A woman wearing black opens a giant glass door and struts into a blazingly lit white-walled space. The floor is gray concrete. The space feels alienating, cold. Overhead, fluorescent bulbs cast a sterile, hospital-like light.
This isn’t the beginning of a horror film. It’s a typical, albeit cliched, white-cube art gallery in New York’s Chelsea District, which sets the standard for galleries the world over.
Walker Art Center even has its own paint color: Walker White, a custom mix originally made by Valspar.
Why white? Despite its coldness, white is economical, goes with everything and ensures that the art will stand out rather than getting lost on a colorful wall.
In the Twin Cities, however, not all gallerists agree that white is, or should continue to be, the standard.
The Walker has experimented with color for some shows. And inside the European and Impressionism painting galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a neutral deep beige covers the walls while a soft LED light shines on Paul Signac’s “Blessing of the Tuna Fleet at Groix” (1923), a colorful painting of boats docked in a harbor.
But when you enter Mia’s galleries of modern and contemporary art (post-1950), the walls shift to a stark white. “White walls equal modern art,” said the museum’s exhibition designer, Michael Lapthorn.
Historically, that’s true. For many, however, the white-walled gallery reads as off-putting and elite, signifying exclusivity.
Public Functionary, an art space in northeast Minneapolis, was founded with the idea of disrupting the white-cube standard.
Some of its first shows in 2013, such as “Buy Now, Cry Later” by Los Angeles-based artist Patrick Martinez, had walls painted sunflower yellow, deep blue and lime green. It created an all-encompassing experience, fitting the artist’s colorful neon signage that critiques the consumption-oriented nature of American life. The show felt like a celebration, not a hospital visit.
“Everyone knows you don’t wear white because you’re going to get something on it,” said Public Functionary founder Tricia Heuring. “White is clean, pure — you can’t relax.”
Her desire to disrupt the white cube came from her own experiences, noticing how she and others often felt weird in galleries even though they wanted to see the art.
For the first two years of Public Functionary’s existence, the walls were a different color for every show. “It felt like you were inside the mind of those artists,” Heuring said.
She kept track of people’s reactions. “I remember more artsy people being like, ‘I wish you would just do shows on white walls,’ ” she said. “I used to get feedback from more academic people about not liking the color.”
White walls create a sort of individualistic and isolated experience of art viewing, while color opens up a more community-oriented experience.
Heuring feels the colorful walls helped solidify Public Functionary’s reputation as a nonstandard art space. Nowadays, though, the gallery’s walls are more often white, mainly for budgetary reasons. She disrupts art gallery norms in other ways, such as staging events in the gallery space, thus taking art off its pedestal.
Letting the art dictate color
Most commercial galleries in the Twin Cities keep their walls painted white or beige.
Weinstein Hammons Gallery in south Minneapolis uses City Loft by Sherwin Williams, a beige. Rather than repaint the entire three-room space, co-owner Leslie Hammons usually just adds color on an accent wall.
“White walls don’t compete,” she said. “I think it will always be the status quo because it does help the work.”
Plus, there’s the costs of paint, hiring a crew and closing the gallery for a week. That’s tough on business. With white walls, everything moves faster.
There have been exceptions. For a 2008 show by Guatemalan artist Luis González Palma, the gallery painted some of the walls gold. The artist hung chandeliers low from the ceiling, and put red carpet on the floor.
Similarly, Todd Bockley of Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis said the only time he’d painted walls something other than white was for the exhibit “Listening From the Heart: The Work of Frank Big Bear, George Morrison, and Norval Morrisseau” at the Weisman Art Museum in 2001. He had the walls painted amber, dark red and brown.
“Our show was relational, not about isolating,” said Bockley. “We simply let the artwork dictate the color of the walls.”
Rooted in European art
The white cube emerged from a Western European art tradition, entering the United States via New York.
Alfred Baar, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is often credited with institutionalizing the approach with the 1936 exhibition “Cubism and Abstract Art.” Works were hung sparingly, and the white walls ensured that everything popped.
New York dealer Betty Parsons, known for helping establish the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, standardized the practice in the gallery world.
While some have suggested that white walls have roots in Nazism, the idea came up among artists in 1920s Weimar Germany. Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky as well as Constructivist artists and architects also were curious about using white as a means of connoting infinite space.
At Walker Art Center, “paint colors are chosen based on the show,” said senior curator Siri Engberg. For a Cindy Sherman retrospective in 2012, some walls were charcoal blue, and others maroon.
The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), which showcases emerging artists at Mia, usually keeps its walls white. But the walls themselves offer opportunity for experimentation.
“For Jamie Kinroy’s wall drawings in 2015, he drew one of his works on the expanse of that gallery wall — a 30-foot drawing,” said Nicole Soukup, assistant curator of contemporary art and MAEP coordinator. “He was using the white wall as substrate.”
Such an exhibition complicates what is the wall and what is the art. But when the show closes, the wall becomes just a wall again.
At Mia, the photography galleries are currently painted a light blue. The lighting is dimmer, too, because light can harm photo prints.
Lapthorn, the museum’s designer, has even used textures for special exhibitions such as Robert Wilson’s recent “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty.”
“I would love to paint every gallery a different color,” he said. When walls are white, “we decontextualize these paintings to the degree that they are too isolated from each other and from the experience of being in a room. One of my long-term goals is to introduce more appropriate colors.”