You’ve heard of the White Cube. No, not that London gallery, the idea: that art thrives best in a blank white box, removed from any context and given its own domain of pure space to dominate as the work and the artist see fit. Well, Sperone Westwater‘s new gallery space on the Lower East Side, an attenuated tower on the same stretch that hosts the New Museum, stakes a claim for the white castle instead of the white cube. Designed by Norman Foster, this gallery is as much a power play for the LES as for Sperone Westwater. The space, currently showcasing a Bruce Nauman solo exhibition, is like Chelsea minimalism gone mannerist, clean low-key gallery spaces turned into a show-off-y art fortress.
Perched on a thin slice of property, the first thing to greet visitors to the gallery is a jet-black facade decked out with metallic highlights and a nice shiny nameplate that belies the small scale of the space. The effect is more mall clothing store kitsch than classy establishment though; think a suburban Hollister with more attitude than street cred. It screams LOOK, I’M COOL!!! as you pass through the well-disguised doors into an antechamber fit for a dance club. The bouncers gallerinas and -os look on balefully while you struggle with the second set of doors into the art space.
Then it all just gets weirder, and that’s an accomplishment. Sperone Westwater’s first actual gallery is like Miami narchitecture: a vertically oriented space cut at mid-height by a curved balcony with a glass barrier on the free-floating side. The curve is bizarre. I have no real points of reference for its cheap-but-expensive look besides Connecticut McMansions. The balcony also gives way to the first view of art: in this exhibition, a ginormous pair of Bruce Nauman videos showing the artist demonstrating different combinations of extended and lowered fingers, like a secret code spoken in gestures rather than morse code. The sheer verticality does not make for an easy space for art to exist in, but the Bruce Nauman videos do it well. I just don’t know how other artists will stand up.
At the end of the first gallery you have a choice on how you might go proceed. The stairs are right there, but why take the stairs when you can take the fanciest elevator ever!? Much has been made of the moving elevator-cum-gallery that inhabits the glass facade of Sperone Westwater’s building. On paper, it sounds cool: an otherwise dead space turned into a host for art. Unfortunately, it falls totally flat in practice. Yeah, it’s a big elevator that moves slow enough for riders to look at something for a few minutes. Currently there are a trio of chairs and a Nauman sound installation inside. The sound installation is neat, but I can’t see a painting even surviving: elevators aren’t contemplative spaces, they’re imbued with the anxiousness of departing and arriving, and despite the compartment’s glacial speed, it’s not enough time to digest anything. The transience just doesn’t suit sustained contemplation for me.
The upper galleries encountered after exiting the elevator are pretty humdrum. Ken Johnson called them “intimate,” and there is a coziness factor that’s the up side of a lack of space. Though there’s nothing on the walls currently (another sound installation) it seems like it would be difficult to back up enough to get a good view of anything on the walls. Out the back window is a view of some parking lots and scattered trees, plus a porch with a Richard Long stone circle below (the gallery represents the artist).
Granted, the gallery only opened its new space recently and there hasn’t been enough time for the programming to catch up with the architecture. But the architecture is WEIRD! And not in a surprising, good way! It feels sort of like a gallery trying to be its own museum, and even though Gagosian mounts museum shows, the gallery doesn’t display the same arrogance. Maybe it’s the multiple floors that extend every upward into private showing space? Maybe it’s the whiff of dance floor drum and bass music. I’m looking forward to seeing how artists make use of the funky space, but in the meantime this white castle doesn’t look like anything but a status symbol.
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