Is it possible that white is not right to use for your art?  Go over to the Nelson Atkins Museum and check out the new colors of the walls in the old wing.  You will absolutely not find a single white room.  All of the walls have magnificent shades of green, red, or blue and these are not pastels.  They are vivid colors that set off the art and perform superbly as their background.  Styles and colors change, but happily, we were first shocked and then delighted with the changes.

All white rooms are a 20th century concept, said one expert on period colors.  He reported having seen more contemporary art galleries embracing other colors.  An Andres Serrano show  apppeard on black walls.  German artist Anton Henning’s expressionist works  were shown against walls colored dark gray green. At noncommercial venues displaying historical works, using colors other than white is standard practice.  The chief curator of painting and sculpture is changing the walls of all the permanent collection galleries on the fourth and fifth floors in the Museum of Modern Art .  The stark white is gone and a grayish putty color called Big Bend Beige is going up.  She says that this was mostly a visual decision; there was a wide spread feeling that softening the walls would be good because the white was too harsh for some of the turn of the century works.

For the Los Angeles County  Museum of Art, achieving the right look took more than a coat of paint.  An exhibition of still lives by 18th century painter Luis Melendez had walls treated with erratically applied plaster and paint to convey a sense of age.  A Viennese artist designed the installation of a recently acquired collection of Pacific art and painted the walls with a matte tea wash.  It looked like green tea and  the museum director  said that it provided a little more of a softer, more natural environment for these works which were not intended to be seen in a white walled, extremely contemporary gallery.

There are also galleries that are using colors such as White Dove which has a slight hint of yellow to it and warms up the room.  This color went well with recreating the atmosphere of a pub in England, said the color designer for one gallery.  He felt that there is a subtle psychological effect to every color.  However, the same gallery owner also painted his new gallery Super White, which he said was a cooler white.  It connotes a sense of examination, like an operating room, which is apppropriate for their next show of conceptual photography.

Some gallery owners are even mixing the colors themselves and creating a custom color with a pinkish tone because they said white is just too white.  The white that works for them was a white that allows the attention to be on the work.  For many years that color has been Pure Brilliant White, which is now declasse.  Instead the new white is one that is not too bright on its own.  It just got too bright with the old white when the sun came in the gallery, said the owner.  It is also true that paint colors can be changed regularly for different exhibitions.  For example, Decorators White was used in one new Manhattan space, but was repainted in Benjamin Moore’s darker November Rain for a Susan Rotherberg show.  “It was a matter of trying to create a consistent calm, perhaps even meditative, mood which would suit a number of works,” said gallery owner Angela Westwater.


Of course there is always the work of Richard Meier known as the white architect, whose Getty Museum and the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills used a shade of white that he developed, Meier White.  “This is the right white.  The whitest white.  In all light it allows you to perceive all the other colors around in the clearest way.” There are 164 shades of white in the Benjamin Moore paint sample books.  And there is the white of the walls in the Bloch Wing of the Nelson which certainly would not be changed.  There is simply too much wall and ceiling to cover.  However, for the Monet exhibition now on display the rooms were repainted to suit the exquisite water lily gardens paintings.  The choice of color was a serious consideration for the installation.

I am reminded of our own lack of knowledge about color.  We bought a house that had a great room  covered in 1 and 1/2 inch walnut paneling that had knotholes.  To rip out solid walnut seemed to us criminal.  One morning my husband woke up and told me that he had had a vision that the walls should be stained cordovan red.  It took the painter and the two of us two dismal failures before finding a solution by putting a translucent coat of black on the top of the red and wiping it down immediately.  It is the only successful color selection that we have ever made and we will never try this again.  We now have learned when to consult with others who really have an eye for and an understanding of color.  Needless to say we have a lot of white rooms!


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