White cube is an emblematic gallery and exhibition space, as well an ideological field surrounding, of western modernism. The white cube is to ensure the presupposed ideal environment for the presentation of artworks: white, undecorated walls, hidden sources of artificial light, polished wooden floor or homogenous carpet; a clean and discreet environment to reinforce the abstraction of space and the decontextualization traditionally present museum and gallery spaces. In order to make the “essence of art” visible, and to ensure a kind of timelessness and sacrality to infiltrate the encounter with the isolated works of art, they are detached from the outside reality, their historical, economic, and social context.

The white cube is not only a physical space but also a historical and, moreover, an ideological construct, which is not separable from the artworks shown in it. It emphasizes the formal qualities of the pieces but precisely because it attempts to withdraw itself, it also dominates the works. [1] The earliest and most influential example of the white cube is the Museum of Modern Art in New York, founded in 1929, which—in accordance with the expansion of Abstract art—has standardized the white cube internationally as “the” essential form of the 20th-century museum and gallery space  [2] (~exhibition display). The ideological field surrounding the white cube belongs as much to modernism as to the market-relations of art. Thus, distancing the two seems both an aspiration and an almost impossible task to fulfill, which keeps the white cube in a love-and-hate position.

In his influential and engaging essay, Inside the White Cube, installation artist and critic, Brian O’Doherty provides an extensive and provocative analysis of the history and mode of operation of the white cube. Using a rich, often sarcastic language, he unfolds the layers of time, interests, and intentions condensed in the white gallery space. “We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first.” [3] – states Doherty. Through the analysis of the rise of the easel picture as the metaphor of framed and established limits, spanning through the history of framing and hanging, flatness and objecthood, as well as the autonomy of the wall, the author tendentiously dismantles the myth of neutrality of the gallery space. In the meantime, he also reaches his own presence, the mid-1970s, when the context of art became the content itself. (~interpretation ~discursivity ~new museology). In the narrative spanning from the space that is considered to be context-neutral, to the proliferation of contexts, at times, the white cube seems rather an excuse to articulate a long and painful farewell to modernism.

The challenging of the very essence of the white cube goes back to the late 1960s, with the expansion of institutional critique, when artists started to unveil the hidden interests and mechanisms of institutions. (~ interpretation ~new museology). Art interventions unfolded the white cube’s ideological character, political commitments, intervened into its physical integrity, or simply left it for more flexible forms of presentation. Concurrently, when spatial and social critique interfered with each other, the gallery space also became a field of confrontations. The first wave of institutional critique, the conceptual thinking of minimalism, and conceptualism itself contributed to the new form of site-specificity that “implicitly challenged the ‘innocence' of space and the accompanying presumption of a universal viewing subject.” [4] The shift from a physical and spatial assumption of site to an extended, contextual one, reflecting the social and political radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, also considers the white cube representative of a normative exhibition convention, serving an ideological function of controlling and reproducing hierarchies of values. (~interpretation).Nonetheless, the white cube is a phenomenon typical of Western European and US culture. In Central-Eastern Europe, not even the spaces formally analogous to it were framed with this kind of ideologically loaded, context-shaping concept of space, which would have made the white cube a privileged site of representation.

The attention turned towards the operation and the requirements of the white cube, inherently elicited the reconsideration of the visitor’s role and his/her physical presence. As the space itself and the display of artworks  (~exhibition display) contributes to the construction of certain types of public, the critique of the white cube freed the visitors (the “disembodied eye” [5]) and opened up the perspective of a more active and self-reflective role of the participant (~participation ~collabiration ~educational turn ~curatorial).

Theoretical thinking on the spaces of art, often operating with metaphors, soon created the pair of the white cube, the black box. [6] The emergence of new media art in the 1960s introduced film-and video screening, as well as installation in the gallery space, which required a dark, often isolated environment—a black box—in order to ensure proper screening conditions and to host a group of visitors. The black box evoked the atmosphere of the cinema in the white cube, which likewise presented art works isolated, detached from outer reality. Yet, the spectacle invoked by it—the cinema—meant just the opposite of high art that had found its place in the white cube.

The white cube has lost its exclusivity in presenting contemporary art long before—its alternatives have ranged from the artists’ studios opened for the public, through industrial buildings converted into exhibition halls, and public space, to various nomadic forms of displaying art. (~discursivity ~educational turn ~collaboration ~participation ~performativity). Still, it has remained a dominant form of modern and contemporary art museums, galleries, and art fairs. The most profound transformations have affected rather its critical reception than the form itself. The radical critiques of the white cube, however, are still components of its own history. The exhibition space often integrated critical approaches into its own functioning, which occasionally led to a more self-reflective mode of operation, which formed ever-newer chapters of the white cube’s reinterpretation.


Nikolett Erőss


References and Further Readings


Filipovic, Elena
2005. The Global White Cube. In Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic eds. The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe.Brussels, Roomade, Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 63-84.

Kwon, Miwon
2004 (2002) One Place AfterAnother: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge MA, London, MIT Press

Manovich, Lev
2005 Black Box - White Cube. Berlin, Merve Verlag (német nyelvű)

O’Doherty, Brian
1999. (1976) Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Expanded edition. Berkely, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press; 

Ratcliff, Carter
2000 Out of the Box. The Reinvention of Art 1965 – 1975. New York, Allworth Press

Sheikh, Simon
2009 Positively White Cube Revisited. e-flux journal 3/2009. e-flux.com. E-flux. Web. 2013. jan. 12. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/positively-white-cube-revisited/

Staiszewski, Mary Anne
1998 The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge Mass, MIT Press



[1] Brian O’Doherty 1999 (1976) Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space.Expanded edition. Berkely, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press;

[2] Mary Anne Staiszewski 1998 The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge Mass, MIT Press

[3] Brian O’Doherty, Ibid.

[4] Miwon Kwon 2004 (2002) One Place AfterAnother: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge MA, London, MIT Press

[5] Brian O’Doherty, Ibid.

[6] Lev Manovich 2005 Black Box - White Cube. Berlin, Merve Verlag