Paul Laster: New York’s White Columns Turns the Big 4-0


White Columns curator Amie Scally with a Jonathan Borofsky work on paper

White Columns, New York’s oldest alternative art space, celebrated its birthday on Tuesday, January 13th, with the opening of 40 Years/40 Projects. A large crowd of supporters came out to drink a bottle of Grolsch or toast a glass of sparkling water in the edgy institution’s honor.

Director Matthew Higgs and curator Amie Scally organized an exhibition of art and ephemera — including proposals, invitations, checklists, installation shots, catalogues, and reviews — from each of the 40 years. The show is arranged chronologically with one project for each year. Besides serving as a history of White Columns, it presents an overview of artistic styles from the period.

The show begins with a vintage photo of 112 Greene Street, where the organization that would later become known as White Columns got its start. The first show presented is the 1970 Inaugural group show, which is represented by installation photos and a New York Times review by art critic Peter Scheldahl, who dubbed the space, “The oddest showplace in town.”

William Wegman’s sound project World History, where people in the street tell the history of the world as remembered from their seventh grade history classes, represents 1976 in the form of an audio disk that can be listened to on headphones. A Lesbian Show, organized by Harmony Hammond, is the 1978 pick, with a vitrine filled with statements by the artists, vintage color Xeroxes, a schedule of events, and a telegram announcing the show’s nomination for an award.

By the time of the 1980 show, White Columns had moved to Spring Street. Graffiti art was just gaining an audience when Lee Quinones and Fred “Fab Five Freddy” Brathwaite sprayed a massive mural that commanded the whole main space. That was the first show I saw at the gallery; and it was impressive! A vintage color Xerox installation view, the press release, and a foldout invitation are part of this exhibition.

Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon’s show is the pick for 1981; and Neil Jenney designed baseball hat for the NY Mets is part of the 1982 selection; and John Currin’s White Room show, which took place in the then new Christopher Street location, is the 1989 choice. Fred Wilson’s installation The Other Museum, with the invite, slides of the installation — viewable on a light-box — a B/W installation view, and reviews is the 1990 pick; What I Did Over My Summer Vacation, which presents disposable 35mm cameras and scrapbooks of images by 103 art world players of the day represents 1996; and curator Catherine Morris’s show that revisited the famous 1970’s artist-run, bohemian Soho restaurant Food holds down 1998.

The new millennium has its own standouts. Four of Aida Ruilova’s frenetic videos are on view from 2000; Catherine Morris and Ingrid Schaffner’s comprehensive look back at feminist art is amply covered in another vitrine; self-taught artist Aurie Ramirez from the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, CA has a drawing on display from her groundbreaking 2005 show; and 2008 is repped by critic Vince Aletti’s Disco Files, a compilation of his 1970s column on disco music that was originally published in Record World magazine and was part of his White Columns show Male.

The mix of ephemera and artworks — including a seductive Frank Majore photo of Blue Martinis from 1985, a whimsical Jack Pierson painting of the Lucky Strike logo from 1986, and the iconic Felix Gonzalez-Torres 1987-90 multiple of matching wall clocks, Untitled (Perfect Lovers) — is powerful. All in all, the show is a treat!

– Paul Laster

Gallerist Carol Greene and Bard Center for Curatorial Studies director Tom Eccles

Artists David Clarkson and Nicholas Rule with gallerist Ingrid Dinter

Artscribe Ghurron Briscoe

Artist and independent curator Nina Bovasso

PERFORMA director RoseLee Goldberg with works by Lutz Bacher

New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl and White Columns director Matthew Higgs