It has been 25 years since The Art Newspaper reported how the “young contemporary art dealer Jay Jopling has opened an office and exhibition space in the West End… to be known as the ‘White Cube’”. Back then, Duke Street was full of Old Master galleries and specialist bookshops and contemporary art was largely pilloried by the press.
Initially, Jopling, an Eton-educated son of a Tory peer who spent one summer selling fire extinguishers, intended White Cube to be a project space modelled on Walter de Maria’s Earth Room in New York. Jopling's idea was to host one-off installations by British and foreign artists. Representation was not a priority; in the first year, only Damien Hirst, Ita Doron, Marc Quinn, Marcus Taylor and Gavin Turk were on his books.
Much has changed since then. Jopling now represents 50 artists and has two galleries in London and one in Hong Kong, where an exhibition celebrating White Cube’s 25th anniversary opens later this month. (Jopling also launched a space in São Paulo in 2012, which closed after its lease ran out in 2015.)
The anniversary show, Remembering Tomorrow: Artworks and Archive (18 July-25 August), features rarely seen objects, ephemera and photography from the gallery’s extensive archive alongside works by artists including Etel Adnan, Tracey Emin, Theaster Gates, Gilbert & George, Raqib Shaw and He Xiangyu.
Jopling has collected such ephemera since the gallery's earliest days, and he says that although he could not have predicted the impact of the gallery on the cultural landscape in London, “I knew then it was important to preserve these materials for posterity”.
Highlights from the archive include models and drawings for large-scale pieces such as Anselm Kiefer’s Jericho, two towers that were installed in the Royal Academy courtyard in 2007, and Damián Ortega’s Spirit, which was constructed out of old doors and installed in 2004 outside the gallery in Hoxton Square, where Jopling had a space from 2000 to 2012.
It was a Kiefer show, at White Cube Bermondsey in 2016, that was the gallery’s most ambitious undertaking—at the artist’s request all of the walls were covered with lead. “We pretty much cleaned out every lead merchant in Europe, certainly in the UK. Apparently the price of lead fluctuated as a result,” says Susan May, the gallery’s artistic director.
Personal notes and handmade gifts artists sent to Jopling also feature in the Hong Kong show. In 1995, Tracey Emin sent him a match box-sized television made from cardboard, captioned Emin Vision, complete with a photo of her watching the soap opera Brookside. A message on the back reads: “If you’re lonely on Valentine’s Day, just try to remember all the people in your life you have ever loved.”
If Jopling made a name for himself in the 1990s selling art by Young British Artists (YBA) such as Emin and Damien Hirst, the show does not linger on this aspect of the gallery’s history. “The gallery was synonymous with the YBA generation, but we’ve now got a very international roster,” May says. “We work with African, Chinese and Latin American artists and we wanted to show that diversity.”
So why Hong Kong? “The history of White Cube is probably more familiar to audiences, here in London, but in Greater China, perhaps not,” May says.
Back in London, meanwhile, an exhibition dedicated to memory featuring more than 100 recent works by around 40 artists opens across both galleries next week. Memory Palace (11 July-2 September Bermondsey/15 September Mason’s Yard) has new pieces by 23 artists including a monumental piece by Miroslaw Balka created from more than 500 used bars of soap.
In keeping with the gallery’s hands on approach to artists and exhibition-making, White Cube staff have all been tasked with using the soap, at home and in the office, shaping and whittling the bars before they are hung from the ceiling.
It is this collaborative approach that has made the gallery successful, May believes: “Jay’s entrepreneurial spirit has always been, ‘Yes, let’s do it’, and that’s what has sustained it. Artists love the fact that you can work with somebody who makes things happen.”