New Opening: Skarstedt Gallery
The architect behind the new St James's outpost of Skarstedt Gallery sheds some carefully controlled light on the past, present and future of the gallery as the big white box.



It’s important to note that Per Skarstedt deals differently. The Swedish-born collector, who splits life between New York, a holiday home in The Hamptons, and apartments off Piccadilly, isn’t a primary dealer. That is to say, he doesn’t represent artists and their newest works directly. Instead, he prefers to amass works by an artist from a particular era in order to create a truly definitive show, worthy of a national gallery. This is the case with his newest gallery, which opened on 30 September, with a 20-year squirrelling- away of Cindy Sherman and David Salle works from the late ’80s. It’s so clever because, holding all the cards, he can curate the experience – create a buzz and an anticipation, and build a new appreciation of that little-seen oeuvre. This positive effect on the market is salesmanship of the highest order – so, really, when deciding to create a new London gallery, the space had to match. Enter Thomas Croft. 

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“The previous space had these sort of holes in the walls, which is very bad gallery mantra.” Silhouetted in the large French doors of his West London studio, Croft describes the design of the near-completed gallery with a symmetrical, almost classical arrangement of a central London gallery and two slightly smaller rooms at each end. “There has to be a minimum of fuss, and inevitably with galleries there are lots of fuss – the air conditioning, the lighting rigs, the wiring, and on it goes.” He talks through how the air conditioning grilles that maintain a perfect preservative temperature have been spray painted into disguise, and even the door handles have been powder coated in the gallery’s very particular off-white white. 

The effect is to blank all that practical frippery from your mind. In fact, imagine that there aren’t even walls – as if the gallery had been quarried from a solid white mass. “We’ve given the gallery rounded corners so the space flows continuously, all around. The word for it is ‘pochet’ space, from the French for pocket.” There’s also a small recessed gap between the wall and the ceiling, creating a sharp line of shadow much like a pleat. It’s a neat trick and a subtle high spec tightening of the typical white box gallery approach – a format that isn’t as old or nearly as conventional as you might think. 

In 1982, a former textile factory on the banks of the Rheine in Switzerland was turned into a gallery, the Hallen für Neue Kunst – literally the halls for new art. Created for the large-scale and minimal works of modern American and European artists, it was conceived as a new model for the contemporary gallery. “But the idea of the typical gallery wasn’t really formed until the ’90s when the art trade suddenly became supercharged.” Croft recalls the original Saatchi Collection in St John’s Wood – famously filled with sump oil for an installation by Richard Wilson with its steel rafters reflected in the work’s dark surface – as a real turning point. 

“What was great about the design by Max Gordon was that it was a sort of white box, but it also had tonnes of character. People quickly clued onto not just white boxes, which can be quite dull, but white boxes in found spaces.” Later, the Tate Modern would become the poster child of this approach, “especially because artists started making works you couldn’t hang in a normal gallery. Someone like Donald Judd, his works are an anathema to old-fashioned gallery spaces.” 

So out came the white paint. The transformation of the gallery space came swift and total. “I remember working on a gallery with Rick Mather on Cork Street with concrete stairs. On the day of completion, the owner Leslie Waddington decided the staircase had to go: it was too sculptural and it competed with all the artworks. He then hired Max Gordon to encase it all in white plasterboard. It was a salient lesson for me that the art is the star, not what we’re doing, so you have to tread quite a careful line.” 

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David Salle (b.1952) 
Backdrop, 1990
oil and acrylic on canvas 96 x 122 in. (243.8 x 309.9 cm.)
© David Salle 
Courtesy Skarstedt Gallery

 

Croft has completed other galleries in St James’s including David Gill Gallery on King Street with its signature sculpture-cum-furniture pieces. All concrete floors and huge floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s a space much changed from the previous “all red velvet and small marine pictures” incarnation: “my aunt and uncle, who were in their eighties, said how upset they were to see it go, but it was horrible. Just desperate.”

The white box’s popularity is both its ability to be easily recreated – “it doesn’t have to be something like Marcel Breuer’s Whitney, it can be simple: just paint the walls and the floors” – and also in its universality. All paintings look at home here. That’s also why the particular details in Croft’s design for Skarstedt are so strikingly important – they ground it in this building and in this location. “We’re not trying to subvert things, we’re making the interiors have a connection with the exteriors.” When we ask if the ubiquity of the white gallery space is a problem, he has a smart and perceptive response. “It’s the centre of the art trade, so now everywhere’s starting to look like London: it’s not our fault!”