the artist as the white cube

Before digging deep in three very different articles, it is important to underline that this essay does not mean to make a direct relation of cause/effect amid O’Doherty’s ‘White Cube’; Krauss’s “Sculpture/Monument” concept, and Tucker’s PheNAUMANology themes; and it neither proposes a necessary historical link between them. The aim of this text is to find a connection amongst the main arguments presented in those articles and invite the reader to reflect on where contemporary institutions and artists stand today.   

In Inside the White Cube, Brian O’Doherty investigates what the context of the modern gallery does to the art object; to the viewing subject; and how the framework ultimately overcomes the object, and end up becoming content itself. He opens the third chapter of his book, Context as Content, with metaphors of different art movements with interior spaces particular to each time; until he finally arrives at the starting point of this whole book: the White Cube.

O’Doherty describes the modern gallery space as “constructed along laws as rigorous as those for building medieval church.” The basic principle behind these laws, he notes, is that “The outside world must no come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light… The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take in its own life’”. (Thomas McEvilley Introduction, NYC, 1986)

 In other words, the modern galleries dismissed all the luxury and pompous ornaments of past times and became, literally, white cubes. A building composed exclusive by white walls - and preferably with no windows. Although, compared to Renaissance and Baroque times, a place like this tends to evoke ‘simplicity’ and ‘humility’; in fact, it is nothing like it: 

“For many of us, the gallery space still gives off negative vibrations when we wander in. Esthetics are turned into a kind of social elitism – the gallery space is exclusive” (O’Doherty)

Despite being written on the 1970s, after 40 years, this perception of the white cubes still remains precisely true. And, maybe, as consequence of that, the image presented by contemporary is very much the same, as they are often perceived as being some ‘genius’, ‘touched by the hand of God’ in a religious or shamanic way.


Going back a few decades, in the late 1910s, Duchamp tried to break the ‘sacredness’ of art by questioning the concept ‘artwork’ by sending a standard urinal, laid flat on its back, signed ‘R. Mutt 1917’ to be exhibited in a group show organized by the Society of Independent Artists. Instantly, a scandal took place in the institutional system, and the board of directors rejected the artwork. In protest Duchamp, who was a member of the Board, resigned immediately.

A few years later, in 1938, Marcel shocked the art world again, by questioning, this time, not the artwork itself, but the context where it was presented:

“In one of those bad puns he loved, Duchamp turned the exhibition topsy-turvy and ‘stood you on your head.' The ceiling is the floor and the floor, to drive home the point, is the ceiling.”

In a group show on Galerie Beaux-Arts, Duchamp hanged 1,200 bags of coal in the roof and “this inversion was the first time an artist subsumed and entire gallery in a single gesture – and managed to do so while it was full of other art.”

In his article, O’Doherty puts the question on why did Duchamp ‘got away’ with doing 1,200 Bags of Coal. My guess is that it was because he was the first. People didn’t know how to react to such a disruption and, maybe, that was the reason that they went along with it:

“This inside-outside confusion is consistent with tilting the gallery on its axis. By exposing the effect of context on art, of the container on the contained, Duchamp recognizes an are of art that hadn’t yet been invented”

Years later, on 1971, when Daniel Buren attempted to do a similar thing on a group exhibition – to transform the museum’s architecture and the way that it functions by hanging a huge piece of striped cotton canvas on the rotunda of the Guggenheim–, the day before the opening, Buren was censored by fellow artists Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, arguing that he was ‘hiding’ their artworks.

As Buren questionings were more directed to the institutional’s system themselves, the ‘Duchampian’ examination of the context’s effects on art, and the issue of ‘the container on the contained’ had a direct involvement with the spectators.  As O’Doherty notes, with Mile of String (1942)

 “Every bit of space is marked. Duchamp develops the Modernist monad: the spectator in his gallery box” and “Boxing up the space (or spacing up the box is part of the central formal theme on Duchamp’s art: containment/inside/outside”

And, further:

“Duchamp keeps the spectator, whose presence is always voluntary, hung up on his own etiquette, thus preventing him/her from disapproving of his/her own harassment – a source of further annoyance. Hostility to the audience is one of the key coordinates of modernism, and artists may be classified according to its wit, style and depth.”

In other words, as O’Doherty sees it, one of the goals of modernist artists was to hostiles their spectator. But this seemingly sadistic pleasure ended up turning towards art itself. To most people, Art (with a capital A) was perceived as something elitist and incomprehensible; seeming as ‘high culture,' since it was made by few genius (artists), placed in a sacred temple (white cube), for the nobles (high class and connoisseurs) to appreciate it.

 In that scenario, there’s no place for the mere mortal to interact with those kinds of entities. The whole art world is closed, exclusive, guarded to a mystified high-cultured elite. O’Doherty ends this chapter by mentioning post-modernism attempts to break the superimposition of the white cube: 

With postmodernism, the gallery space is no longer ‘neutral’. The wall becomes a membrane through which esthetic and commercial values osmotically exchange. (…) Context provides a large part of late modern and postmodern art’s content. This is seventies art’s main issue, as well as its strength and weakness”

In Duchamp’s work, and more contemporary ones (like Buren’s, for example) the questioning about the context where the art was present; pieces joined “the outside world with the inside,” but the artist himself was nowhere to be seen. He was still secluded in his genius aura.

Then, when we move to Rosalind Krauss text, we encounter a changed art world.  Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Michael Heizer, Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and few others went a step further in questioning the context of the artwork.

 Krauss’s article discusses, mainly, the concept of ‘sculpture’ on what she calls ‘the expanded field, and how sculpture is a category that can be, nowadays, almost infinitely malleable:

“The historian/critic simply performed a more extended sleight-of-hand and began to construct his genealogies out of the data of millennia rather than decades. Stonehenge, the Nazca lines, the Toltec ball courts, Indian burial mounds – anything at all could be hauled into court to bear witness to this work’s connection to history and thereby to legitimize its status as sculpture.”

            To demystify this now vague term, Krauss compares it to the concept of monuments and, later, makes a diagram to elucidate the notions of not-landscape and not-architecture to draw the limits of modernist sculpture; and end up in the thinking in another term: complex - both landscape and architecture piece. To illustrate the word:


By 1970, with the Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State University, in Ohio, Robert Smithson had begun to occupy the complex axis, which for ease of reference I am calling site construction. In 1971 with the observatory he built in wood and sod in Holland, Robert Morris had joined him. Since that time, many other artists – Robert Irwing, Alice Aycock, John Mason, Michael Heizer, Mary Miss, Charles Sidmons – have operated within this new set of possibilities.


            Although this new conception of landscape and architectural art marks a critical shift in the way we perceive the context a work of art - by making the background as the content itself; and turning the outside (landscape/architecture) into the ‘inside’; the same issue found on modernism it’s still present: the absence of the artist.


            When, at last, we turn to Marcia Tucker PheNAUMANology, the cycle seems to finally close itself, as Bruce Nauman brings his insides, outside – to the public – and invites the viewer to do the same.


            While other artists shut the world off, were hostile to the spectators, and ‘ran to the mountains’ (in landscape and architectural art), Nauman works with the most real, straight-forward, possible material: his body.

Bruce Nauman finally opens his doors and windows, and let everybody in – changing the whole notion of artwork, context, artist, and viewer. He doesn’t exhibit a finished, neatly done, work of art; “he sees his art as more closely related to man’s nature than to the nature of art.” He promotes an experience with the viewer, inviting him to be the actor:

 By dealing with the ways things are experienced instead of how they are made or perceived, the intent of the work is realized only through the physical involvement of the spectator.

Although Nauman’s relationship with the audience may be considered ‘hostile’ in O’Doherty’s logic- as it “expresses itself through physical discomfort (radical theater), excessive noise (music) or by removing perceptual constants (the gallery space)” - it cannot be matched to other raging avant-garde artists acts.  


Nauman’s works are too concerned with the bodily experience and centered in his corporeal perceptions to be that aggressive towards another body. Yes, he intends to cause psychological emotions on his audience – but his primary goal is to let them experience these physic experiences in their way, and not trying to ‘impose’ anything. And, also

This concern with physical self is not simple artistic egocentrism, but use of the body to transform intimate subjectivity into objective demonstration. Man is the perceiver and the perceived; he acts and is acted upon; he is the sensor and the sensed.

With this last quote, by Marcia Tucker, we close the cycle of context as content, finally bringing together the artist, the viewers, and institutions:

If what we know of the world is the sum of our perceptions, and our physical, emotional, and intellectual reactions to our environment, then to effectively manipulate these factors is to effect a virtual change in the world.