Can space break? I mean the space of art galleries. Over the past 100 years, art galleries have gone from looking like Beaux Arts salons to simple storefronts to industrial lofts to the gleaming giant white cubes of Chelsea with their shiny concrete floors. It’s great that New York has large spaces for art. But the enormous immaculate box has become a dated, even oppressive place. Many of these spaces were designed for sprawling installations, large paintings, and the Relational Aesthetics work of the past fifteen years. As this type of art fades, these spaces can be seen for what they are: theatrical, generalizing, antiseptic environments that make art look like it’s in an isolation cell or an operating room.
The white cube today is a parody of itself. Since these spaces first appeared in the seventies, a monstrous reversal has taken place. Where once the ethos of the architecture arose from and worked with the art on view, today art is being determined by the viewing spaces, which have mutated to a point where they are the main content of any show. The giant white cube is now impeding rather than enhancing the rhythms of art. It preprograms a viewer’s journey, shifts the emphasis from process to product, and lacks individuality and openness. It’s not that art should be seen only in rutty bombed-out environments, but it should seem alive.
Which brings us to the alternative space known as White Columns. Although the cube is embedded in its DNA (the floors here, too, are concrete, the walls stark white), the space is so irregularly shaped, divided up, and generally strange that it feels like a cube from the wrong side of the tracks. This spatial peculiarity, a constant in its four locations over the years, helped define the approach and aesthetics of White Columns, and stopped it from getting grandiose, cold, or generic. Throughout its 40-year history the gallery has been one of the best places in the United States to see new art, partly because you’re never thinking about the room when you’re in it.
Since it first opened, in Soho, White Columns has shown scads of important work (Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Jeff Koons, Philip Glass). Artist-founder Jeffrey Lew describes the original gallery as a “socialist art system” with “no administration” or “political interests” where the “doors never locked.” Artists could come in and say they wanted a show, and have one. “From the Archives: 40 Years/40 Projects” documents one exhibition from each year the gallery’s been open. It’s composed mainly of typewritten proposals, blurry snapshots of hippies, photocopies of reviews, and other ephemera. The show avoids the annoying glorification of the so-called greatest generation of the late sixties and early seventies that has become endemic. (It’s time to get over 1968; if we’re going to think of the past, let’s reconsider 1988, when artists, suddenly broke, were left to themselves.) But what’s on view isn’t really the point. “From the Archives” suggests that a gallery can be a white box but needn’t feel like a mausoleum or act like a museum. Too much purity, architectural or aesthetic, is bad for art right now; that art needs to feel more connected to the world. In this way the show is a moment to remember that a gallery is foremost a test site, not a store. It’s also an occasion to hope that this and similar organizations survive, as they start cutting budgets and fighting for their lives.
For me, the gallery’s defining moment came in 1988 and 1989, when White Columns showcased Cady Noland, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lorna Simpson, and John Currin. Each of those shows threw me for a huge loop. I couldn’t understand Noland’s arrangements of metal stuff; Currin’s portraits of blonde girls were simultaneously so sincere and so ironic I couldn’t process them. All I knew was that these artists were changing what art was.
That’s starting to happen again, making this a scary but spectacular time. Galleries needn’t be exactly like White Columns purely because times are bad again. But the idea of this special space could—should—help shape what comes next.