White Columns had been 112 Workshop. The name changed in 1979, the year after which I joined as co-director. So at the time of the Times Square Show [TSS], we were just shifting our identity a bit. As White Columns relates to Colab, I guess Colab was a purely artist-run group. I am not an artist, even though all of the other board members at White Columns were artists at the time I joined. White Columns also didn’t have an organizational role at TSS, for example, we didn't give any money in support of the show; we had none to give anyway. Our participation was established through the personal relationships between White Columns and the TSS organizers and participants. The notion of institutional support did not much exist at that point anyway or even matter as an idea. White Columns got an area on the top floor of the TSS where we installed art and set up the blackboard where people could draw their own art or put up inscriptions. I recall being at TSS almost everyday. It was a very territorial show with a lot of fighting over credit. The reality was maybe not as pleasant as it might sound now in these reflections. There was a certain amount of infighting about issues that I was not necessarily part of, especially since I am not an artist.
White Columns and Colab sometimes overlapped socially or with artists' projects. For example, I did a project with The Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince & Winters around that time. But there was no formal connection between the two groups. It was a small enough community that everyone kind of knew each other.
There was a small, core group of artists who had essentially taken over White Columns at that point, around 1979 and 1980. They weren't Colab members, but they were aware of Colab. As a young kid I got involved and did a lot of work with the White Columns projects, along with artists like Mike Roddy, Leah Douglas, and Marc Blane. There always was a lot of fighting over control and credit everywhere.
At the TSS, I don’t think you could tell aesthetically or ideologically that there was a “White Columns Room.” More relevant to the TSS—and the general spirit of the time—is that during those years at White Columns we threw off the shackles of the seventies alternative space mode and got more down and dirty than other established alternative spaces. The previous generation was happy to let another generation have its moment. It was important for us that alternative spaces still meant something in New York but something different from those of the Gordon Matta-Clark period. TSS was so public and so well attended that it sort of matched certain modes of making that were the goal at White Columns, in terms of performance, music, and the downtown noise thing. White Columns was less stodgy than other alternative spaces.
Like the TSS and other Colab projects, at White Columns there wasn't a lot of advanced planning for our shows. There was a do-it-yourself sense—so the structure was similar I would say. For instance, following TSS, one of the next big projects at White Columns was Noise Fest. If you were to track the history of noise music, that would be one of the hallmark moments. There was a huge buzz around that, similar to how the TSS had a huge buzz. It was exciting to people. White Columns at its best was exciting and well attended: it was not institutional. I was twenty-three or twenty-four at the time, and I had the sense that we could do whatever, and it didn’t matter if it failed. And White Columns did a good job of staying relevant through five or six directors after I left, which is good.
Some currents from the Times Square Show influenced White Columns. We did a show of work by Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy. It was a time when graffiti shows in galleries overlapped with what was going on in the street. Fashion Moda was having exhibitions sometimes that included break-dancing, rap, and graffiti art. At White Columns we did some of that too. I would say that Fashion Moda was certainly a place that was important at this moment, Fashion Moda and Stefan Eins. The TSS got the galleries interested in what was going on downtown. It was exciting because all of a sudden gallerists in their high heels were trying to sign artists. The commercial art world picked up on the show and was attending in force.
I was the White Columns director until June of 1983. In September of 1985, I opened a gallery in SoHo that I had for ten years. I moved to SoHo because I wasn't an artist and the East Village scene was more artist-driven. I was interested in doing something more professional. I didn't know any collectors, but I did know a lot of artists. SoHo had better spaces. You had more room. It was a bit more grown up than the East Village.
When looking back to the TSS, the main thing is to not be nostalgic. It was a down and dirty show—with down and dirty organization—and that was probably why it was good. You can do great things with no money, especially if artists use their energy without first worrying about marketing, sales, and attention.
The last fifteen years have been all about the art market—and I am a part of that—but really any art movement has got to come from the artists and the art itself, not the gallery. The TSS was a moment when that was possible. That is a great lesson, and we need that again. And it probably will come to pass, but it won't be through traditional venues like galleries and museums. It may come from something non-traditional like social media.
As told to Shawna Cooper, May 22, 2012
Josh Baer (b. 1955, Los Angeles, CA)
Josh Baer directed White Columns, New York City's oldest alternative non-profit art space, from 1979 to 1983. From 1985 to 1995 he operated an eponymous commercial gallery in the New York City neighborhood of SoHo. He has been writing and publishing The Baer Faxt: The Art Industry Newsletter since 1995.