White cube was set up by art dealer Jay Jopling, an ex-Estonian and son of a Conservative MP who is married to artist Sam Taylor Wood. It was first opened in a small, square room in May 1993 in Duke Street. Indeed, it was the smallest exhibition space in Europe at the time, and yet, for such a small space white cube became, arguably, one of the most influential galleries of the past decade.
Situated at 44 Duke Street, St James, one of London’s most traditional art dealing streets, surrounded by auction houses, old master galleries and specialist art bookshops.
The central concern of White cube was to create an intimate space in which an artist could present a single important work of art or a coherent body of work within a focused environment. In this regard, the gallery achieved its reputation by being the first to give one person shows to many of the so-called Young British Artist [YBAs].
Even when it moved to its present location at Hoxton Square, it still held on to its unique gallery rule that an artist could only be exhibited once.
By this time, white cube had built up an international reputation for showing international artists such as Chuck Close, Richard Prince and Jeff Wall but interspersed with this Jay Jopling had also shown, cutting edge, YBAs including Gary Hume, Mona Hatoum, Marc Quinn and Sarah Lucas.
Alfred H. Barr. Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, is credited for transforming the white cube concept into a functionalist ideology that conveyed purity and restraint, hence setting up the canon for modern art.
On the other hand, Carol Duncan has attempted to bring out the effect caused by MoMA’s imposition of the masculine gaze to modern art galleries. Indeed her writings have given feminists an impetus to show that the personal is political and hence, women can channel there own experiences to disrupt the masculinity of the museum’s space. Ideally, Carol Duncan challenges the white cube’s functionalist concept of purity and restraint by directing us to begin to think about ‘female form’ and its cultural significance.
The concept of purity and restraint conveyed by the white cubes has its basis in the ideology that representations of the female body can be though to be less of a static object and more as a limit point or set of exclusions, for while an image of the body of a woman can represent all that is pure or worthwhile, it can also embody that which is thought to be the most contaminated and disgusting.
It is this objectivism of the female body by male artists’ that Duncan describes as male artists’ attempts to reach abstraction. The white cube captures this abstraction in such a way that it bars women artists from admittance to its canon. She seems to portray the idea that this canon emanates from the view point of a heterosexual male audience whose desires activated the modernism of the white cube art concept. In essence Carol Duncan’s main critique of MoMA’s white cube is based from its perceived attempt to foster stereotypes in society.
From her are led to imagine exhibition sites to be quite the opposite of the white cube, to be social spaces based on the model of a living, responsive, organic entity. This is because to her, the white cube deliberately restricts the range of sensorial input to the viewer as works are spatially isolated in uncluttered, pristine environments characterized by large expanses of bare, unadorned wall. The cool aesthetic of the modern art institution, to her, only serves to emphasize the architecture as a functional container and a set of solid surfaces. This makes the art museum appear like a ritual site whose aesthetic exhibition, courtesy of the white cube, distinguishes viewers from art works both conceptually and spatially, which is an ideal of the neutralized relationship between art and space.
Emma Baker also presents a different angle to the critique on the white cube. She argues that by interpreting artistic statements concerning art and space within the expanded notion of interior space, better understandings and more appropriate solutions will result. This solutions are necessary because the modernist idea of a universalized and neutral environment for art as espoused by the white cube concept impinges on the interior space in the gallery, and therefore on the artwork.
The idea of space itself is considered an ambiguity, and it is this ambiguity that the white cube concept capitalizes on, presenting an unobstructive gallery space characterized by sterile and lifeless walls. This is a marked contrast from the artists of the past who expressed their spatial concerns within the abstract notions of the interior, architecture, environment, and /or space; hence there is a lot of interest expressed by artists, in negotiating concerns associated with the physical, psychological, and experiential implications of space.
In as much as Emma Baker declines to support the white cube concept, which has been the traditional approach of a modernist museum to the collection and exhibition of art work, she also does not go out to support the artists of the past since, according to her today’s museum’s privileging of newness, non-linearity, and post modernity seems to disavow the influence of history and the relevance of modernity.
Her writings instead seem to allude to an approach which is concerned with the mediation of that art work to a diverse public, rather than the cultivation of the artist within a historical context. This is because, today architecture is the prevailing element that determines the quality and characteristics of art related spaces and therefore dictates the interrelation of art and space.
Thus, because of the psychological, aesthetic, and behavioral implications, the notion of the interrelation of art and space needs to be considered within the complexity of interior space. Essentially, Baker advocates for a generic post modern approach style, which presents the concept of space in a fashion that is without precedent in architectural style, something which is widely apparent in recently constructed museums and shopping malls globally. And yet, the fundamental structure underlying these new effects can also be seen as maintaining clear connections with past incarnations of the institution’s built form.
Precedents for this approach include the exhibitions from the Education and Community Program, such as Unspoken Truths (1993), and Once is Too Much (1997-1998). These exhibitions, and the programs of work from which they derived, set standards for education and community work within, rather than parallel to, the museum’s activities.
Hence the idea of neutrality as espoused by the white cube is in this context dismissed within a design sensitive framework. Furthermore, Emma Baker considers that one of the key functions of a museum of modern art, through the acquisition of art works, is to challenge rather than to reinforce assumptions about definitions of art and artists. This viewpoint contributes to make a powerful argument for a new way of looking and thinking about art that is open and inclusive rather than closed an exclusive.
As such, this viewpoint employs features of modernity at a generally invisible albeit fundamental level. This is so in regard to history, display and communication on the one hand, so that on the other, it can attempt to undercut the problems of representation associated with modernity, by referencing a post modernity that denies both historical precedents and the connection between museums and modernity as a progress-oriented project. This is ironic in relation to modernism’s belief that ‘ornament is a crime’ because it looks as if post modernity has been appropriated within Emma Baker’s view point not as a cohering style, or as a guiding principle, but as precisely that: adornment.
In both asserting and critiquing the idealized modernity of white cube exhibition spaces through their strategies of display, Emma Baker’s viewpoint may be physical evidence for the argument that modernity and post modernity do not exist in a dialectical relationship, but as influences that overlap and compete for attention.
In conclusion, it is important to note that both authors, Emma Baker and Carol Duncan attempt to critique the white cube’s concept of artworks that speak for themselves by employing neutrality to achieve the needed effect. Carlo Duncan approaches her criticism from the standpoint that rather than have museums with bare and unadorned walls, art exhibitions were designed to be social spaces based on the model of a living, responsive, organic entity. Emma Baker on the other hand argues that what is essentially needed is some sort of mediation of that art work to a diverse public, rather than the cultivation of the artist within a historical context.
Marie Fitzpatrick, D. The Interrelation Of Art And Space: An Investigation Of Late Nineteenth And Early Twentieth Century European Painting And Interior Space
Toorn, T. Sensing Bodies:
Documentation, Preservation and Wearable Computer Art