Later On

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How the White Cube Came to Dominate the Art World

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Abigail Cain writes at

In 1976, artist and critic  set the art world abuzz with a three-part essay published in Artforum. Titled “Inside the White Cube,” it gave a catchy new name to a mode of display that had long ago achieved dominance in museums and commercial galleries. As the story goes, copies of the magazine flew off the shelves. O’Doherty himself has said that the level of response shocked him: “It was a huge wave, and I said, ‘What is this?’… It struck a nerve, to the point where several people came up to me and said, ‘You know, I was about to write that.’”

More recently, in a 2012 paper, the writer Whitney Birkett traced the history of the “white cube”—looking at its origins before O’Doherty’s 1976 essay. In Birkett’s paper, she also analyzes the ways in which the white cube’s dominance, which was once revolutionary, has come to feel static as well as potentially off-putting to modern audiences. In Birkett’s words, the white cube, “now elevates art above its earthly origins, alienating uninitiated visitors and supporting traditional power relationships.”

As Birkett’s paper points out, while O’Doherty deserves credit for coining the phrase white cube (a label that has since become a staple of the art-world lexicon), the actual display strategy was invented decades earlier. Today, New York’s Museum of Modern Art is widely credited with institutionalizing the approach in the 1930s. But the evolution of the white cube goes back much further, with MoMA representing the culmination of a long stretch of experimentation and debate by museum directors and curators spanning continents and centuries.

Major public museums began to spring up in the 18th century, most notably the British Museum in 1759 and the Louvre in 1793. These institutions had largely grown out of private collections, in which artworks were displayed in dense, symmetrical arrangements that connoisseurs believed allowed for a better comparison of styles and movements. They were also influenced by the Paris salons, where paintings jostled for space on walls hung floor to ceiling with art. Artists were captivated by these new public spaces, and museum galleries were a frequent subject of early 19th-century painting.

It wasn’t just artists who were fascinated by these institutions. Attendance swelled throughout the 19th century, with London’s South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) reporting 456,000 annual visitors in 1857, compared to over a million in 1870. Collections also grew over time, and soon the museums of the Victorian era were dealing with issues of overcrowding in terms of both people and paintings.

“Even in the middle of the 19th century, it was generally recognized that museums should isolate works of art on walls to avoid overcrowding and to accentuate quality for visitors,” Andrew McClellan, a professor of art history at Tufts University, told me. “It was recognized that crowded walls hampered proper appreciation of individual works of art.” As English economist William Stanley Jevons put it in an 1881–82 essay, “the general mental state produced by such vast displays is one of perplexity and vagueness, together with some impression of sore feet and aching heads.”

Taking note of these criticisms, the National Gallery in London began to experiment with picture placement in the mid-1800s. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 January 2023 at 4:36 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life

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