Half a century later, white columns still surprise

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

In 1969, Lew and Rachel Wood, who was then his wife, bought a dilapidated six-story sawmill factory in Soho for $110,000. They moved into its upper floors with a variety of artists and, along with fellow sculptors Gordon Matta-Clark and Alan Serratt, transformed the unheated ground floor and basement into a 7,400-square-foot exhibition space named 112 Green Street ( and later 112 workshop). ), followed by its location. Later shows featured a wall-mounted piece made of 500 pounds of rotten carrots, massive holes drilled in the floor, and a dance troupe swinging upwards from a 17-foot-high ceiling.

Glasses from the early ’70s have gotten near-mythical since then Event; Work was staged there that Lew felt that museums and established galleries either could not show, or could not show, has since been brought to museums and blue-chipped. galleries. But Lew soon grew tired of the creeping commercialism brought on by the National Endowment for the Arts grant. “When I got the NEA grant they said, ‘Give us your schedule.’ a schedule?” Lew remembered with a laugh. “Good things end as soon as people start acting like curators.”

By the end of 1978, Lew said he had enough committees and payroll issues. He had already converted the top floor lofts of the building into co-ops, but he was still the landowner of the arts area. Citing his hefty tax bill, he tripled its $550 monthly rent, fully aware that its governing board could never afford the new rate. “Like I said, I’m a sociopath,” Lew explained. “I just had no feeling if it went down.”

Yet 112 Green Street did not die. Quite the opposite. It eventually found a new home in the West Village, as well as new leadership. naming white pillar, the nonprofit not only became New York City’s longest-running alternative arts space, but one of its most enduringly significant. It has evidence on its walls as part of its 50th anniversary exhibition, which has been described by Matthew Higgs, the gallery’s director and chief curator since 2004, as part celebration and part tribute to the ongoing story of the New York art scene.

Paying attention to archival installation photographs and printed almanacs, what emerges are a dizzying array of artists who began their careers there with solo debuts. John Karin and Se Cady Noland For Rachel Feinstein in the 80s and Glenn Ligon In the ’90s, no one style prevailed. The general thread is that a given director finds an artist interesting enough to present the work and offer it for sale without strings attached. — one of 15 to 20 such shows each year — relies on grants and donations to cover its now nearly $1 million budget.

One of Lew’s parting gifts may have been exactly what allowed the White Column to move past its brink. In late 1979, sensing a sympatico sentiment, Lew encouraged Josh Baer, then 23 years of age, to apply for the vacant director post. Baer had no formal administrative or curatorial experience. But he grew up in the New York art world of the ’70s—his mother and stepfather were acclaimed painters Joe Baer and John Wesley. More importantly, he was immersed in the new art forms of the city. “Everything was blending together,” Bayer recalled. “Hip-hop was breaking, break dancing, graffiti art, noise music. That Gordon Matta-Clark era, that minimalist sculptural thing from SoHo, was now replaced by a generation that is more at home in the Mud Club. “

Baer insisted that being chosen to run the White Column in 1979 was “no glamorous thing. It was in impossible shape.” Sighing at his own naivety, from his current perspective as an art consultant, he said, “There would only be someone young enough to be dumb enough to do it.” The space’s next home near West Side Highway may have only $415 monthly rent, but it was hardly a well-trafficked art burgh. In addition, the budget for the entire year was a mere $8,000 – with no provision for a director’s salary.

Artist and new board member Mike Roddy suggested that Bayer rebrand the space as the “White Column”, an architectural nod to the classical style features of both his old and new addresses. It was also a statement about the rigid hierarchy of the art world being 100 percent white, Bayer said critically. No one expected frisson of color spotlighting artists under the new name, the updated moniker, was made public for the September 1980 show, featuring a giant Metro-style mural. lee quinones And Fred Brathwaite, aka the Fab Five Freddy, was the first time graffiti was brought indoors in a major gallery setting.

“We were both putting up our flags in a new environment,” Quinone said of Beyer’s invitation to spray-paint the interior of the White Column recently. In fact, his show attracted many heavyweights from critics to the city. Edit and René Ricard to writer and cable TV host Glenn O’Brien, all of whom helped spark a thorny love affair between contemporary art and the world of graffiti that continues to this day. The buzz-filled reaction strongly linked the White Column’s new identity with both the nascent East Village art scene and the boom in the art market, as each gathered steam in the ’80s.

That burgeoning market – and the ability of a white column to show an unknown artist in their midst – can take on almost ridiculous aspects. “The commercial art world is a genius at finding ways to sell things that don’t seem sellable,” noted bill earning, who became director in 1985 and is now a Houston Gallerist. At the solo debut of Cady Noland’s makeshift installations in March 1988—which consisted of a pair of geriatric walkers hooked up to a pole with a picture of a pistol nearby—Earning stated that she had failed to convince collectors. tried Don and my Rubel To buy a piece for $400. He said Mera Rubel eventually admitted to him that a year later, after Noland’s career exploded, he ended up buying the same piece—for $40,000.

As the 80s ended and the market frenzy collapsed, the resulting tension resumed inside the White Column. painter Marilyn Minter Said that his 1988 solo debut resulted in at least 10 gals following him. Grateful for the space to lift her out of semi-obscurity, she joined his board in 1991, happy to keep her growing cachet at his service even as her own sales slowed. . “We were lucky to keep the doors open in the ’90s,” Minter recalled. “Keeping the air-conditioning on in the summer was a big deal!”

Despite the deep recession of the ’90s, the cast continued to view the White Column show as transformative. “It completely changed my life,” John Currin said of his debut in 1989, long before his paintings would fetch seven-figure sums at auction. “I made $5,000, that was huge! The entire year before my entire income was $9,000 slaves on drywall jobs.” A decade later, his wife, sculptor Rachel Feinstein, said that her own start earned her the front of the Marianne Bosky Gallery. From working at the desk inspired her to become one of the artists it represented.

Accordingly, paul ha, Earning’s successor in 1996 – and the current director of MIT List Visual Arts Center, in Cambridge, Mass. – said he learned to clear his misconceptions when he saw White Columns act as a genuine “talent scout” for commercial galleries. “When you see so many people struggling, you just want to help them with their careers,” Ha explained.

Higgs That tradition continued, with a notable twist. “When I got to the White Column,” he said, “the question for us as an organization was, what can we do that will make a difference?” The inclusion of both black and female artists was eventually on the radar of the cultural world. However, “it was abundantly clear to me that the work of artists with developmental disabilities was grossly underrepresented in the field of contemporary art. These were exceptional organizations such as creative development in oakland Visionary + Voices In Cincinnati, supporting exceptional communities of artists. But they didn’t have access to the same kind of networks that artists coming out of Yale’s or Columbia’s MFA programs might have. “

Enter the white column. Higgs has so far produced 25 solo shows by artists with developmental disabilities, including William Scott, which he noted was a work eventually acquired by the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art—14 years after its debut in the White Column. “Patience is a key factor here,” he quipped.

Young art school graduates not completely turned away: painter Esteban Jefferson There was an immediate sensation with his 2019 solo debut, an expanded version of his Colombia MFA thesis contrasting the Paris Museum’s African sculptures with the faces of its staff and their scandalous institutional setting. But Higgs also makes a point of spotlighting barely-seen old figures from David Byrd, who drew a chilling picture in the Westchester psychiatric ward where he worked for 30 years until 1988, ben moria, who created abstraction in 1964 before becoming better known as an art provocateur and political activist. Even other places have noticed: in 2010, the artist Margaret Lee Asked to put together a retrospective on Husky, the everything-but-kitchen-sink group shows it began staging in 2009 at its semi-legal 179 Canal location in Chinatown.

Lee said she was pleasantly shocked by her discussions with Higgs as she discovered the chaotic stretch of 179 canals within the White Column and recreating the messy energy. “He never said ‘I don’t like the aesthetics of it.’ It was more ‘I’m around if you want to talk, but you’re free. Just be responsible.'” Hence, echoing the antithesis of guidelines first introduced on Green Street decades ago by Jeffrey Lew – Do whatever you want, just don’t burn that place? “Actually,” Lee recalled awkwardly, “we almost lit the White Column. We wanted to keep the microwave on for 24 hours. Matthew said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You need a fake microwave’ .’ That’s where he drew the line!”

From the Archives: White Pillar and 112 Green Street / 112 Workshop – 1970-2021

until July 31 at the White Column, 91 Horatio Street, Manhattan; 212-924-4212; whitecolumns.org.

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