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. Itís 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 Esthetics work of the past 15 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 itís in an isolation cell or an operating room.
The white cube today is a parody of itself. Since these spaces first appeared in the 1970s, 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 viewerís journey, shifts the emphasis from process to product, and lacks individuality and openness. Itís 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 esthetics 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 youíre never thinking about the room when youíre 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 galleryís been open. Itís 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 Ď60s and early Ď70s that has become endemic. (Itís time to get over 1968; if weíre going to think of the past, letís reconsider 1988, when artists, suddenly broke, were left to themselves.) But whatís on view isnít really the point. "From the Archives" suggests that a gallery can be a white box but neednít feel like a mausoleum or act like a museum. Too much purity, architectural or esthetic, 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. Itís also an occasion to hope that this and similar organizations survive, as they start cutting budgets and fighting for their lives.
For me, the galleryís 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 couldnít understand Nolandís arrangements of metal stuff; Currinís portraits of blonde girls were simultaneously so sincere and so ironic I couldnít process them. All I knew was that these artists were changing what art was.
Thatís starting to happen again, making this a scary but spectacular time. Galleries neednít 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.
"From the Archives: 40 Years / 40 Projects -- an Exhibition Celebrating the 40-year History of White Columns and 112 Greene Street / 112 Workshop Inc.," Jan. 13-Feb. 28, 2009, at White Columns, 320 West 13th Street, New York, N.Y. 10014
JERRY SALTZ is senior art critic for New York Magazine, where this article first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org