Rachel Whiteread, CBE (born 20 April 1963) is an English artist who primarily produces sculptures, which typically take the form of casts. She was the first woman to win the annual Turner Prize in 1993.
Whiteread was one of the Young British Artists who exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition in 1997. Among her most renowned works are House, a large concrete cast of the inside of an entire Victorian house, the holocaust memorial sculpture in Judenplatz Vienna and her resin sculpture for the empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Early life and education
Whiteread was born in 1963 in Ilford, Essex, and raised in the Essex countryside until age seven, when the family moved to London. Her mother, Patricia Whiteread (née Lancaster), who was also an artist, died in 2003 at the age of 72. Her father, Thomas Whiteread, was a geography teacher, polytechnic administrator and lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, who died when Whiteread was studying at art school in 1988. She is the third of three sisters – the older two being identical twins.
Whiteread studied at the Faculty of Arts and Architecture, Brighton Polytechnic from 1982 to 1985. Though she graduated with a BA in painting, she spent much of her time doing sculpture. She took a workshop on casting with the sculptor Richard Wilson and began to realize the possibilities in casting objects. She was briefly at the Cyprus College of Art. From 1985 to 1987 she studied sculpture at Slade School of Art, University College, London, graduating with an MA in 1987. For a time she worked in Highgate Cemetery fixing lids back onto time-damaged coffins. She began to exhibit in 1987, with her first solo exhibition coming in 1988. She lives and works in a former synagogue in east London with long-term partner and fellow sculptor Marcus Taylor. They have two sons.
Many of Whiteread’s works are casts of ordinary domestic objects and, in numerous cases, their so-called negative space. For example, she is known for making solid casts of the open space in and around pieces of furniture such as tables and chairs, architectural details and even entire rooms and buildings. She says the casts carry “the residue of years and years of use”. Whiteread mainly focuses on the line and the form for her pieces.
While still at the Slade, Whiteread cast domestic objects and created her first sculpture, Closet. She made a plaster cast of the interior of a wooden wardrobe and covered it with black felt. It was based on comforting childhood memories of hiding in a dark closet. After she graduated she rented space for a studio using the Enterprise Allowance Scheme. She created Shallow Breath (1988), the cast of the underside of a bed, made not long after her father died. Both sculptures were exhibited in her first solo show in 1988 along with casts of other domestic pieces. The work all sold and allowed her to apply for grants to find funding for larger sculptures.
After her first solo exhibition, Whiteread decided to cast the space that her domestic objects could have inhabited. She applied for grants, describing the project as “mummifying the air in a room.” She completed Ghost in 1990. It was cast from a room in a house on Archway Road in north London, much like the house she grew up in. The road was being widened and the house torn down. She used plaster to cast the parlor walls and ceiling in sections and assembled them on a metal frame.
Ghost was first shown at the nonprofit Chisenhale Gallery. It was purchased by Charles Saatchi and included with other works by Whiteread in his first “Young British Art” show in 1992. In May 2004 a fire in a Momart storage warehouse destroyed many works from the Saatchi collection, including, it is believed, some by Whiteread. However Ghost had recently been moved from the warehouse to the new Gagosian Gallery in London. The work was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in the autumn of 2004.
House and the Turner Prize
In October 1993 Whiteread completed House, the cast of a Victorian terrace house. She had begun considering casting an entire house in 1991. She and James Lingwood of Artangel looked at houses to be torn down in North and East London in 1992, but without success in securing one. During this period in 1992 and 1993 Whiteread had an artist residency in Berlin with a scholarship from the DAAD Artist’s Programme. While in Berlin, she created Untitled (Room), the cast of a generic, anonymous room that she built herself. She finished the interior of a room-size box with wallpaper, windows and door before casting. The sculpture is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
House, perhaps her best known work, was a concrete cast of the inside of an entire Victorian terraced house completed in autumn 1993, exhibited at the location of the original house – 193 Grove Road – in East London (all the houses in the street had earlier been knocked down by the council). It drew mixed responses, winning her both the Turner Prize for best young British artist in 1993 and the K Foundation art award for worst British artist. She was the first woman to win a Turner Prize. Tower Hamlets London Borough Council demolished House on 11 January 1994, a decision which caused some controversy itself.
Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) (1997)
For the Sensation exhibition in 1997, Whiteread exhibited Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), a series of resin casts of the space underneath chairs. This work can be seen as a descendant of Bruce Nauman’s concrete cast of the area under his chair of 1965.
The critical response included:
“like a field of large glace sweets, it is her most spectacular, and benign installation to date […] Monuments to domesticity, they are like solidified jellies, opalescent ice-cubes, or bars of soap – lavender, rose, spearmint, lilac. They look like a regulated graveyard or a series of futuristic standing stones with a passing resemblance to television sets.”
— Andrew Lambirth, The Spectator, 12 October 1996.
“Particularly effective when bathed in natural light, it creates beauty from domestic nothingness.”
— Nick Hackworth, Evening Standard (London), 12 November 2002.
In 1998, Whiteread made Water Tower as part of a grant for New York City’s Public Art Fund. The piece, which is 12′ 2” and 9′ in diameter, was a translucent resin cast of a water tower installed on a rooftop in New York City’s SoHo district. It has been called “an extremely beautiful object, which changes colour with the sky, and also a very appropriate one, celebrating one of the most idiosyncratic and charming features of the New York skyline.” The piece is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)]]. Just as Ghost led on to the larger and better known House, so Water Tower led to the more public Trafalgar Square plinth work three years later.
Holocaust Monument a.k.a. Nameless Library (2000)
Holocaust Monument (2000) Judenplatz, Vienna
Whiteread’s casts often seem to emphasise the fact that the objects they represent are not themselves there, and critics have often regarded her work to be redolent of death and absence. Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that she was asked by Austrian authorities to create a work in remembrance of Austrian Jews killed during the Holocaust. Due to political sensitivities and bureaucracy the process, from commission to unveiling, took five years.
The work turned out to be Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (2000; also known as Nameless Library) and is located in the centre of the Judenplatz in Vienna. It is a work in cast concrete, with the walls made up of rows of books, with the pages, rather than the spines, turned outward; this can be regarded as a comment on Jews as a “people of the book” and the Nazi book burnings. On one of the walls is the negative cast of double-doors.
Untitled Monument (2001)
Stuckist demonstration against the unveiling of Untitled Monument, 4 June 2001.
With Untitled Monument (2001), (also variously known as Plinth or Inverted Plinth), Whiteread became the third artist to provide a sculpture for the empty Fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. Her sculpture was an 11-ton resin cast of the plinth itself, made by Mike Smith Studio, London, which stood upsidedown, making a sort of mirror-image of the plinth. It was said to be the largest object ever made out of resin, taking eight attempts to produce due to the resin cracking. The work was produced in two-halves and surface blisters of the cast repaired by picking them off and filling the small craters with a syringe of resin. Unusually for a public work, she raised the funds for the piece herself by selling maquettes (small preparatory models); this was no small gesture with the mold alone costing over £100,000 and the total cost estimated at £225,000
The critical response included:
“This dazzling anti-monument monument looks like a glass coffin, but its watery transparency relates to the large fountain that dominates the Trafalgar plaza. Following the aquatic theme, Whiteread’s Monument evokes the scene of the 1805 naval battle for which the square is named.”
— David Ebony, Artnet
“It’s a simple trick, but an effective one, and the associations it conjures – heaviness and lightness, earth and heaven, death and life – are thought-provoking and manifold […] Whiteread’s Monument, as light and gleaming as the plinth is dark and squat, is the only one of the four commissioned pieces to allude directly to the plinth’s defining emptiness. She sees it not as a space to be filled, but as an absence to be acknowledged, and she does it well.”
— Ned Denny, New Statesman, 9 July 2001.
Snow Show (2004)
“The challenge has been to work in collaboration with an architect [Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa] in a completely unfamiliar material. At this point, there is a 3-dimensional model of an actual stairwell space in East London, electronic imagery and a wooden mould that is being constructed in Rovaniemi, Finland. I know that the piece will be made from snow and will have a feeling of solidity; the viewer will be able to walk into it. The form is based upon a simple stairwell space that has been turned by 90 degrees. The exterior of the piece is a pragmatic solution simply reflecting the complex geometry of the interior. The new space should feel familiar and domestic. I hope that it will disorientate the viewer and make one think of other places.”
— Rachel Whiteread
In spring 2004, she was offered the annual Unilever series commission to produce a piece for Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall, delaying acceptance for five to six months until she was confident she could conceive of a work to fill the space. Throughout the latter half of September 2005 and mid-way into October her work Embankment was installed and was made public on 10 October. It consists of some 14,000 translucent, white polyethylene boxes (themselves casts of the inside of cardboard boxes) stacked in various ways; some in very tall mountain-like peaks and others in lower (though still over human height), rectangular, more levelled arrangements. They are fixed in position with adhesive. She cited the end scenes of both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Citizen Kane as visual precursors; she also spoke of the death of her mother and a period of upheaval which involved packing and moving comparable boxes. It is also thought that her recent trip to the Arctic is an inspiration, although critics counter that white is merely the colour the polyethylene comes in, and it would have added significantly to the expense to dye them. The boxes were manufactured from casts of ten distinct cardboard boxes by a company that produces grit bins and traffic bollards.
The critical response included:
“With this work Whiteread has deepened her game, and made a work as rich and subtle as it is spectacular. Whatever else it is, Embankment is generous and brave, a statement of intent.”
— Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 11 October 2005.
“Everything feels surprisingly domestic in scale, the intimidating vistas of the Turbine Hall shrunk down to irregular paths and byways. From atop the walkway, it looks like a storage depot that is steadily losing the plot; from inside, as you thread your way between the mounds of blocks, it feels more like an icy maze.”
— Andrew Dickson, The Guardian, 10 October 2005.
“This is another example of meritless gigantism that could be anywhere, and is the least successful of the gallery’s six attempts to exploit its most unsympathetic space,”
— Brian Sewell, London Evening Standard, October 2005.
“[looks] like a random pile of giant sugar cubes […] Luckily, the £400,000 sponsored work is recyclable.”
— Stephen Moyes, Daily Mirror, 11 October 2005.
Charity Box (2007)
Whiteread created this small, plaster sculpture for a charity auction by the Prior Weston PTA, in support of the Prior Weston primary school in Islington, London.
The piece measures, a comparatively tiny, 16 cm x 11.5 cm x 11.5 cm.
Angel of the South (2008)
She was one of the five artists shortlisted for the Angel of the South project in January 2008.
The Gran Boathouse (2010)
The Gran Boathouse is located on the waters edge in Gran Norway. From a distance it looks like any other boathouse, but closer inspection reveals that this is a work of art in concrete. The work is a cast of the interior of an old boathouse. Whiteread turns the boathouse inside out thereby capturing a moment in time. In this way she encourages us to reflect on what we see around us. “I have mummified the air inside the boathouse”, says Rachel Whiteread. “I wanted to make a shy sculpture, a sculpture that would stand there peaceful and noble”. The boathouse and its interior had all the qualities that she was looking for. It represented the history of place. The sculpture is preserving what would otherwise have been lost.
Work since 2012
Cast from generic wooden sheds, Detached 1, Detached 2, and Detached 3 (2012) render the empty interior of a garden shed in concrete and steel. Circa 1665 (I) (2012), LOOK, LOOK, LOOK (2012) and Loom (2012) belong to a series cast from doors and windows in shades of rose, eau-de-nil, or steely resin. Propped against or affixed to walls, the sculptures glow with absorbed and reflected light.
Other works like Untitled (Amber) (2012) and Untitled (Green) (2012) are diminutive cardboard constructions mounted on graphite-marked notepaper, painted with silver leaf and complete with celluloid “windows” that refer to the resin sculptures.