s restoration plan, which will ultimately restore six structures on the Marfa campus in three phases. The first phase, which also includes part of the compound known as the Block, cost about $2 million. The first floor of the office is to 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 only places where you can see Don’s work as it was meant to be seen.”
“A work by itself in a museum is just not the same,” he added.
Donald Judd, best known for his “Judd boxes,” was a master manipulator of seemingly simple containers that he stood on the floor or stacked on walls.
Just before the pandemic, the Museum of Modern Art staged a retrospective of works by Judd, an artist who existed “on a smaller art planet,” far from the market-managed present, according to a review by Holland Cotter, co-chief art critic at The New York Times.
“His art once thought to be too severe to be beautiful (or maybe to be art at all) can now be seen to offer pleasures, visual and conceptual, that any audience with open eyes, can relate to, and that young artists can even maybe shoot for,” Cotter wrote.
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 Marfa City Council member who owns a shop next door to Judd’s office. “It was just this exquisitely beautiful example of historic preservation, and now it’s gone.”