The White Cube

The public art galleries/museums that we’re so fond of and used to today only began to emerge throughout the eighteenth century and showcased the personal collection of owners. The British Museum (1757) and the Lourve (1793) are galleries which mark this occasion. The galleries were grand, yet the artworks themselves overwhelmed the space; each gallery held an arrangement of artworks that were densely packed onto the walls from floor to ceiling. Art connoisseurs of the time believed that this curation allowed for better comparison of styles and movements and were heavily inspired by the curation of Paris Salons where the close proximity of artworks created a constant fight for space on the wall and individual attention to artworks.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the public had become fascinated by museums, with many galleries occupancy rising to over a million visitors by the 1870s. Now, not only were the galleries overcrowded by the mass of artworks on the walls, but also by the crowds of people who came to visit the artworks. Visitors were forced to crane their neck or kneel down low in order to see all the artworks provided, which began causing anger and frustration from said visitors. Due to this issue, galleries began to realise that their walls should not be filled with artworks, resulting in the introduction of placing a single row of artworks at eye-level.

“It was recognised the crowded walls hampered proper appreciation of individual works of art…the general mental state produced by such vast displays was one of perplexity and vagueness, together with some impression of sore feet and aching heads.” – William Stanley Jevons

The National Gallery in London was one of the first museums to hang their artworks at eye-level in the mid-nineteenth century. Though this fixed the issue, it also meant that the walls of the space were suddenly empty, and it’s colour scheme and decorative beauty became significantly more important to the overall experience of the exhibition. The earlier greyish-green was first replaced by a rich red shade chosen from the latest sensory physiology research that dictated, in conjunction to the bright gold frames and the cool colours that predominated painting of the time, would result in a harmonious visual experience.

Fast forward to the early twentieth century, and another shift to a galleries colour scheme occurred. In response to the artistic communities increasing abstraction, curatorial staff decided that a more minimalist approach to decorating might heighten the response to the artworks featured. By minimizing the distractions available to viewers, galleries were able to dramatize the light and colour of a room so that artists – primarily those of the De Stijl and Bauhaus movements – could emphasize their artworks significantly more than ever before. Although the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is credited with institutionalizing the aesthetic in the 1930s, the evolution of the White Cube dates back well before, and MoMA simply represents the culmination of a long stretch of experimentation and debate spanning continents and centuries.

Characterized by a square or oblong shape, white walls, and an overhead light source and acted to provide the ‘right environment’ for the art being exhibited as it was likened to the borders of a photograph. This newfound aesthetic was coined as the “White Cube” by Brian O’Doherty in a series of essays in Artforum magazine (1976). These essays were later published as a book titled “Inside the White Cube.” In these essays, O’Doherty confronted the modernist’s obsession with the aesthetic that, in his opinion, began making any object within the cube sacred, and therefore, hindering them and making the reading of art problematic. Not only did this term stick, but the essays struck a nerve in society; the magazine and his book flew off of shelves and created a wave of response that shocked him.

The White Cube theory was developed to make museum visitors focus on the artwork itself without the distraction of a plethora of other works hanging closely around it. The White Cube is used to ensure the ideal environment for the presentation of art: white, undecorated walls, hidden sources of artificial light, polished wooden floors or homogeneous carpet; a clean and discrete environment that would help to reinforce the abstraction of space and the decontextualization that had previously characterized gallery and museum spaces. The clean layout of these spaces allows for a detachment of the art from the outside world, and ensures a timeless isolation of art.

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