After Half a Century, White Columns Still Surprises

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“I’m going to use a word you’re not supposed to say,” the sculptor Jeffrey Lew declared with a contact of bravado. “I’m sort of a sociopath.”

In 1969 Lew and Rachel Wood, then his spouse, bought a decrepit six-story rag-salvaging manufacturing unit in SoHo for $110,000. They moved into its higher flooring with an assortment of kindred artists and, with fellow sculptors Gordon Matta-Clark and Alan Saret, turned the unheated floor ground and basement right into a 7,400-square-foot exhibition house named 112 Greene Street (and later 112 Workshop), after its location. Subsequent reveals featured a wall-mounted piece made from 500 kilos of decaying carrots, huge holes minimize into the ground, and a dance troupe swinging overhead from the 17-foot-high ceiling.

Those early ’70s spectacles have since attained near-mythic status; work staged there that Lew felt museums and established galleries both couldn’t, or wouldn’t, present has since been feted in museums and blue-chip galleries. But Lew quickly grew bored with the creeping professionalism introduced on by a National Endowment for the Arts grant. “When I got the N.E.A. grant they said, ‘Give us your schedule.’ A schedule?” Lew recalled with fun. “The minute people start acting like curators, that’s when the good stuff ends.”

By late 1978, Lew stated he’d had sufficient of committees and payroll points. He’d already turned the constructing’s upper-floor lofts into co-ops, however he was nonetheless the artwork house’s landlord. Citing his hefty tax invoice, he tripled its $550 month-to-month hire, totally conscious that its governing board might by no means afford the brand new price. “Like I said, I’m a sociopath,” Lew defined. “I just didn’t have any feelings whether it went under.”

Yet 112 Greene Street didn’t die. Quite the alternative. It ultimately discovered a brand new dwelling within the West Village, in addition to new management. Rechristened White Columns, the nonprofit turned not solely New York City’s longest operating different artwork house, however one among its most enduringly important. The proof is on its partitions as a part of its fiftieth anniversary exhibition, which Matthew Higgs, the gallery’s director and chief curator since 2004, describes as half celebration and half tribute to the continued story of the New York artwork scene.

Poring over the archival set up photographs and printed ephemera, what emerges is a dizzying array of artists who started their careers with solo debuts there. From John Currin and Cady Noland within the ’80s to Rachel Feinstein and Glenn Ligon within the ’90s, nobody model predominates. The frequent thread is just {that a} given director discovered an artist attention-grabbing sufficient to current work and provide it on the market with no strings — one among 15 to twenty such reveals yearly — counting on grants and donations to cowl its now roughly $1 million price range.

One of Lew’s parting items could also be exactly what allowed White Columns to proceed previous his brinkmanship. In late 1979, sensing a simpatico spirit, Lew inspired Josh Baer, then 23 years outdated, to use for the house’s vacant director place. Baer had no formal administrative or curatorial expertise. But he’d grown up on the coronary heart of the ’70s New York artwork world — his mom and stepfather had been the acclaimed painters Jo Baer and John Wesley. Even extra crucially, he was immersed within the new artwork kinds effervescent up downtown. “Everything was blending together,” Baer recalled. “Hip-hop was breaking out, break dancing, graffiti art, noise music. That Gordon Matta-Clark era, that minimalist sculpture thing of SoHo, had now been replaced by a generation that’s more at home at the Mudd Club.”

Baer insisted that being chosen to run White Columns in 1979 “wasn’t a glamorous thing to walk into. It was in impossible shape.” Sighing over his personal naïveté, from his present perspective as an artwork adviser, he added, “Only somebody that young would be dumb enough to do it.” Monthly hire might have solely been $415 on the house’s subsequent dwelling close to the West Side Highway, however that was hardly a well-trafficked artwork burg. Moreover, your entire yr’s price range was a mere $8,000 — with no provision for a director’s wage.

The artist and new board member Mike Roddy prompt that Baer rebrand the house as “White Columns,” an architectural nod to the classically styled options of each its outdated and new addresses. It was additionally a droll assertion in regards to the inflexible hierarchy of the artwork world being 100% white, Baer stated critically. Hoping the frisson of spotlighting artists of shade below the brand new title wouldn’t be misplaced on anybody, the up to date moniker was made public for a September 1980 present that includes a sprawling subway-style mural by Lee Quiñones and Fred Brathwaite, a.okay.a. Fab Five Freddy, one of many first instances graffiti had been introduced indoors right into a distinguished gallery setting.

“We were both planting our flags in a whole new atmosphere,” Quiñones stated lately, talking of Baer’s invitation to spray-paint White Columns’ inside. Indeed, his present drew a bunch of downtown luminaries, from the critics Edit DeAk and Rene Ricard to the author and cable TV host Glenn O’Brien, all of whom in flip helped spark a thorny love affair between the worlds of latest artwork and graffiti which continues to at the present time. The buzz-laden response additionally firmly linked White Columns’ new identification with each the nascent East Village artwork scene and the artwork market growth as every gathered steam within the ’80s.

That hovering market — and the power of a White Columns present to catapult an unknown artist into its midst — might tackle virtually ridiculous elements. “The commercial art world is a genius in finding ways to sell things that seem unsellable,” famous Bill Arning, who turned director in 1985 and is now a Houston gallerist. At the March 1988 solo debut of Cady Noland’s unsettling installations — together with a pair of geriatric walkers slung over a stanchion with a photograph of a pistol leaning close by — Arning stated he fruitlessly tried to persuade the collectors Don and Mera Rubell to buy a bit for $400. He stated Mera Rubell ultimately admitted to him that she’d ended up shopping for that very same piece a yr later, as soon as Noland’s profession exploded — for $40,000.

As the ’80s ended and the market mania collapsed, the ensuing tensions rebounded inside White Columns. The painter Marilyn Minter stated her 1988 solo debut there resulted in a minimum of 10 galleries pursuing her. Grateful to the house for plucking her out of semi-obscurity, she joined its board in 1991, pleased to place her rising cachet at its service, at the same time as her personal gross sales slowed. “We were lucky to keep the doors open back in the ’90s,” Minter remembered. “Just keeping the air-conditioning on in the summer was a big deal!”

Despite the ’90s deepening recession, artists continued to see a White Columns present as transformational. “It changed my life completely,” John Currin stated of his 1989 debut there, lengthy earlier than his portraits would fetch seven-figure sums at public sale. “I made $5,000, that was huge! My entire income for the whole year before was $9,000 slaving away on drywall jobs.” A decade later, his spouse, the sculptor Rachel Feinstein, stated her personal debut rapidly moved her from working on the entrance desk of the Marianne Boesky Gallery to changing into one among its represented artists.

Accordingly, Paul Ha, Arning’s successor in 1996 — and present director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center, in Cambridge, Mass. — stated he discovered to put aside his misgivings at having White Columns act as a de facto “talent scout” for business galleries. “When you see so many people struggling, you just want to help them with their career,” Ha defined.

Higgs continued that custom, with a notable tweak. “When I arrived at White Columns,” he stated, “the question for us as an organization was what could we do that would make a difference?” The inclusion of each Black and feminine artists was lastly on the cultural world’s radar. However, “What was strikingly obvious to me was that the work of artists with developmental disabilities was just completely underrepresented in the field of contemporary art. There were these extraordinary organizations like Creative Growth in Oakland or Visionaries + Voices in Cincinnati, supporting extraordinary communities of artists. But they just didn’t have access to the same kind of networks that artists coming out of Yale or Columbia’s M.F.A. programs might.”

Enter White Columns. Higgs has introduced 25 solo reveals of developmentally disabled artists up to now, together with William Scott, who he notes lastly had a piece acquired by the everlasting assortment of the Museum of Modern Art — 14 years after his debut at White Columns. “Patience is a key factor here,” he quipped.

Young artwork faculty graduates haven’t been completely nixed: The painter Esteban Jefferson was an instantaneous sensation along with his 2019 solo debut, an expanded model of his Columbia M.F.A. thesis vividly contrasting a Paris museum’s African statues with the faces of its staffers and their blandly institutional setting. But Higgs has additionally made a degree of spotlighting barely seen older figures, from David Byrd, who drew chilling drawings of the Westchester psychiatric ward the place he labored for 30 years till 1988, to Ben Morea, who created abstractions in 1964 earlier than changing into higher often known as an artwork world provocateur and political activist. Even different venues have acquired consideration: In 2010, the artist Margaret Lee was requested to place collectively a retrospective on the raucous, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink group reveals she started staging in 2009 at her semi-legal 179 Canal house in Chinatown.

Lee stated she was pleasantly shocked by her discussions with Higgs as she explored recreating 179 Canal’s chaotic vibe and messy power inside White Columns. “He never said ‘I don’t like the aesthetics of this.’ It was more ‘I’m around if you want to talk, but you’re free. Just be responsible.’” So, echoing the anti-guidelines first supplied by Jeffrey Lew on Greene Street a long time in the past — Do what you need, simply don’t burn the place down? “Actually,” Lee recalled wryly, “we did almost burn White Columns down. We wanted to leave a microwave running for 24 hours. Matthew said, ‘No, you cannot do that. You need a fake microwave.’ That’s where he drew the line!”


From the Archives: White Columns & 112 Greene Street/112 Workshop — 1970-2021

Through July 31 at White Columns, 91 Horatio Street, Manhattan; 212-924-4212; whitecolumns.org.

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