The White Room

Every week I visit many galleries, they are all so similar, with a white walls with art hanging on the walls. The floors are bare floorboards or polished concrete – New Zealand artist and ARI godfather, Billy Apple even has opinions about what shade of grey to paint the gallery floor. People talk about the empty space: the ambience, the light, the aesthetics of the white room. There is track lighting on the ceiling. There are no chairs except for the person gallery sitting behind a desk (in the commercial galleries they are working on the computer, in the rental spaces they are reading a book or talking with a friend). The contemporary art gallery, is an austere, Spartan, minimalist place.

I have been waiting many years for the end of the antiseptic white walled art gallery for a long time. I am not the only one, Swiss curator Harold Szeemann objected to the “pristine sacristy of the white cube” in 1969. There is no reason why an art gallery has to have white walls but now they are ubiquitous. With over 200 galleries (or “projects”, “art space” or “artist run initiative”) in Melbourne you would think that there would be some variety but most look exactly the same, a former shop, factory or warehouse turned into a white walled space. Almost every gallery that I visit in Melbourne is essentially a featureless white room. The galleries are sheepishly following the same fashion, without even being aware that it is just a fashion. Remarkably there is very little creativity shown in exhibiting art.

The art gallery is an aesthetic environment but also de-functionalises the art. No one has to live with the art in the gallery; it can be shut up in an art gallery, in its own aesthetic preserve like an endangered animal. Would this strange creature, art, survive without the space? Or would it find itself an indefinable thing in W.E. Kennick’s imaginary warehouse (Mind v.67).

Historically art has rarely been displayed against a white wall; mostly art has been shown on walls of various colours. Even fauvist and cubist paintings were shown on brown sackcloth in Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s gallery; a former tailors shop, in Paris. But with the purity of high modernism came the white gallery wall and the removal of comforts.

In researching Kahnweiler’s sackcloth walls I have to note that he states: “There was nothing – no publicity campaigns, no cocktail parties, nothing at all and I will tell you something even stranger: I didn’t spend a cent on publicity before 1914, not one cent. I didn’t even put announcements in the papers; I didn’t do anything.” (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler My Galleries and Painters, Thames & Hudson, 1971)

The word “gallery”, that “art gallery” has inherited, comes from the long corridors of renaissance places. The art gallery is a bourgeois adaptation of the noble’s galleries and other rooms in their palaces. Post-revolutionary France used the art gallery/museum to transform the artistic treasures of the monarchy and church into art. Later, at the start of the 20th century, anthropological collections of ethnographic artefacts started to be displayed in art galleries. Since then, anything can be displayed an art gallery and made ‘art’ as Duchamp and many curators have proved.

I am a bit bored with the white room, with the concentration on the space rather than the art exhibited in them. If the art is any good then it doesn’t matter if it is exhibited in a laneway full of garbage bins. If you want to change the type of art exhibited in art galleries then you are going to have change the gallery, or at least the colour of its walls.

“Whiteness is filthy.” – Julian Torma (1902 -1933)


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

6 responses to “The White Room

  • ann clark

    Couldn’t agree more, white is so blatantly background, so utilitarian…why must we view the stuff in a prison? The outcome of some pretty lacklustre thinking in the all too relevant near past I guess. We do have the odd rust or olive wall here in Canberra though, and more than our fair share of ‘homestead’ galleries (dark brick walls or rustic wood panelling), so can’t complain, but one does wonder what it would be like to see contemporary Art in a wallpapered room stacked high with plush furnishings. Thanks for your brief history of the gallery – very enlightening. Annie

  • Online Art Gallery

    I’ve often wanted to see art in galleries on black walls. It’d be interesting to see art galleries try new wall treatments to show off the art.

    • Mark Holsworth

      In the current European Masters exhibition at the NGV there is a room with dark grey walls where the Max Beckman paintings are hung. It makes his paintings look brighter even though they have a lot of big black lines in them. And Lindberg Gallery in Collingwood had black walls last time I was in there.

      Mark Holsworth

  • Empty Spaces « Melbourne Art & Culture Critic

    […] my blog entry about “The White Room” I discussed the milky homogeneity of Melbourne’s art galleries. In this entry I want to ask […]

  • How Galleries Affect Art « Black Mark

    […] appear to be natural and necessary whereas it is arbitrary and only sufficient (see my blog post on The White Room). Gallery practice will change but if nobody pays attention it people will assumed that current […]

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    […] Gallery space is a recurrent subject for my blog posts; lots of words about nothing. In the past I have written about playing with this empty relationship in the great gallery joke, how space is defined and how it defines the art in the art space race, the empty space in art galleries, and the white room. […]

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