Brian O'Doherty's series of essays on the concept of the white cube are now considered seminal texts on the subject, most famously for coining the term. At the very beginning of these texts O'Doherty writes: 'An image comes to mind of a white, ideal space that, more than any single picture, may be the archetypal image of twentieth century art; it clarifies itself through a process of historical inevitability usually attached to the art it contains.'
His analysis frames the white cube largely as a result of historical movements, most of them related to philosophical ideas about art, and describes its influence on the viewers ability to perceive the work that is shown within it. While he does touch upon the economic reality of art being sold at a gallery in his description, ultimately his focus lies on the presentation of paintings and changes in how works are framed, together with their 'pictorial expansion'; 'Abstract Expressionist paintings followed the route of lateral expansion, dropped the frame, and gradually began to conceive the edge as a structural unit through which the painting entered into a dialogue with the wall beyond it. At this point the dealer and curator enter from the wings. How they - in collaboration with the artists - , presented these works, contributed , in the late forties and fifties, to the definition of the new painting'.
While his insights are not unseemly, if perhaps a bit dated at times, there is a far simpler possible explanation for the rise of the empty white exhibition space. One that furthermore has no direct relationship to any artistic vogue or interpretation.
In an earlier post, I already outlined how, and why, art dealers moved from buying and reselling individual paintings to an agent-like representation of artists in a more formal gallery structure. One of the largest economical differences for the dealer is a shift in his financial risk from one of acquisition of paintings to one of overhead in storing and presenting them.
For a dealer who buys artwork directly from artists with the intention of selling them on to others, it's advantageous to have as much of that work on hand to show to potentially interested clients. We can thus his imagine his gallery to look like a stockroom, with many works hanging close together on racks and others being stacked close by, so that the dealer is quickly able to show these works to anybody who might be interested. After all, the dealer already paid for these works and has already incurred the largest cost for all of them. The greatest risk for this kind of dealer is thus that there are works that remain unseen to the public and therefore can't be sold, as a public has to know something exists before it's able to buy it.
Compare this to the art dealer who doesn't directly buy the works from the artist, but acts as a broker, or representative, receiving a commission on the sale price of a painting if and when it is sold.
For this dealer it's beneficial to have as few works on hand as possible, as there are costs involved in storing works as long as they haven't been sold. These works also aren't part of the dealers assets, making any painting that isn't sold contribute a net loss to his balance sheet. This is different for a dealer who bought and owns the works that don't sell, as they could rise in value in the future, be used as leverage in negotiations, or brought up as collateral for loans. As such, they posses some value to him even if they aren't sold.
So if the dealer-representative only wishes to have a few works in his custody, then it's also important that he sells these works as quickly as possible, as he will only receive a commission on the sale if he helped to make that sale. This means that whatever works the dealer wishes to sell should get the largest amount of attention from the buying public. A crowded amalgam of many different styles and artists of course isn't beneficial to focus the public's attention, so the dealer decides to do something different. He presents only the works of one artist at a time and in such a manner that each painting is shown somewhat isolated from the others in a neutral space, giving the public the best possibility to notice the particular qualities of the works and imagine them in the setting in which they wish to keep the work themselves. Over time this naturally leads to a refinement of the exemplary empty hangings we have come to know and love (to hate) today.