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From the Archives: 40 Years/40 Projects, at White Columns, New York

Willoughby Sharp, Inside-Out, at 112 Greene Street, 1974

White Columns, the venerable downtown New York alternative arts space, celebrates its fortieth birthday this year. A retrospective exhibition, organized by Matthew Higgs and Amie Scally, the current WC director and curator, provides a necessary historical overview of its various SoHo and West Village addresses, and of the hundreds of projects and thousands of artists that have passed through its doors. From the Archives: 40 Years/40 Projects continues through February 28, 2009.

Forty years, one show from each year, is a good structure. Like any retrospective, there is a high nostalgia quotient for those who viewed the particular exhibitions when they were first mounted at 112 Greene, 325 Spring, the two Christopher Street locations or the current West 13th Street address of White Columns.

The show is decidedly archival and historical. There is some actual work - by Frank Majore, Lutz Bacher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cheryl Donegan, John Stezaker, Kathe Burkhart, Lovett/Codagnone - but mostly we find documentation of the events: press releases, invitation cards, exhibition checklists, installation photography, typed artists' statements and letters, posters, catalogs, brochures, slides, videos, photos from the openings, a short grainy film, clippings of reviews from various magazines and newspapers (some no longer being published - another lesson in ephemerality).

Installation view, White Columns, 2009

This funky, low budget presentation is appropriate to the funky, low budget status of the alternative space. In our present moment of financial uncertainty, with many galleries and museums closing and everyone wondering about continued commercial viability, this sort of show provides (a) a model for low cost exhibition, privileging grainy xeroxes, b/w photos and accumulated materials taken from deep storage in flat files and cabinets, over expensive artwork, (b) a survey of how other generations of artists dealt with previous economic downturns, and (c) a lesson in alternative art spaces as keepers of the flame, true believers who work closely with the artists on their "projects", without the expectation or reward of sales.

Which brings me to artist Jeffrey Lew, who is rightfully acknowledged in the 40 Years exhibition as the grandfather of the entire enterprise. The show is introduced by a two page interview with him, mounted on the wall, and photos of him (with Willoughby Sharp and others) appear in a nearby vitrine. Lew bought the 112 Greene Street building and founded the ground floor space as a truly experimental venue with "no administration" and an open door policy of exhibition.

Jeffrey Lew

I called Lew the other day. He is currently living in South Florida, an original player in the rejuvenation of Miami Beach, and is still drawing, painting and sculpting, an amiable pirate/artist. When I congratulated him on the exhibition and review, he indicated he was aware of neither. Computers and the internet are not a big part of his life, so he will probably never read these words online. But I believe he will be buying the February 16, 2009 issue of New York Magazine at the newsstand. It contains Jerry Saltz's review of the show.

My first experience of White Columns was at its second incarnation, at 325 Spring, under the aegis of Josh Baer. I missed the earliest days. So at the risk of angering Saltz with an "annoying glorification of the so-called greatest generation", Lew's recollections are evocative of a particular moment, hanging out with Gordon Matta-Clark, Alan Saret and Richard Nonas, watching Jene Highstein punch holes in the wall to install a transverse pipe that changed the axis of the exhibition space.

Gordon Matta-Clark at 112 Greene

But apparently it was not the physical destruction or transformation of his building that alienated Lew as much as the creeping grim professionalism of administrative committees and debate club protocols that began to govern the 112 Greene experience once they sought to win government grants. Lew could understand physical challenges to the space, but could not abide non-profit politics, filling out forms in triplicate, and all the other bureaucratic paraphernalia. It did not sit well with his anarchistic temperament. So he eventually divorced himself from the enterprise; or rather, since it was his building, he told them to take a walk.

My point in this brief account (admittedly based on hearsay and subject to revision) is that art spaces have not only changed physically, as Saltz indicates, "from looking like Beaux Arts salons to simple storefronts to industrial lofts to the gleaming giant white cubes of Chelsea with their shiny concrete floors". They have also progressed administratively, perhaps not always for the better.

White Columns remains one of our best non-profit institutions, free form and inclusive, but is certainly no longer the original socialist/syndicalist experiment as envisioned by Lew and Matta-Clark, when the space was run by artists and seemingly anyone could walk in and have a show. With our current burgeoning infrastructure of arts education, replete with mass-produced MFAs and arts administrators with business degrees, with the steely veneer of a professional class that eagerly imposes an industry standard (from august museums down to the street corner alternative space), and with the musical chair careerism of curators and administrators moving up the pecking order of institutional appointments, perhaps it is silly to imagine that we can recapitulate the naive but heady exhilaration of the original 112 Greene Street, the original White Columns.