A New Titan Has Arrived: Inside White Cube Gallery’s Extravagant Opening on Madison Avenue

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It’s the white-on-black flag that first catches your eye, blowing in the wind like a Jolly Roger.

Except, in this case, the black surface displays a name, not the skull-and-crossbones. And the name is “White Cube,” the top international gallery that opened its first U.S. flagship in New York last week.

Like a pirate ship, the gallery landed in a fearsome storm with plenty of swashbuckling swagger (more on that later). Planted on a red-brick facade of a 1930 neo-Federalist former bank, that White Cube flag looks both chic and triumphant. The London-based gallery’s arrival in New York feels inevitable. So inevitable, in fact, one almost wonders: What took so long?

Located next door to Sant Ambroeus, an institution of a restaurant where billionaires go to grab a coffee and top dealers have tables informally named after them, White Cube has made landfall in one of the wealthiest zip codes in America—and in the art world. It is located just two blocks from Gagosian, the world’s biggest gallery, and a stone’s throw away from top secondary-market powerhouses like Acquavella and Mnuchin.

White Cube New York

White Cube New York. Photo © White Cube (Nicholas Venezia)

“It’s like the battle of the titans,” said art dealer Frances Beatty. 

The London gallery’s arrival cements the growing cachet of the Upper East Side. Once a quiet, sleepy neighborhood for the ultra-rich, Madison Avenue in the 70s is now abuzz. Sotheby’s acquisition of the Breuer Building for $100 million earlier this year injected a lot of enthusiasm. New high-end hotels, private clubs, and restaurants are opening up, while top private dealers like Christophe van de Weghe and the Mugrabi family are setting up shop just off the avenue. There’s going to be even more movement among the upper echelon of the gallery world when Gagosian and the other art tenants of 980 Madison are forced to look for new homes now that Bloomberg Philanthropies has leased the building.

Jay Jopling, Cerith Wyn Evans, Pascale Berthier, Hikari Yokoyama. Photo by Rommel Demano

Jay Jopling, Cerith Wyn Evans, Pascale Berthier, Hikari Yokoyama. Photo by Rommel Demano BFA.com, courtesy White Cube.

It is noteworthy that White Cube chose to settle uptown instead of Chelsea or more trendy Tribeca. 

“It puts them in the category of established blue-chip galleries,” said art adviser Kimberly Gould. “It’s part of their image. In terms of what they are going for, that location was definitely important.”

“There’s universal excitement and support,” said John Good, White Cube’s director of artist estates since 2017. “My favorite line was: ‘You brought the downtown uptown.’”

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I first spied the flag as I walked down Madison Avenue for White Cube’s big public opening last Saturday. A day earlier, extreme rainfall all but brought New York City to its knees, flooding cars, subways, and basement dwellings, shutting down highways and delaying air traffic.

Doris Salcedo, Virginia Overton, Mona Hatoum

Doris Salcedo, Virginia Overton, Mona Hatoum. Photo by Rommel Demano BFA.com, courtesy White Cube.

Tropical Storm Ophelia, however, was powerless to derail White Cube’s festivities, which proceeded according to the plan on Friday with the artists’ reception (even if the press preview was scantily attended). The gallery represents 68 artists and estates and many artists showed up in person, flying in from as far as Indonesia, South Africa, and Colombia. Julie Mehretu gave a speech at the dinner for the artists, staff, and curators at the Institute of Fine Arts. One special guest was the mother of White Cube’s owner Jay Jopling.

“I was seated next to her,” said painter Ellen Altfest. “She was so proud of him.”

Left to right: Alex Israel, Ludovic Nkoth, and Horace Brockington at the opening of White Cube

Left to right: Alex Israel, Ludovic Nkoth, and Horace Brockington at the opening of White Cube. Photo by Breanna Johnson BFA.com, courtesy White Cube.

The following day, the rain stopped, the sun came out, and shortly after 6 p.m. a festive crowd filled the gallery, spilling out onto the sidewalk, waltzing in and out of Sant Ambroeus, rented for the occasion, to get free drinks and bites. It felt like a high-end block party.

More champagne flowed inside the three-story, 8,000-square-foot gallery, with guests like Max Hollein, director of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Noah Horowitz, director of Art Basel, mingling with all-star artists including Mehretu, Kevin Beasley, Lauren Hayes, and Alex Israel.

Courtney Willis Blair poses with a sculpture by Tiona Nekkia McClodd

Courtney Willis Blair poses with a sculpture by Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Photo by Rommel Demano BFA.com, courtesy White Cube.

A shiny and muscular BMW motorcycle (an artwork by multimedia artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden) was parked in the center on the ground floor, amidst coveted paintings and sculptures that comprised the inaugural group show, “Chopped & Screwed,” curated by Courtney Willis Blair, the gallery’s senior director.

There was a new signature firehose painting by Theaster Gates, priced at $825,000; two paintings by Mehretu (one on loan, the other listed as “price upon request” which the Art Detective hears is $1.5 million); and a splendid abstract 2010 Mark Bradford painting, a Hauser & Wirth artist, loaned for the exhibition.

Installation view of "Chopped & Screwed" at White Cub

Installation view of “Chopped & Screwed” at White Cube. Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis).

Upstairs, a large blue 2023 painting by Georg Baselitz pulled you in and was priced at 1.25 million euros. Next to it hung a brand new collage by Nathaniel Mary Quinn, a Gagosian artist.

(This raised some eyebrows. Was the artist leaving for White Cube? False alarm. It was all done with Gagosian’s blessing. Turns out that Quinn “was interested in showing alongside artists such as Julie Mehretu and Mark Bradford, both of whom he has long admired,” said Ashley Stewart Rödder, the Gagosian Director who works with the artist. And the gallery facilitated the consignment and managed the sale.)

In the basement gallery, Andy Warhol’s “oxidation painting” (made by urinating on a copper surface and evocative of Jackson Pollock) was priced around $5.5 million.

Firefighters at the White Cube opening.

Firefighters at the White Cube opening.

Speaking of the basement. No New York party is complete without the police or firemen making an appearance. And so it was with White Cube. When I emerged from the gallery, a fire truck was parked outside, throwing a red glare across the outdoor party scene. Turns out that the elevator malfunctioned, and the firemen came to the rescue. All ended up well and the crowd proceeded to the after-party at the Ukrainian Institute of America, which the invite, somewhat oddly, referred to as the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion (so named after its first two owners at the turn of the 20th century.) 

White Cube’s parties are among the very best in class. The gallery’s annual fete on the eve of Art Basel Miami Beach is my personal favorite. (Remember that lit performance by Chaka Khan in 2016?)

Cerith Wyn Evans, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Courtney Willis-Blair, and Ebony L. Haynes.

Cerith Wyn Evans, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Courtney Willis-Blair, and Ebony L. Haynes. Photo by Deontè Lee BFA.com, courtesy White Cube.

The gallery stayed true to form and threw another bash for the ages—with bars stocked with Perrier Jouet champagne and Casa Dragones tequila, mountains of raw oysters and shrimp, and towers of decadent desserts.

But wait, that’s not all! There was a set by DJ Jazzy Jeff and a live performance by R&B musician Kelela. Legendary Afrofuturist jazz band, the Sun Ra Arkestra, whose 12-member band looked like ancient prophets in glittery garb, brought the house to its feet. Jopling applauded enthusiastically, standing beside to his mother.

It was a mega-flex if there was one. I shudder to think how much the whole affair cost.

Sun Ra Arkestra

Sun Ra Arkestra performs at the party celebrating the opening of White Cube in New York. Photo by Deontè Lee BFA.com, courtesy White Cube.

Some of us haven’t seen such extravagance since the pre-financial crisis era; others compared it to the Great Gatsby-esque fantasy of the 1920s before the crash (but much more tasteful).

“This was an event that had the élan of a declaration,” said Matthew Armstrong, an art adviser and former curator of the late Don Marron’s collection. “A superlatively renovated space, a well-curated exhibition, an opulent and assertively well-organized bash—a rejuvenation from afar into the moribund bloodstream of a resuscitating art world.”

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