“I’m going to use a word you shouldn’t say,” said sculptor Jeffrey Lew with a touch of valor. “I’m kind of a sociopath.”

In 1969, Lew and Rachel Wood, then his wife, bought a shabby six-story rag salvage factory in SoHo for $ 110,000. They moved upstairs with a number of related artists and, together with fellow sculptors Gordon Matta-Clark and Alan Saret, turned the unheated ground floor and basement into a 7,400-square-foot exhibition space called 112 Greene Street (and later 112 Workshop.). ), according to its location. Subsequent shows featured a wall-mounted piece of 500 pounds of rotting carrots, massive holes in the floor, and a dance troupe rocking from the 5-foot-high ceiling.

These glasses from the early 70s have since achieved an almost mythical status; Works that were staged there, which in Lew’s view museums and established galleries were unable or unwilling to show, have since been celebrated in museums and blue-chip galleries. But Lew soon grew tired of the creeping professionalism that a National Endowment for the Arts scholarship entailed. “When I got the NEA scholarship, they said, ‘Give us your schedule.’ A schedule? “Lew recalled with a laugh.” The moment people start acting like curators, the good is over. “

In late 1978, Lew said he had had enough of committees and payrolls. He had already turned the lofts upstairs into cooperatives, but he was still the landlord of the art space. Citing his hefty tax bill, he tripled the monthly rent of $ 550, realizing the board could never afford the new rate. “Like I said, I’m a sociopath,” said Lew. “I just didn’t have any feelings as to whether it was going down.”

Still, 112 Greene Street did not die. But on the contrary. It eventually found a new home in the West Village as well as new leadership. The nonprofit was renamed White Columns and became not only the longest-running alternative art space in New York City, but also one of the most sustainable. The proof is on the walls at the 50th anniversary exhibition, which Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator of the gallery since 2004, describes as part celebration and part homage to the ongoing history of the New York art scene.

Looking at the archived installation photos and printed ephemera, a dizzying array of artists emerges who began their careers there with solo debuts. From John Currin and Cady Nolan in the 80s to Rachel Feinstein and Glenn Ligon in the 90s, no style dominates. The common thread is simply that a particular director found an artist who was interesting enough to showcase and offer for sale with no restrictions or commissions – one in 15 to 20 such shows a year – and rely on grants and donations left to its now about 1. US dollars to cover million budget.

One of Lew’s parting gifts might be exactly what allowed White Columns to go beyond his brinkmanship. In late 1979, Lew encouraged Josh Baer, ​​then 23, to apply for the room’s vacant director’s position. Bär had no formal administrative or curatorial experience. But he had grown up in the heart of the New York art world of the ’70s – his mother and stepfather were acclaimed painters Jo Baer and John Wesley. More importantly, he was immersed in the new art forms that were bubbling downtown. “Everything mixed up,” recalled Baer. “Hip-hop broke out, breakdancing, graffiti art, noise music. This era of Gordon Matta-Clark, this minimalist sculpture from SoHo, has now been replaced by a generation that is more at home in the Mudd Club. “

Baer insisted that being selected for White Columns in 1979 wasn’t a glamorous thing. It was in an impossible state. ”He sighed at his own naivety from his current perspective as an art consultant, and added,“ Only someone so young would be stupid enough to do it. ”The monthly rent for the next house of the Space near the West Side Highway might be only $ 415, but this was hardly a busy art castle. In addition, the budget for the entire year was only $ 8,000 – regardless of a director’s salary.

Artist and new board member Mike Roddy suggested that Baer rename the room “White Columns,” an architectural nod to the classically designed features of his old and new address. It is also a funny statement that the rigid hierarchy of the art world is 100 percent white, said Baer critically. Hoping the excitement of highlighting color artists under the new name would not escape anyone, the updated moniker for a show came in September 1980 with a sprawling subway-style mural by Lee Quiñones and Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab Five Freddy , released. one of the first times graffiti has been brought into a prominent gallery setting.

“We both planted our flags in a whole new atmosphere,” Quiñones said recently of Baer’s invitation to paint the interior of White Columns. In fact, his show drew a wide variety of downtown luminaries, from critics Edit DeAk and Rene Ricard to writer and cable TV host Glenn O’Brien, all of whom in turn helped create a thorny love affair between the contemporary art world and the Igniting graffiti that continues to this day. The lively response also firmly linked the new identity of White Columns with the burgeoning arts scene in the East Village and the art market boom that gained momentum in the 1980s.

This fast-paced market – and the ability of a White Columns show to catapult an unknown artist into its midst – could take on almost ridiculous aspects. “The commercial art world is a genius at finding ways to sell things that appear not to be for sale,” noted Bill Arning, who became a director in 1985 and is now a Houston gallery owner. On the solo debut of Cady Noland’s disturbing installations in March 1988 – including two geriatric walking aids hanging over a post with a photo of a pistol leaning nearby – Arning said he had tried in vain to get collectors Don and Mera Rubell convince them to buy a piece for $ 400. He said Mera Rubell finally admitted to him that she bought the same piece a year later when Noland’s career exploded – for $ 40,000.

As the 1980s drew to a close and market mania collapsed, the resulting tensions rebounded in White Columns. Painter Marilyn Minter said her solo debut in 1988 resulted in no less than 10 galleries following her. Grateful for the place to get her out of the twilight, she joined the board in 1991, happy to put her growing seal of approval into service even as her own sales plummeted. “We were lucky enough to keep the doors open in the 1990s,” recalls Minter. “Just leaving the air conditioning on in the summer was a big deal!”

Despite the deepening recession of the 1990s, artists continued to view a White Columns show as transformative. “It completely changed my life,” said John Currin of his debut there in 1989, long before his portraits went into seven-figure auctions. “I made $ 5,000, it was huge! My total income for the previous year was $ 9,000 slaving drywall. ”A decade later, his wife, sculptor Rachel Feinstein, said that her own debut quickly moved her from the reception of the Marianne Boesky Gallery to one of those represented Women artists.

Accordingly, Paul Ha, Arning’s 1996 successor – and current director of the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts – said he had learned to put aside his concerns about serving White Columns as a de facto “talent scout” for advertising galleries . “When you see so many people in trouble, you just want to help them with their careers,” said Ha.

Higgs continued this tradition with a remarkable optimization. “When I got to White Columns,” he said, “the question for us as an organization was what could we do to make a difference?” The inclusion of both black and female artists was finally on the cultural radar. “It was strikingly clear to me, however, that the work of artists with developmental disabilities was simply completely underrepresented in the field of contemporary art. There were these extraordinary organizations like Creative Growth in Oakland or Visionaries + Voices in Cincinnati that supported extraordinary artist communities. But they just didn’t have access to the same networks as artists coming from Yale or Columbia MFA programs. “

Enter white columns. Higgs has shown 25 solo exhibitions by developmentally disabled artists to date, including William Scott, who he finds eventually acquired a work in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection – 14 years after his debut with White Columns. “Patience is a key factor here,” he quipped.

Young graduates from art schools have not become completely empty: The painter Esteban Jefferson was an instant sensation with his solo debut in 2019, an expanded version of his Columbia MFA thesis, which contrasts the African statues of a Paris museum with the faces of his employees and their boring institution . However, Higgs also made sure to put little-seen older characters in the spotlight, from David Byrd, who drew terrifying drawings at Westchester Psychiatry, where he worked for 30 years until 1988, to Ben Morea, who created abstractions in 1964 before he became better known as an art world provocateur and political activist. Other locations have also attracted attention: in 2010, the artist Margaret Lee was asked to put together a retrospective of the rough group shows everything-but-the-kitchen that she had in 2009 in her semi-legal room 179 Canal in. staged Chinatown.

Lee said she was pleasantly shocked by her conversations with Higgs as she investigated how to recreate the chaotic atmosphere and energy of 179 Canal in White Columns. “He never said, ‘I don’t like the aesthetics here.’ It was more like, ‘I’m there when you want to talk, but you’re free. Just be responsible. ‘”So, following the anti-policy that Jeffrey Lew first offered decades ago on Greene Street, do what you want, just don’t burn the house down? “Actually,” Lee recalled dryly, “we almost burned the White Pillars down. We wanted to run a microwave for 24 hours. Matthew said, “No, you can’t. You need a fake microwave. ‘ Then he drew the line! “

From the archives: White Columns & 112 Greene Street / 112 Workshop – 1970-2021

Until July 31 at White Columns, 91 Horatio Street, Manhattan; 212-924-4212; whitecolumns.org.