London's White Cube shows 'fresh and new' art at first New York gallery
As she prepared the inaugural group show for White Cube gallery's first permanent U.S. exhibition space, Courtney Willis Blair found herself listening to a lot of chopped and screwed music.
Songs are remixed and slowed down in this technique pioneered by the late hip hop star DJ Screw in 1990s Houston. And it's with the same experimental vein that the gallery presents work, much of it new, by artists including Canadian sculptor David Altmejd, British painter Michael Armitage and American painter Julie Mehretu.
"It's important that what we do bring to New York is something that is fresh and new, and that we're able to carve a space out for ourselves, not only in the work that we show, but also the dialogue and the conversations that we're able to have," Willis Blair told NPR's Morning Edition ahead of Tuesday's opening.
"We are absolutely artist-focused... And to be able to present not only a space, but also the context in which their work is shown and discussed, and the scholarship around their work, is a particularly important responsibility that we have."
Built for the Fulton Trust Company in 1930, the brick bank building has been gutted to make room for some 8,000 square feet of gallery space on three floors. Two of the levels get the kind of natural light that would make it the envy of competitors. The Frick Madison, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R Guggenheim museum are all a short walk away.
"We're here on Madison (Avenue) in the kind of sweet spot between the museums and the galleries. And it's very, very exciting for us. It's a long time coming," said global artistic director Susan May. "White Cube New York is going to be really critical to the next stage of our story."
When Jay Jopling founded White Cube 30 years ago, it was just a tiny room tucked on Duke Street in a part of central London — which is home to many traditional fine art dealers. He helped launch the careers of a group of irreverent artists like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas who collectively became known as the Young British Artists and ultimately dominated the London art scene in the 1990s.
Hirst incorporates dead animals and insects in his practice. Emin — who will get her first solo show in New York in seven years opening at White Cube in November — was the "enfant terrible" who created confessional works. While Lucas used found objects to create visual puns. And there are many more.
The gallery branched out and hosted the first exhibitions in the United Kingdom for some of today's leading artists like American painter Julie Mehretu, Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. Today, White Cube represents more than 60 international artists and artist estates at various London exhibition spaces, as well as in Paris, Hong Kong and Seoul. Its Bermondsey site, which opened in 2011 in southeast London, is Europe's largest commercial gallery space.
The gallery has had temporary outposts in Aspen and West Palm Beach. But the New York space is its first permanent U.S. location.
While the gallery's rapid growth is enough to get your head spinning, May says White Cube has remained steadfast in its guiding mantra: "Bringing art that makes the contemporary historic. So showing the kind of art history of the future with artists that are making work today, but also making the historic contemporary."
Philadelphia-based conceptual artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden — making her White Cube debut in New York — does just that in "The Lover, off the road (after Barbara)" (1972-2021). A BMW R75/5 motorcycle drained of its fluids commands the main floor of the gallery.
It's a nod to feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer, who rode out on the same model when she left her husband and came out as a lesbian. The bike here is chromed and plated out, the seat polished and the whole thing bathed in honey, white flowers and a substance known as efun made here of ground eggshells that reference McClodden's Afro-Cuban Santeria religion.
"This masculine sort of confrontational object has this really beautiful, poetic, tender even, story. It's really sort of a love letter, an offering for Barbara," Willis Blair explained.
Artists are often canaries in the gold mine, signaling and reflecting changes and developments in society. White Cube's show reflects on some of the fissures in American life as well, which quickly becomes political in pieces like Theaster Gates's "Civil Color Spectrum" (2023).
Flattened decommissioned fire hoses form a thick canvas nine feet wide by seven feet tall, shifting from maroon and red to orange and yellow. They are stamped with serial numbers. The piece references the1963 anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama where local police and fire departments used force, including high-pressure hoses, on civilians.
"He's rendered this tool of violence sort of useless, but also points to this really powerful moment in our history," Willis Blair said. White Cube will present a solo show of work by Gates starting in January.
Among the younger crop of artists represented in the show is Ilana Savdie, 37, who grew up between Barranquilla, Colombia and Miami, Florida — influences that mark her practice. Her drawings shown here serve as templates for some of her vibrantly colored paintings — like those currently on view at the Whitney. Neither completely figurative nor completely abstract, the works hint at peaks and valleys, teeth or breasts.
"It meant the world to me to have a gallery like White Cube with the history that White Cube has to be invested in what I had to say, to offer me a platform to say it in the way that I wanted to say it without limiting my voice," she said.
"To be shown within that context as a sort of peer of that art history allows you as an artist to contribute your voice to that history of art."
Savdie spoke at the gallery's launch party at the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion just off Central Park. There was a whiff of swinging 60s London in the event's Gilded Age decor. The glitterati of the art, music and fashion worlds sipped on cocktails and munched on petits fours while bouncing to tunes by singer Kelela with jazz pianist Jason Moran, the Sun Ra Arkestra or hip hop great DJ Jazzy Jay. Gallerists and museum leaders rubbed shoulders with designers Michèle Lamy, Ralph Pucci, Cynthia Rowley and Zaldy. Artists from far and wide reveled alongside Dianne Brill — who Andy Warhol once dubbed "Queen of the Night."
Walking into White Cube New York, which sits next to the Italian trattoria Sant Ambroeus, the average visitor should expect to be "transformed," Willis Blair said.
"They should expect to see some of the greatest voices right now in terms of art and art history, relevant conversations about everything from philosophy to politics to religion to form, color, space, time," she added.
The radio version for this story was edited by Jacob Conrad and produced by Milton Guevara. The digital story was edited by Treye Green.
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