$850K Donald Judd Sculpture Was ‘Permanently’ Ruined by Fingerprints, Lawsuit Claims

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast; Artnet; Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast; Artnet; Getty

Donald Judd, one of the most influential and important postwar minimalist artists in the American canon, is just as famous for the negative space contained by his sculptural fabrications as he is for the sculptures themselves.

Judd prized voids within his work because he was fixated on creating states of uneasy flux, but the tangible materials that comprise his creations are, evidently, just as vulnerable to uncomfortable change. On Tuesday, the Judd Foundation filed suit in Manhattan Supreme Court against New York-based Tina Kim Gallery and the Seoul-based Kukje Gallery, alleging breach of contract related to a valuable work by Donald Judd the foundation says has been marred by fingerprints. (The suit was filed by the Judd Foundation in Manhattan, after it was dismissed in August in a Texas federal court over jurisdictional issues.)

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The Judd artwork in question, Untitled (1991) 91-86, is part of the artist’s Menziken series, a succession of aluminum boxes. “The box with the plexiglass inside is an attempt to make a definitive second surface,” Judd once said of the Menzikens. “The inside is radically different from the outside. Whilst the outside is definite and rigorous, the inside is indefinite.”

In this case, it seems the outside is the problem. In 2015, the Judd Foundation says, it consigned the work to Kukje Gallery/Tina Kim, which are joint galleries.

Untitled was apparently in good condition when it shipped, and in 2016, the galleries exhibited the piece at its booth at Art Basel Miami Beach before the Foundation extended its consignment agreement and had the price of the work upped to $850,000 in 2017.

In 2018, the suit states, the Foundation terminated the consignment contract and had Kukje Gallery return the Judd artwork to the Foundation’s headquarters in Marfa, Texas, where a conservator immediately spotted fingerprint marks. Kukje Gallery and Tina Kim Gallery did not return requests for comment.

“Donald Judd was famous for his exacting fabrication standards and for the ongoing physical integrity of his works of art,” the suit states. “While his works are robustly constructed, the anodized aluminum surface of the Menzikens requires very careful handling, and if mishandled can mark easily. In particular, gloves are required when handling the works. Any fingerprints on the anodized aluminum surface must be removed quickly or over time the oils in the fingerprints can react with the surface and leave permanent, disfiguring, irreversible marks.”

In the 2022 case, the complaint states Tina Kim and Kukje received condition reports from the art storage company UOVO that Untitled had fingerprint marks in two places, as well as a “small blemish in the right-side panel,” but that they never shared these reports with the Judd Foundation. When a Foundation conservator eventually assessed the damage to the work, it was determined to be irreversible, the complaint states. UOVO did not return the Daily Beast’s request for comment.

Though outwardly masculine and stoic, Judd’s work has proven itself to be extremely vulnerable to damage. In 1973, the artist described himself to be “in a spirit of cheerful revenge” directed towards museum guards and museum staffers who mishandled his work, and he had exacting fabrication standards for his work, regardless of the material and its potential for swift erosion.

“Someone was putting more fingerprints on one end of a piece of mine in the Metropolitan extravaganza of 1969 while the other end was being cleaned,” Judd wrote, also in ‘73. “The guard said nothing. He also didn’t object to someone walking on a perforated metal floor piece. That came back caved in.”

In its new complaint, the Judd Foundation claims that the defendant galleries are in breach of contract: while they were in possession of the artwork, at some point it was allegedly mishandled, leading the Foundation to seek compensation for the full value of the artwork, some $750,000, from the Tina Kim gallery’s insurer.

According to the complaint, while the insurer has paid the Foundation some 80 percent of the sum, Tina Kim has yet to pay the 20 percent of the $850,000 retail price they owe for the loss. Representatives from the Judd Foundation declined to comment. The Tina Kim Gallery and Kukje Gallery did not return requests for comment.

“Insurance companies don’t like to write checks, so their decision to write a very significant check certainly strikes me as meaningful in terms of whatever the damage to the sculpture was,” Nicholas M. O’Donnell, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester LLP and a member of the Art Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association, told The Daily Beast.

“Judd hated fingerprints,” Jim Harris, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean Museum, explained in 2018. “With the fingerprint the object became not just itself, but itself plus someone.”

Judd’s artwork isn’t the only asset of his that’s proven to be vulnerable: in April, a Marfa home purchased by the artist in 1990 burned to the ground; two adults inside the house and their small child narrowly escaped. In 2021, the Judd Architecture Office, also located in Marfa, also caught fire in the middle of the night and was destroyed, though no artwork was lost in the blaze.

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