Triple Candie received its business license on September 12, 2001 - the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center. It opened its doors to the public on December 15, 2001, joining the Project as one of the few art spaces in Harlem and becoming the first large-scale space in the neighborhood in more than thirty years. From the outside, its building -- a former brewery, with few windows -- looked abandoned. Visitors entered through a grey garage door, ascended a short flight of wooden stairs, and emerged into a brighly lit, 5,000 sq. ft. gallery with soaring cast-iron columns, weathered brick walls, and an expansive, off-white, painted concrete floor. For many, the interior was reminiscent of Soho alternative spaces of the 1970s.
Triple Candie was originally conceived as a presenting rather than a producing venue. The idea was that Triple Candie would curate none of its own shows, instead, inviting outside organizations -- primarily nonprofits, but occasionally commercial galleries -- to produce or curate the exhibitions, which Triple Candie would then promote, staff, and develop educational programming around. The post-9/11 recession made such a strategy untenable, however, and the plan was abandoned after the second exhibition.
For the first two years, Triple Candie presented group exhibitions inspired by its Harlem location that mixed the work of emerging and established artists. These included "Sugar & Cream: Large, Contemporary Wall Hangings" (which referenced the history quilting in black communities and included work by Trenton Doyle Hancock, Jim Hodges, Rosie Le Tompkins, and others), "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (After Paul Laurence Dunbar)" (iincluding videos by Vito Acconci, Chris Marker, and Sara Sun), "The Reality of Things" (Robert Gober, Daniel Guzman, Sherrie Levine, Shinique Smit et al), and "Living Units" (Ricco Gatson, Jessica Stockholder, Andrea Zittel, others). During this period, and until 2005, Triple Candie also curated an annual series of artist talks (collectively titled "Slide Shows" and presented as exhibitions) that explored the various forms of rhetoric artists use when speaking about their work. Participating artists included Laylah Ali, Tony Feher, Jon Kessler, Dana Schutz, James Siena, Amy Sillman, Phoebe Washburn, Kehinde Wiley, and others.
When Triple Candie realized that other nonprofit spaces were also starting to organize inter-generational group shows, it changed its programming model. For the next two years, it focused almost exclusively on ambitious solo projects -- often New York-debuts -- for which it gave artists free reign over the space. At the time, this was rare in New York nonprofit spaces. Artists Space, Exit Art, White Columns, and others all produced group exhibitions, generally of emerging artists. Triple Candie produced and/or presented ambitious exhibitions of new work by Polly Apfelbaum, Sanford Biggers, Taylor Davis, Rashawn Griffin, David Humphrey, Brian Jungen, Mark Lewis, Rodney McMillian, Halsey Rodman, Lara Schnitger, Kiki Smith, Jennifer Stillwell, Heeseop Yoon, and others. It also presented a fifteen-year survey of the work of the influential Cal Arts professor Charles Gaines. When it could, Triple Candie provided the artists with stipends (up to $10,000), volunteer assistants, and as much as five weeks for installation.
Because Triple Candie was in Harlem, there was a widespread misconception that it showed primarily the work of African American artsts. If gallery visitors weren't familiar with an artist's work, they invariably asked if the artist was black. Certain funders like the New York State Council of the Arts (NYSCA) went so far as to suggest that the gallery change its mission to only show the work of black artists "from Harlem and the many Harlems around the country" (Triple Candie cut off its relationships with NYSCA in response). To fight such expectations and frustrate visitors accordingly, Triple Candie produced two projects that, unintentionally, began to sow the seeds of its future.
In the summers of 2004 and 2005, Triple Candie presented the Anonymous Artist Project I and the Anonymous Artist Project II. For each exhibition, it provided a well known New York artist free reign over its space, with the understanding that both the artist and Triple Candie would rigorously guard the artists' identities in perpetuity. For the artists, these projects were an opportunity to experiment out of the spotlight. For visitors, these shows prompted an understandable frustration; many felt unable to judge the work without information about the artists' backgrounds. About the second Anonymous Artist Project, a prominent curator noted: "Either the artist is highly accomplished or completely naive. I can't tell." Since then, other organizations have curated anonymous artist projects -- i.e. Vienna Succession (2007) -- but in most, if not all, cases the condition of artistic anonymity has been only temporary.
In late 2005, Triple Candie started finding that it was having an increasingly difficult time competing with commercial galleries and museums for artists. With the market at an all time high, artists -- even successful artists with studios in Harlem -- wanted to take advantage of the many high-profile opportunities coming their way and galleries wanted to keep their artists focused on producing work for sale. Responding to its institutional limitations (i.e. a relative lack of power, money, and social connections) and unable to lure artists simply with its gorgeous space, Triple Candie developed a program model that wasn't dependent on artists or their galleries. It began producing exhibitions about art without art. These shows included the most comprehensive retrospective ever of the art of David Hammons, realized with photocopies and computer print-outs and without the artist's approval (David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective); the first survey ever of Cady Noland's art, consisting of thirteen sculptural approximations re-built based on incomplete information gleaned from the internet (Cady Noland Approximately: Selected Work, 1984-2000); and a survey of the work of Lester Hayes, a fictional, bi-racial post-minimal artist (Lester Hayes: Selected Work, 1962-1975). Between 2006 and 2008, the gallery produced a dozen exhibitions in this vein.
In December 2007, Triple Candie's landlord began extensive renovations of its building, beginning with the replacement of its facade. When noise, construction dust, and flooding made it impossible to program, Triple Candie exercised a 3-month escape clause in its newly negotiated five-year lease. It vacated its facility on May 1, 2008. Five months later, Triple Candie signed a lease on a space in a residential neighborhood on Harlem's upper westside and spent more than 1,000 volunteer hours renovating it -- installing a new ceiling, facade, floor, bathroom, lighting, and office area. Triple Candie reopened on February 15, 2009.