When White Is Wrong

Small differences in shade have big impact on gallery walls.

A fifth–floor gallery at MoMA displays Cézannes against walls newly painted Big Bend Beige.

A fifth–floor gallery at MoMA displays Cézannes against walls newly painted Big Bend Beige.

Many shades of the color white would be suitable to paint a gallery wall. “The ‘wrong’ kind of white isn’t likely to ruin many exhibitions,” says dealer Edward Winkleman, author of How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery. “But there is a subtle psychological effect to every color.”

In his previous New York gallery spaces, Winkleman has chosen Benjamin Moore’s White Dove, “which has a slight hint of yellow to it and warms up the room nicely,” he says. He wanted the ambience of “a pub in England.” But he opened his new space, on West 27th Street, in January with the walls painted Super White. “This cooler white connotes a sense of examination,” Winkleman says, “like an operating room or interrogation room, which is appropriate for the work in our first show,” conceptual photography by Ulrich Gebert.

Deciding on the shade of white was “a big deal” at ACA Galleries in New York, says Dorian Bergen, co–owner of the gallery. “We mixed the colors ourselves,” creating a custom color with a pinkish tone. “White is too white,” Bergen points out.

At Haines Gallery in San Francisco, the goal was to paint the walls a white “that allows the attention to be on the work,” says Sean Brimer, the gallery’s preparator. That white has for many years been Pure Brilliant White by Glidden. “We use a color that’s not too bright on its own, because with the sun coming in, it gets really bright,” Brimer says.

At Sperone Westwater, it’s Benjamin Moore’s Decorators White, which the gallery also plans to use at its new downtown Manhattan space, designed by Norman Foster; it opens this spring. But for 2009’s Susan Rothenberg show, the gallery walls were repainted in Benjamin Moore’s darker November Rain. “It was a matter of trying to create a consistent calm, perhaps even meditative, mood which would suit a number of works,” the gallery’s co–owner, Angela Westwater, says.

“All–white rooms are a 20th–century concept,” observes interior painter Mark Chamberlain, an expert on period colors. Chamberlain says that recently he has seen more contemporary–art galleries embracing other colors: Yvon Lambert mounted an Andres Serrano show on black walls, and Zach Feuer hung German artist Anton Henning‘s expressionist paintings against walls colored a dark gray–green.

At noncommercial venues displaying historical works, using colors other than white is standard practice. Ann Temkin, the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, is changing the walls of the permanent–collection galleries, on the fourth and fifth floors, from stark white to a grayish putty color, Benjamin Moore’s Big Bend Beige. “This was mostly a visual decision,” says Temkin. “There was a widespread feeling that softening the walls would be good—the white was a bit harsh for some of the turn–of–the–century works.”

For the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, achieving the right look takes more than a coat of paint. An exhibition of still lifes by 18th–century painter Luis Meléndez that closed in January had walls treated with erratically applied plaster and paint to convey a sense of age. Viennese artist Franz West designed the installation of a recently acquired collection of Pacific art, for which his collaborator, artist Andreas Reiter Raabe, painted the walls with a maté tea wash. “It almost looks like a cup of green tea,” says the museum’s deputy director, Nancy Thomas. “It provides a little more of a softer, more natural environment for these works, which were not intended to be seen in a white–walled, extreme–contemporary gallery.”

At the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, as well as Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, architect Richard Meier used a shade of white that he developed, Meier White. “This is the right white. The whitest white,” he says. “In all light it allows you to perceive all the other colors around in the clearest way.”

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