White Columns

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 27 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned John Giorno T-Shirt, White Columns GalleryI don’t know much about John Giorno’s work, but I’d wear his super-cynical T-shirts.

John Giorno T-Shirt, White Columns Gallery
John Giorno T-Shirt

White Columns Gallery, New YorkWhite Columns has a venerable history, dating to 1970 and claiming to be the oldest “alternative art space” in the city. It’s an art gallery, but I have generally allowed public, not-for-profit galleries on my list, so like A.I.R. Gallery and the Aperture Foundation, I’ll grant it museum status for my purposes.  White Columns has moved around a bit during its life, from SoHo to Spring Street to Christopher Street, to its current location in the Meatpacking District. 

Beanbags, White ColumnsThe space is indeed white, but pretty dark–windowless, and not terribly large.  It has a distinct lack of columns. It’s currently divided into one larger room (filled with giant beanbags) and two smaller spaces off to one side.

Do I John Giorno?

White Columns’s current show is titled “Ugo Rondinone: I John Giorno.” It’s part of a rare collaboration between many of New York’s “alternative” spaces, presenting different, complementary shows about this guy John Giorno, described in the brochure as an “American poet, artist, activist and muse.”

Ugo Rondinone, Giorno’s husband, has put together this large tapestry of installations and exhibitions in honor of Giorno’s 80th birthday.  Nice present.  I’d like someone to take over all of New York’s alternative and non-profit art spaces for me on my next milestone birthday.  I better get cracking on that  “become a muse” item on my to-do list.

The White Columns portion of I♥JG looks at Giorno’s work as a poet and a facilitator of poetry.  It consists of giant beanbags each outfitted with a pair of iPads with headphones, for listening to poetry recordings from Giorno Poetry Systems (“GPS” before GPS meant something else) a Giorno effort in the 60s and early 70s to modernize poetry.

The exhibit quotes Giorno as saying that when he started GPS poetry was “75 years behind painting and sculpture, dance and music,” and he wanted to do something about that.  Considering that poetry is now more like 150 years behind other arts, I’m not sure GPS counts as a success.

iPad at White Columns

But anyway, Giorno set up a project called “Dial-a-Poem” which is exactly what it sounds like:  a 212 number that played recordings of poems Burroughs, Ginsberg, Cage, or who-knows-who.  It also collected and released the recorded poems on records.

The show at white Columns queues up the dial-a-poem poets reading their works.  There’s far more poems than I was willing to listen to in one sitting, very comfy beanbag notwithstanding.

Additionally, a small room contains portraits of Giorno by various artists, and another room has his  “t-shirt poems” stuck to the wall with masking tape.  So far, those are the part of his oeuvre that I ♥ most.


In these reviews, I try to adopt an attitude of openminded skepticism regarding museum deployments of touchscreens and technology.  Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. Poetry, like music, presents challenges that tech can, perhaps, address.

Outside of hosting live performances, poetry can prove difficult in a museum. The Jewish Museum‘s effort to incorporate poetry into its Walter Benjamin show fell flat for me — small print and difficult typography made reading those wall poems painful.

At White Columns, the iPads were the art (or at least the canvas)–I don’t think I’ve seen that before. It worked, but it could’ve been better.  It would have been a bit closer to the GPS era to record the dial-a-poems onto cassettes and deploy Walkmen–though of course you’d have severe capacity constraints on how many poems per station you’d get.  Better yet, station old phones by each beanbag — dial-a-poem made literal.

On the other hand, strewing suitably programmed iPads and comfy beanbags about its space might well improve the Jazz Museum.

While Columns Gallery, New York
View From the Beanbag

Should You Go?

White Columns has shown an impressive array of artists over the years. Its roots in the New York art scene go about as deep as possible.  The space is somewhat uninviting, but it’s a decent enough blank canvas for whatever the curators might want to install.

As with all contemporary art galleries, specific shows will be hit or miss. My advice in these cases is always check out what they’re showing before you decide to go.

If you’re doing an afternoon of Meatpacking District galleries, include White Columns.  Or if you’re on your way to, say, the Whitney or the High Line, ducking into White Columns makes sense.

For Reference:

Address 320 West 13th Street, Manhattan
Website whitecolumns.org
Cost Free
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