Our contemporary museum condition is one of whiteness. If at the turn of the 19th century the white wall was politically, socially and culturally charged it is now seldom questioned but rather packaged with extravagance. Through the categorisation of different types of white my thesis aims to analyse the emergence of this new typology in its historical context to understand its contemporary relevance.
Coined by O Doherty in the late 1970’s the critic dismisses the typology as neutral but highlights it as standing for common ideas. The generic white cube establishes and defines both our perception of the artwork and of the city. Timeless and always the same despite its location or context this globally replicated typology has become almost categorically fixed, a private non-place for the world of contemporary art, one of those uncanny familiar sites like the department store, airport a freeway of our time of super modernity described by anthropologist Marc Auge. The city features at intervals, filtered through as specific vistas. From London to New York we are allowed glimpses out into the world. However, these rare moments exist as carefully constructed views, vistas framed in white. The museum expands the labels to inhabit it defining what and how we can perceive both interior and of the exterior.
One of the fundamental starting point of my research was the mass production and subsequent proliferation of the white titanium pigment in the 1920’s to affect all three scales: that of the object, building and masterplan. 100 years later Pantone has categorised 20 more whites with architects also claiming their own for museum spaces as we are now presented with Richard Meier White
White as catering for the expanded plane of the painting which was not anymore confined by a perspective system within but challenged the edge through abstraction. And developed alongside the notion if isolation and single row hanging.
White as an active mechanism of erasure. White as symbol of universal rejection of decoration in favour of the cultivated eye, as a form of purification, At the Bauhaus the colour supported the unifying and expansion of the arts beyond painting and sculpture into one building under the term Gesamtkultur.
From fixed element to flexible component the white wall contaminated the museum space as prime entity in Karl Schneider’s Kunstverein in Hamburg in 1930 doubling the space in the gallery whilst establishing a sense of free floating unity.
Inspired by the Bauhaus the Museum of Modern art of New York imported white when the museum expanded the concept of art to include in 1932 architecture with the International Style as well as design in 1934 with Machine Art. Within the catalogue the new space of modern architecture coincides with the transformation of white from an artificial mask into a natural material. Once naturalised, it needed no comment.
When the aestheticsation of politics reached terrifying propositions, the white cube was called in both in Munich and New York.
The Third Reich’s Totalitarian white mirrored his ideology of cleansing of culture. The pristine of the white wall was here reflected by the neo classical architecture which through the absence of window and top lighting signified a unique other place. However, the presentation of newly made works of art at the Haus der Kunst contrasted with those of the avant-garde which contrarily were dismissible as degenerate. Here the display matched as one of disorder.
To eradicate the social and political background of both Germany and Russia Barr first implemented the white wall with the 1936 exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art at MoMA.
In addition to defying politics the white wall also served to erase the immediate context it inhabited, that of the ornamental domestic townhouse. The white wall at domestic scale sought to maintain a level of intimacy.
In giving a three-dimensional bearing to Barr’s formalist approach, which he had apprehended at Princeton, the white screens helped in articulating a prescribed route to provide for a didactic rather than atmospheric experience where the visitor could educate himself in the development of artistic styles. The spectator as part of a collective purpose of education. The museum existed as laboratory, as an extension of the Fogg Method at Harvard.
In keeping in line with both, Paul Sachs’ vision of the museum professional as modern manager as well as with corporate America and the Rockefeller’s Barr almost immediately referred to the museum as a business, however it was not until the new building of 1939 that the educated spectator metamorphosed to the consumer spectator.
The white wall here expanded the concept of the museum to business where the intimate spaces of the townhouse were still preserved but now defied cosiness and embraced velocity. The building was set flush to others on the block and the entrance no longer sat on the pediment but was lowered as to be more accessible whilst the name featured prominently as to be visible from the shoppers of 5th avenue.
The funnel like lobby which resembled that of a hotel invited people in and the museum as institution devoted to art expanded to include ‘extra-curricular’ facilities’ as the member’s club room on the top floor. By 1940’s MoMA had sold out principles of American co-corporate capitalism. It packaged a given product, art, by producing knowledge understanding and task, it educed a wider public through distribution in galleries and catalogues giving rise to the educated consumer.
In the years that followed the museum, to attract more visitors, would expand far beyond to cater to what is no known as spaces of experience contaminating the original purity of the galleries with junk space.
To modernise, numerous galleries followed suit; coloured walls were painted white, ceilings lowered: sometimes carpets were laid and partitions inserted. New art forms which were less concerned with the art object and more involved with the socio-political context in which art was made, consumed, and shown, challenged the white container. Artists and architects sought to establish new spaces with postmodernity designing spaces as the Dia Beacon, Pompidou and contemporary. However, the white partition always found a way in challenging these new typologies and at time revealing their inappropriateness as spaces to display art to such an extent that it was re-embraced in 1997 with the Guggenheim Bilbao.
In its contemporary condition the white cube exists as default whilst reaching an extra-large scale. With a shift from manageable painting to grand room size installations, the partition is now replaced by the white fixed volume which differs in size, scale and proportion.
This in addition to the immense increment in visitor numbers has outgrown the space of the museum itself forcing it into a continuous process of renovation and or extension. From local extensions in the early 1990’s, our millennium is one of global museum franchises with the Louvre and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi set to open this coming year.
The white cube as sculptural monument is embedded in our contemporary understanding of the institution where the flamboyant architecture serves to locate the white cube’s site on the map. At the scale of the city the white cube expands as urbanist mechanism. However, the monument itself sits critically decontextualised and able to inahbit any fantasy.
As the exterior is exaggerated the interior contemporarily fluctuates towards extreme sterility with an almost unperceivable environment succumbing to the notion of the museums as ‘other’ place as described by Foucault. Ductwork invades the gallery to provide for international standards of humidity temperature and lighting reinforcing the unsustainability of this typology. If in the 1920 the white wall represented flexibility and temporality it is now a static giant.
The culture of experience pioneered by MoMA in the early 1940’s reaches unprecedented levels with ‘essential’ contemporary amenities as the café, the museum shop, a grand atrium, the auditorium, the members room and so on invading and taking over the space of art. In the process of eliminating anything that sits beyond its physical limit the white wall has isolated itself. Radically decontextualized the white cube defies its origin, asking us to redefine its current stance as one which evolves to re-embrace the scale of both the city and the individual.