Colour Critique - Why the white cube is no longer white - Reflections #17

Issue no1
Feb - March 2021
Diaspora dialogen

How to understand the revival of coloured walls in recent exhibitions? Melanie Bühler takes us through the history of the white - and coloured - cube and puts the apparent end of chromophobia in context.

It’s remarkable that museums and gallery spaces of various kinds have recently presented themselves with coloured walls. I am thinking of such wide-ranging initiatives as the new colour concept for the Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, which sees the walls of the refurbished museum given colours based on Rembrandt’s colour palette; the current collection presentation at Boijmans Van Beuningen, where a colour gradient corresponds with the passage of time, going from brown hues for old masters through to bright white for the most recent art; the dazzling multi-coloured display of the Hockney exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum; and the pitch-black exhibition by Evan Ifekoya that was recently held at De Appel. Ever since we transformed the walls of the Frans Hals Museum for an exhibition that I recently curated (Noise! Frans Hals Otherwise), in which the colour of the walls changes from a faint yellow-green that is nearly white to a vibrant, saturated version of the colour as the exhibition progresses, I have been seeing colours everywhere. Is there indeed a heightened interest in colours? And if so, how can this be explained?

The meaning of colours

Let’s start by thinking about what colours might mean. The simplest, most immediate answer is: nothing. Colours only signify something by proxy, in recurrence to a reference point, an association, a thing that holds/has/stands for the colour in question. As Umberto Eco put it: “When one utters a colour term one is not directly pointing to a state of the world (process of reference), but, on the contrary, one is connecting or correlating that term with a cultural unit or concept.”[1] At the same time, colours have the potential to tap into that which Panofsky calls “primary meaning”: existential experiences that, in contrast to secondary layers of meaning, don’t need to be decoded by knowledge. This is the crux of why talking and writing about colours is so difficult: they are both primary and secondary, and are felt rather than understood, yet they trigger that which we carry with us, our associations, preconceptions, and stereotypes.

The colour white has long dominated the setting of contemporary art, to the extent that now, across the world, the mere presence of white walls is enough to signify an exhibition space for contemporary art. The white wall appears blank, free of inscription. Yet, as Brian O'Doherty wrote in 1976 in his seminal essay “Inside the White Cube”, it does make an ideological proposition precisely because of its generality. Its “neutral” and “universal” appearance eradicates any external context; the artwork is positioned as an autonomous entity. Questions of “why” and “how” are less likely to be asked within the normalized space created by white walls—a space that seems both unauthored and inevitable.

David Batchelor distinguishes between white as a colour, of which there are countless variations, and a generalized whiteness that is equated with purity. The latter might be thought of as the image of whiteness: the cultural unit that white has hardened into in the Western world. According to Batchelor, the privileging of whiteness is driven by a fear of colours: chromophobia. The white cube can be read as one of its symptoms, the persistence of the white antique marble figure as another (despite the fact that in antiquity the statues were brightly coloured, the statues continue to be exhibited as white). Colours, in the history of Western thought, have come to signify quite the opposite. For Goethe, a preference for bright colours was associated with “savaged nations, uneducated people and children,”[2] as well as “people of Southern Europe” and Southern European women in particular.[3] For Aristotle, colour was a pharmakon, a drug. “I kept myself going on coffee and alcohol,” writes Van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1899, “I admit all that, but all the same it is true that to attain the high yellow note that I attained last summer, I really had to be pretty well keyed up.”[4] According to these accounts, colours are dangerous, unruly. They belong to that which is other, beyond or not yet attuned to the norms of “civilised” society.

If done well, the introduction of a wider range of colours to the exhibition space can raise important questions about normativity by drawing attention to our habitual linking of contemporary art to the colour white

It is not surprising then that Alfred Barr elected white to be the colour for his newly opened Museum of Modern Art, the first museum exclusively dedicated to modern art. In New York at the time, modern art was perceived as feminine, with all the stereotypical associations that went along with that association.[5] Modern art was popularized through exhibitions held in spaces that were sparsely but tastefully decorated according to the latest trends in interior design, which increasingly was seen as a female domain. The language and framing employed by critics when the Whitney Museum opened in 1931 attested to this. After all, the museum had even been founded by a woman.[6] Barr wanted to steer away from this image by presenting modern art as a masculine project. As such, he used corporate language in the plans that he presented to his trustees and referred to the museum as a business. The new building that was created for the museum in 1939, with its business-like lobby and its clean white rooms, reflected this ambition. As Christoph Grunenberg writes, “The so-called ‘white cube’ … liberated modern art from its common association with decadence, insanity, sensuality and feminine frivolity; simultaneously, it revealed the inherent masculinity and authoritarian character of formalist aesthetics.”[7] Bourdieu taught us that the museum is a place where social distinctions are articulated. Barr was keenly aware of this and made his museum a space for the articulation of taste as a serious business, with the colour white as an important ambassador. From the 1950s on, white walls were de rigueur in Dutch contemporary museums, following the example of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Moreover, white walls became not only the standard for modern art exhibitions but were also employed in exhibitions of old masters. In the Dutch context, the Rijksmuseum and the Centraal Museum transformed their interiors accordingly, and the museums in Haarlem, Den Bosch and Dordrecht started to show their seventeenth-century art on white walls.

The colour comeback

This changed in the 80s and 90s, when there was a growing consensus that white walls were actually not ideally suited to the art of the seventeenth century. Concurrently, prominent exhibition makers and museum directors who worked with contemporary art, such as Harald Szeemann, Jan Hoet and Rudi Fuchs, stepped away from the white cube formula in a movement that emphasized the in situ aspect of presentations. Colours, however, were rarely part of these exhibition concepts. Rudi Fuchs is the exception here. He introduced a visual forward approach that tried to integrate the features of a given space’s architecture into the way he fashioned his exhibitions. As part of this approach, he did not shy away from colours. In 1990, when the Palais Lange Voorhout was made part of the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag, where Fuchs was the director, his only transformations were a new floor and a colour concept that saw each room given a new wall colour, ranging from pistachio green to deep red. During his 1987 renovation of the Gemeentemuseum, Fuchs had reinstalled the original coloured floors and had the walls repainted in warm colours. When he became the director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, he painted the white walls in soft pastel colours, alternating a peach shade of white with a blue-tinted white. Together with Fuchs’ approach of combining artworks from different time periods, this can be read as an applied response to the critique of the white cube in the 70s, and more specifically the linear art historical model that MoMA’s white cube stood for. However, it also served, first and foremost, to highlight the visual dimension of the artworks exhibited. To Fuchs, there was no contradiction between the more experiential setting and a serious atmosphere: taking in art, in his view, required long, silent and concentrated acts of looking. A quiet harmony was to be achieved by balancing colour, the works and the architecture. During his tenure at the Stedelijk, however, and one could perhaps argue that this correlates with the fact that his position became increasingly precarious, Fuchs’ use of wall colours seems to have gradually become less experimental: his farewell exhibition in 2003 was, for instance, installed in an entirely white setting.

Colours are felt rather than understood, yet they trigger that which we carry with us, our associations, preconceptions, and stereotypes

Exhibition overview Collectie als Tijdmachine, 2017, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, photo Lotte van Stekelenburg

Groninger Museum, Collection presentation, 1994. Photo John Stoel

At the same time, in the 90s, the Dutch museums dedicated to the art of the Golden Age moved away from white towards colours, following international examples such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery of Scotland and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Contrary to the field of contemporary art, where colour experiments have been a more incidental – even if recently a more frequent – phenomenon, this trend for coloured walls for exhibitions of old masters has been a lasting one. In the Dutch context, the argument goes that the darker hues of the paintings on display are better seen in these coloured environments, but I would argue that the use of colour goes beyond this and is indicative of a new attitude towards the public and the value of the exhibited artworks. In the mid-80s, the Dutch government shifted its cultural policy. “Quality” became the key principle; the social aspect of art, the responsibility to educate or enrich society, receded in the background. The didactic, focused seriousness of the white spaces that had positioned the museum as an “informant”[8] was given up in favour of environments that created luxurious stages for the art in question, either by going back to the museum buildings’ original, more ornamental, interior designs, or by creating saturated, colourful environments. As such, it was not only in the political setting that quality and money were bound together in new ways, but also in the exhibitions of the time.

Is chromophobia over?

Have we moved away then from the kind of distrust in colours that Batchelor calls chromophobia? If art has proven itself to be valuable, there is no reason to stay away from colours. When bright colours are present in big museum presentations, I would argue that the art usually stands on solid ground. It has accrued value already; its autonomy no longer needs to be proven. This correlation, by the way, was precisely what Frans Haks was trying to flip on its head when he came up with his uniquely colourful interior for the Groninger Museum in 1994: to destabilize prefabricated notions of what counts as art and what doesn’t, essentially blurring the lines between artworks, interior design and architecture. He wanted to confuse the visitor by not providing a space that already made its holdings out as valuable, autonomous art – which is what the white cube in the contemporary context does. Instead, he provided a visual playground of sorts in which the category of art was up in the air. One of the ways he hoped to achieve this was by painting the rooms in a number of bright colours derived from a palette developed by Peter Struycken. The colourful Hockney exhibition in the Van Gogh Museum, on the other hand, is a straightforward case in point for the colour follows validation argument. Whenever the Hockney exhibition was written about, the Dutch press was quick to mention—often even in the headline—that this was the art of the most expensive artist living today. Reassured by this qualification, the exhibition allowed itself to go all out; it presents itself as a chromatic explosion, with alternating yellow, orange, red, purple and green walls. And then, of course, there is the selfie, which should also be considered here: colours make for better photo ops.

Online culture

Around 2010, a number of online platforms emerged such as Contemporary Art Daily, Artsy and Art Viewer, along with various Tumblr and artist pages. From that moment on, the activity of looking at art was no longer something that could only take place in exhibition spaces but was something that could also happen online, in visually appealing curated environments using high quality photographs. The preferred backdrop for websites of this kind and the installation shots they showed was white. Moreover, the distinct features of the white cube are highlighted – the white becomes even whiter – in the documentation of exhibitions that circulate on these platforms, in part due to the brightening effect of backlit screens and in part by the way new image editing tools (Photoshop) are used.[9] Once again, the white cube formula was employed to introduce these artworks (and their new online setting of Web 2.0) as serious business.

It’s been almost 10 years since these developments. Museums have given up their no photograph policy, while concurrently a platform with an even more attractive pull has emerged with its own rules: in the age of Instragram, the selfie seems to crave different backdrops. Installations with mirrors (think of the Yayoi Kusama mirror rooms) and colourful walls have become the most photographed parts of museums and exhibitions. As Rob Horning has recently pointed out,[10] entire “museums” have sprung up, most famously the museum of Ice Cream, just to provide attractive, colourful backdrops for selfies. In a climate where the importance of visitor participation is emphasized and institutions are meanwhile under increasing pressure to produce measurable impacts, are colourful walls in museums simply an easy way to respond to both by creating attractive photo ops? Perhaps. But colours can do more: they are able to create immersive, bodily experiences in the physical exhibition space. This creates—if we stay with the marketing lingo—a “unique surplus” and an actual reason to visit a museum physically. There is more to it though: if done well, the introduction of a wider range of colours to the exhibition space can raise important questions about normativity by drawing attention to our habitual linking of contemporary art to the colour white.

Colour as a function of the critical?

For Julia Kristeva, colour is pulled from the unconscious into the symbolic order, speaking to a state before the self is formed in language, before the world is fully differentiated from the subject. It is here that preconceptions are formed and gut reactions felt. I would argue that it is precisely by taking this quality into account and integrating its effect into the exhibition concept that colours can be mobilized critically. In a most direct way, Patricia Kaersenhout, for instance, addressed the connotation of the colour white when she painted the exhibition walls at Witte de With black as a comment on the whiteness of the institution as part of the performance Wit heeft zwart nodig (2017). The group exhibition Because I Live Here at MMK in Frankfurt on racism in Germany used a matte dark grey throughout. To me, the mute grey came across as menacing yet dumb, oppressive but also of the everyday. As such, it translated the theme in a most effective and visceral way.

Colours have an endless possibility to signify. They seem to speak to the popular and are able to activate a selfie culture that strives for maximum visual impact. They are not a new phenomenon in the world of old masters and their more frequent appearance in a contemporary art setting has had its occasional precursors as well. My hope is that they can be used critically – to disturb rather than just to enhance, and to seduce perversely rather than just to envelop – and not only in the context of contemporary art but also when looking to our past: the Dutch “Golden” Age.


[1] Umberto Eco, “The Colors we See,” p.7. Downloaded from Reprinted after a shortened version of the original essay “How Culture Conditions the Colors We See” published in: Colour, edited by David Batchelor, Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, 1986.

[2] Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Theory of Colours, translated by Charles Lock Eastlake, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1967, p. 55.

[3] Goethe, Theory of Colours, p. 327.

[4] Van Gogh, letter 581, 24 Mar. 1889, Van Gogh, a Self Portrait: Lettres Revealing his Life as a Painter, trans. Pub. Ed. W.H. Auden (Greenwich, Conn, 1961). As cited in Michael Taussig, “What Color Is the Sacred?” Critical Inquiry, vol. 33, no. 1, 2006, p. 42.

[5] “One of the greatest barriers to the health developments of Art interest in America is unquestionably the fact that it has been so largely cultivated hitherto as an interest peculiar to women.” A. Packard. "A report on the development of the Museum of Modern Art", typescript, 1938, 88-89 as cited in Christoph Grunenberg, “The Politics of Presentation: The Museum of Modern Art, New York”, in Marcia Pointon (ed.), Art Apart: Art Institutions and Ideology Across England and North America, Manchester University Press 1994, p. 205.

[6] Charlotte Klonk, Spaces of Experience. Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000, Yale University Press 2009, p. 151.

[7] Christoph Grunenberg, The Politics of Presentation, Courtauld Institute of Art (Univeristy of London), p. 205.

[8] Jean Leering, “Het museum - instrument tot democratisch cultuurbeleid?,” in: Beleid & Maatschappij, Vol. 5, Nr. 6 (1978), p. 185.

[9] The role of Contemporary Art Daily and the properties of the installation shot have been brilliantly contextualized and theorized by the art historian Michael Sanchez: Michael Sanchez, "Contemporary Art, Daily" in: Isabelle Graw, Daniel Birnbaum, Nikolaus Hirsch, Art and Subjecthood (eds.), Sternberg Press, 2011.

[10] Rob Horning, "The Price of Shares" in: Even Magazine,

Melanie Bühler
is curator contemporary art, Frans Hals Museum Haarlem

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 1 — 2021