MEASURE AND IRREGULARITY: RETHINKING THE WHITE CUBE
David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles deconstructs the standard “white cube” gallery model, reimagining the relationship between art and the viewer.
As you drive down La Brea Avenue, with its quick-change billboards and remnants of Googie architecture, David Kordansky Gallery immediately distinguishes itself as a clear composition of minimalist forms. The ivy-clad walls enclose what was formerly a martial arts center, a framer’s, and an auto-body repair shop – now transformed into a series of gallery spaces surrounding an inner courtyard of cacti, sculpture, and succulents.
Instead of entering the building directly from the street, visitors cross the threshold to an exterior space characterized by spiny yuccas and quizzical works of sculpture. Evan Holloway’s anarchic column of clown-like heads is the first challenge to the measured control of a typical art-viewing environment, and any expectation of a standard “white cube” gallery is dissolved as soon as the visitor enters the building. In the entrance hall, angular knife-cut soffits reveal the structural elements of the roof – a recognition of the building’s many former lives – and expansive skylights allow light to flood into the main viewing rooms.
By perforating the spaces and creating a constant interplay between inside and out, the design of the gallery deconstructs the “white cube” model of neutral white walls, regular oblong spaces, and artificial lighting. Developed in the early 20th century as a way of highlighting the primacy of the art on display, the premise for the white cube isn’t entirely misguided: the emphasis on neutrality ensures that the architecture doesn’t distract from the viewing experience, and the elimination of external influences creates a focused environment for contemplation. However, as Brian O’Doherty famously argued in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976), this approach dislocates the viewer from the outside world – artworks appear to float in an air-locked space, divorced from the context of their making and the errors and accumulations of daily life. An artwork becomes something sacred and detached, a phenomenon to be inspected like a laboratory specimen rather than engaged with, questioned, and related back to the life of the viewer.
The white-walled, minimalist interiors of David Kordansky Gallery are designed for the artworks to take center stage. However, by placing a greater emphasis on the wellbeing of the viewer, the rules of the white cube are loosened to allow for a more expansive experience.
Central to the design approach is an attention to proportion and natural light – qualities of the building which particularly struck the artist Mary Weatherford when she first exhibited in the spaces (prompting the collaboration to design her studio, which we’ll be revealing later this year). Artists, more than anyone, understand that humans are heliotropic; like plants, we incline towards the light – it changes our mood, the quality of our perception, and makes us aware of the passing of time. Proportion, meanwhile, connects us back to our body. From the classical orders onwards, the human form has always been the model for architecture; we still use the word “foot” as a unit of measurement and the French word for an inch, “pouce,” literally translates to “thumb.”
In the main gallery, it was important to equalize the proportions of the two primary viewing spaces so that highly different exhibitions could be shown simultaneously without appearing to prioritize one over the other. However, certain aspects of irregularity are maintained; the exposed bow-truss beams mean that the parallel walls have slightly different heights, subtly destabilizing the dynamics, and fluctuating light enters through the shared skylight which cuts across the dividing wall. This play of symmetry and irregularity is further emphasized by the unusual triangular viewing room which celebrates the tectonics of the original building; the triangular room shares the same treatment as the entrance hall, prompting implicit connections as the visitor moves through the spaces.
On leaving the main building and walking down the terraced steps to the courtyard, the visitor is invited into two smaller viewing rooms with a wholly different atmosphere. Whereas the light quality of the large-scale main gallery is direct and unfiltered, the dimensions of the smaller spaces require a greater sense of intimacy and softness. The linear central skylights are set apart from the ceiling at a distance of over 8ft, creating a “mixing chamber” which diffuses and filters the light before it enters the viewing space. The quality of light corresponds to the spatial qualities of the viewing rooms themselves, with their gently coved ceilings and human-scale proportions. Whereas the first viewing room is modelled on the golden ratio (the proportions considered most pleasing to the eye and the body), the long narrow room is based on a series of perfect cubes; each corner becomes a curve as it meets the ceiling, enveloping the viewer in diffused light and soft shadow.
To step outside the viewing rooms into the central courtyard is to enter another type of mixing chamber – an open space where visitors can mingle and allow the combined impressions of each gallery to settle into a singular experience. Native planting creates an environment which is simultaneously Californian and yet somehow otherworldly; Will Boone’s sculpture The Three Fates and Ruby Neri’s voluptuous life-size figures add a further touch of the surreal.
This sense of doubleness – the coexistence of minimalist measure and momentary irregularity – might be described as a wholly human way of engaging with what we make: an approach which celebrates creativity without sanctifying it. By dismantling the logic of the white cube and allowing for a diversity of experience, art is relocated at the center of life: a way of relating to the order and chaos which shape our days.