Donald Judd’s “Untitled 1982,” a cornerstone piece of Western Washington University’s renowned Outdoor Sculpture Collection, is returning to campus on Oct. 29 after more than five years in storage and nearly $200,000 in restoration work.
Judd, who died in 1994, was a minimalist sculptor whose work is represented in such storied collections as the Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim Museum and Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. A large retrospective of his work will open at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in March of next year.
Hafthor Yngvason, director of the Western Gallery, said Judd’s piece is one of the most important in the collection.
“Judd’s work has had lasting impact and is hugely important,” Yngvason said. “’Untitled 1982’ is foundational to the collection and its impact is equivalent to the pieces we have by artists such as Richard Serra, Isamu Noguchi and Bruce Nauman.”
While the return to campus of an iconic sculpture is story enough, the winding and complex path it took to return to Bellingham – and how close it came to never getting renovated to begin with – is a complex tale all its own.
Welcome to Western, Untitled
Western’s Outdoor Sculpture Collection was already well established by the time the Judd sculpture was acquired in 1982, but its arrival marked another significant leap forward in the collection’s overall quality. Judd visited campus and picked what he felt was the perfect site, and Untitled, which is perhaps best described as a huge corten steel box with two vertical partitions, was placed on a concrete pad just downhill from the sequoia tree at the corner of Edens Hall.
There it would sit, admired by students leaving Higginson and Edens on the way to classes or employees heading up or down the hill to and from work, as well as the many visitors who routinely toured the collection, until 2014.
The main issue with the site was that like much of Western’s pathways and greenways, it sits on a peat bog, and Untitled 1982 was nestled in a concavity of the slope in front of Old Main that collected water and was rarely dry.
Despite being corrosion resistant, Corten steel boxes don’t like water, and as the years went by, the structure’s steel slabs and the welded seams that held them together began to deteriorate.
Moving the sculpture wasn’t as easy a concept as it might seem, either, for two reasons: the first was that even when the university owns a piece of art, it remains basically a custodian of that piece with the artist remaining in charge of all the aspects of how it is displayed or renovated – and in this case, Judd’s decision was site-specific. If Western wanted Untitled, it had to sit in the spot he chose, and could not be moved for any reason without his consent.
The second issue arose when Judd died in 1994; any consent over moving or repairing Untitled 1982 now had to go through his foundation.
But issues of display became secondary to safety, and Sarah Clark-Langager, former director of the Western Gallery, pulled Untitled from its slab and placed it in storage in Seattle, its fate still to be determined.
Western has been able to acquire many of the pieces of its sculpture collection through gifts from donors or through funding from the Washington State Arts Commission’s Art in Public places program (AIPP). The Washington State Legislature established the AIPP program in 1974 to acquire artwork for K-12 public schools, colleges, universities, and state agencies, funded by ½ of 1 percent of the state’s portion of construction costs.
While AIPP provides funds to purchase the art, maintenance of the pieces is not covered and is the responsibility of Western. Routine maintenance of pieces in the collection is performed by Facilities Management staff that has been trained by qualified professional conservators.
“FM has really excellent, careful and conscientious people who do the work,” Yngvason said. “But major renovations or repair is a whole other matter.”
The examination of “Untitled 1982” by conservators showed that it would need repairs of some of the steel slabs and replacement of others, which would not only be costly but, once again, bring issues of artist’s rights into play.
At its core, this new hurdle posed an essential question: Does replacing parts of a sculpture turn it into a new piece? The answer, said Chris Casquilho of Western’s College of Fine and Performing Arts, is always shrouded in shades of gray.
“It really depends on the artist’s view of the renovation work you are proposing, but in general, minor patching may be OK, but refabricating whole parts may not,” he said.
In the case of Untitled, every proposed remedy to the ailing sculpture needed to be run through the Judd Foundation, from the scope of work to repair and replace parts to finding it a new, drier home on the campus.
Eventually, all those issues were ironed out, said Yngvason.
“They appreciated that we cared so much about the piece, and wanted to do the conservation in the correct way,” he said. “But the price tag was still going to be quite high.”
Thankfully, Yngvason found, applied for, and received a $132,000 restoration grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and received another $63,000 from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Sculpture Conservation Endowment and the Kreielsheimer Endowment Fund, which are dedicated to large preservation projects.
About half of the box’s six huge steel slabs were replaced in the work, with the other half getting repaired. The work was completed by Fabrication Specialties in Seattle, and on Oct. 29, after years of an uncertain future, Untitled 1982 will return home to its new site next to Academic West and the Flag Plaza, a location hand-picked by the Judd Foundation’s conservator.
“I suggested placing the sculpture on the Flag Plaza but she found the grassy area next to the plaza more in tune with the original site, and with Judd’s work in general. I agree, and think the site makes a lot of sense,” said Yngvason.
On Oct. 29, Judd’s iconic work will once again become anchored in the shared cultural identity of the university for which it was built.
“This is important,” said Yngvason. “And we couldn’t be happier.”
For more information about Untitled 1982 or the university’s Outdoor Sculpture Collection, contact Hafthor Yngvason, director of the Western Gallery, at Hafthor.firstname.lastname@example.org.