We Go Way Back: White Cube

This new series profiles the galleries that have been at Frieze London since day one in 2003: the foundations on which two decades of the fair have been built

in Frieze London & Frieze Masters | 21 AUG 23

It’s hard to imagine a London – or an art world – without White Cube. Through its various locations over the years, it has become a cornerstone of the city’s shared cultural experience, with a roster of the kind of canonical artists who have defined the very idea of art in the twenty-first century. It has been part of Frieze London every year since 2003.

Georgina Wimbush, Director at White Cube, explains the gallery’s journey and its two-decade relationship with Frieze London.  

Can you outline the story of White Cube in London?

Georgina Wimbush: Jay Jopling opened the first White Cube gallery on Duke Street in 1993. The space was a mere four-metre square but it was located on a traditional art-dealing street and very quickly began to play an important role in London’s development as a global hub for contemporary art. We presented 75 shows by 75 artists between 1993 and 2001.

This space presented the first UK solo exhibitions by artists including Tracey Emin (1993), Hiroshi Sugimoto (1993), Doris Salcedo (1995) and Julie Mehretu (2002), alongside shows by established figures such as Richard Prince (1997), Lucian Freud (2000) and Ellsworth Kelly (2001).

Anselm Kiefer, ‘Finnegans Wake’, White Cube Bermondsey, 7 June–20 August 2023. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © White Cube / Theo Christelis
Anselm Kiefer, ‘Finnegans Wake’, White Cube Bermondsey, 7 June–20 August 2023. © Anselm Kiefer. Photo © White Cube / Theo Christelis

White Cube Hoxton Square opened in 2000 and quickly became a destination for an international audience. Over the following decade, White Cube was instrumental in the regeneration of that part of the city.

In 2001, White Cube and Bloomberg supported ‘fig-1’, a series of 50 projects across 50 weeks in Soho.

In 2006, we opened White Cube Mason’s Yard in the heart of St James’s, which was the first free-standing structure to be built in the area for more than 30 years – something that I know that Jay is very proud about to this day.

Our Bermondsey gallery opened in 2011 close to Tate Modern. At the time, at approximately 58,000sq feet or 1.3 acres, it was the largest commercial space in Europe and became a top cultural destination in London. We have welcomed well over 1 million visitors since opening – our hope with this space is that it is used not simply as a gallery but a meeting place for people to spend time, enjoy the shows, ask questions, browse the bookshop and attend talks in our auditorium.

What do you feel is the most important aspect of White Cube’s approach to the artists it shows?

White Cube always strives to focus on an artist-led approach. It enables White Cube to find and nurture emerging talent from around the world and introduce them to new audiences. In 2015 we opened Michael Armitage’s first major solo exhibition in the UK at White Cube Bermondsey – he has since exhibited in institutions around the world including Turner Contemporary and Kunsthalle Basel.

Tracey Emin, ‘A Fortnight of Tears’, White Cube Bermondsey, 5 February–7 April 2019. © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photo © White Cube / Theo Christelis
Tracey Emin, ‘A Fortnight of Tears’, White Cube Bermondsey, 5 February–7 April 2019. © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved, DACS 2022. Photo © White Cube / Theo Christelis

Major works debuted at White Cube – Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ in 2010; Julie Mehretu’s ‘Mogamma (A Painting in Four Parts)’ in 2013; and Theaster Gates’s ‘Raising Goliath’ in 2012, to name a few – have been acquired by major public and private collections, exhibited around the world to critical acclaim and earned their place in the art historical canon.

Who have been some of the formative artists and shows for White Cube?

As we prepare to close our most recent exhibition by Anselm Kiefer, the first thing that comes to mind is his awe-inspiring trilogy of solo exhibitions at White Cube Bermondsey, ‘Walhalla’ (2016); ‘Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot’ (2019) and most recently ‘Finnegans Wake’ (2023). Anselm has the ability to really challenge a space and these exhibitions pushed every corner of our galleries to their limit.

Doris Salcedo’s large-scale installation ‘Palimpsest’ (2013−17) was shown at White Cube Bermondsey in 2018. Originally produced for Palacio de Cristal, Centro de Arte Museo Reina Sofía, the work, which is dedicated to the refugees and migrants who have tragically died attempting to cross the Mediterranean or the Atlantic, is currently featured in her solo exhibition at Fondation Beyeler in Basel (until 17 September).

Alongside our solo shows, our group exhibitions reflect the expertise of our curatorial team. ‘Dreamers Awake’ (2017) stands out as it explored the influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists.

Lastly, Tracey Emin is an artist who always brings every part of herself into exhibitions she creates for the gallery. Her shows challenge everyone who walks into the space and very often our galleries turn into a form of confessional. Visitors are drawn by the power of her work – you will quite often find people quietly weeping in corners, some angry, some who come up to you and are looking for answers – it’s extraordinary to be part of an exhibition like that (and she still sets our record of 75,000 visitors in eight weeks!).

Can you describe London’s art landscape as you see it?

The art landscape in London is enduring. We feel the hunger to see, to experience, to explore and this is through our plethora of resources and institutions. From world-class museums, glittering auctions, art fairs, foundations and galleries which push the boundaries, from newly emerging through to the blue chip. And this doesn’t even begin to mention our world-class art schools which produce some of the very best talent.

The last thing we were really missing was a gallery weekend like we see in Berlin, Brussels, Zurich, Stockholm etc, and this has now been so cleverly formulated. It is only in its second year, but the breadth and diversity of its participating galleries makes me very proud to be London-based.

What impact has Frieze art fair had on White Cube and on the city’s art scene in a wider sense?

Frieze London is such an important and critical moment in the art world calendar – we plan months in advance to be able to present our galleries to the calibre demanded for that time of year when the international art world travel to London and ask to be ‘wowed’. Frieze, as well as Frieze Sculpture and Frieze Masters, attracts some of our most significant international collectors and museums, as well as members of the public who may not have the time or opportunity to travel around the large geography of London but can view an excellent cross-section, all in one place.

Which moments from Frieze over the years especially stand out for you?

This year marks my personal tenth Frieze art fair with White Cube. One of the most memorable moments was when in 2018 we did away with the traditional booth concept and built a cage-like construction to house a solo presentation of new works by Liu Wei. We have been one of the first large galleries to establish ourselves in Hong Kong in 2012 and it felt important to reverse the flow and bring Asian artists to the West.

Marguerite Humeau, ‘The Holder of Wasp Venom‘, 2023. Natural beeswax, microcrystalline wax, pigments, 150-year-old walnut (cause of death: unknown), handblown glass and wasp venom, 190 x 320 x 290 cm. © Marguerite Humeau. Photo © White Cube / Ollie Hammick
Marguerite Humeau, The Holder of Wasp Venom, 2023. Natural beeswax, microcrystalline wax, pigments, 150-year-old walnut (cause of death: unknown), handblown glass and wasp venom, 190 x 320 x 290 cm. © Marguerite Humeau. Photo © White Cube / Ollie Hammick

In 2017, we celebrated Rizzoli’s monograph Tracey Emin: Works 2007-2017 with a book signing on the booth. Tracey always draws a crowd, but we had not anticipated the extent of the excitement: not only members of the public but staff and gallerists across the fair. She handled it so beautifully and made a point to stay for every last signature.

What does the future hold for White Cube?

We are excited to open a new gallery in Seoul’s Gangnam-gu district on 5 September, further expanding our presence in Asia, and a new gallery space at 1002 Madison Avenue in New York in October.

What art trends or young artists are you finding exciting right now?

It is important to acknowledge what people and markets are looking for, but once you start following trends, you lose all the unique voices out there. We have to keep ‘looking’, remain excited, not be led. 

I have seen great shows in London recently, but my new discovery who knocked my socks off and has stayed with me since is Jenkin van Zyl at Edel Assanti. Watching his film ‘Surrender’ is the best 48 minutes you could spend, lacing together Japanese sex hotels and latex masks with queer club culture and the 20th-century phenomenon of dance marathons. Recently, I have been introduced to the paintings of Kat Lyons, which are eerily exquisite – they are not easy, but they have left such an impression.

At White Cube, I am lucky enough to work closely with Louise Giovanelli. She has such clear vision, her technique is rigorous, she has a strong work ethic and dedication to preserving those impermanent moments, scenes, nuances that in our fast-moving, pictorial world, get lost – there is an intimacy, almost like you should not be looking, perhaps lingering for too long…

FRIEZE LONDON

White Cube is part of Frieze London, which returns to The Regent’s Park from 11–15 October, 2023. Read the full list of galleries and curators taking part in Frieze London and Frieze Masters 2023.

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Main image: White Cube Bermondsey. Photo © White Cube.

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