The sculpture magician Rachel Whiteread  

Rachel Whiteread’s world in a single room at Tate Britain

I was immediately attracted by the nod to Minimalism and architecture, and the raw use of basic materials by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963): concrete, wax, resin, rubber, plaster and metal. It also helps that the walls of the rooms at the Tate Britain exhibition had been removed and visitors were able to enter Whiteread’s world in a single uninterrupted room. On AskaCurator day, Hattie Spires told me the walls had been removed to the same extent that they had been for the Abracadabra show back in 1999.

Rachel Whiteread Untitled (Pink Torso), 1995 © Rachel Whiteread Photo: Seraphina Neville and Mark Heathcote © Tate

Stack of boxes in EMBANKMENT occupied Tate’s Turbine Hall in 2005

I know Rachel Whiteread from her labyrinth-like structure EMBANKMENT, made from 14,000 casts of the insides of different boxes, stacked to occupy Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2005. EMBANKMENT started with an old cardboard box that Whiteread found in her mother’s house after she died, leaving “ghosts of interior spaces” or “positive impressions of negative spaces”. Whiteread was one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) who exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition in 1997 and also the first woman to win the Turner Prize in 1993.


Rachel Whiteread Embankment (on view at Tate Modern in 2005-06)

Casts of negative spaces i.e. the spaces between, under or around objects

Whiteread’s sculptures are typically casts formed from pouring a liquid material into a mould and solidified. They are often casts of negative space, i.e. the space between, under, or around things. I took a Cézanne-influenced drawing lesson at the National Gallery years ago. The tutor insisted on the spaces between the tea cup and the jar, the cup and apples in Cezanne’s still-life works as being as – if not more – important than the objects themselves. We see in Whiteread’s sculptures the space that surrounds and defines an object: Untitled (Book Corridors) 1997-98 is a cast of the spaces between shelves, rather than the apparent books on shelves.


Untitled (One Hundred Spaces) 1995, Pinault Collection. © Rachel Whiteread, photo: © Tate (Andrew Dunkley and Seraphine

Legacy of Minimalism but Whiteread departs from its impersonality

I noted a legacy to Minimalism particularly in her floor works that reminded me of American Minimal sculptor Carl Andre’s floor sculptures. Whiteread’s works are only a reference to Minimalism, however. Minimalism makes no attempt to represent the real world, an experience, emotion or feeling. While Carl Andre’s standard industrial units of metal plates are arranged in simple arithmetic combinations and Donald Judd’s industrially fabricated cubes explore repetition and mass production, Whiteread includes human stories in her works, based on objects often being held, inhabited and used beforehand.

Rachel Whiteread is on at Tate Britain 12 September – 21 January 2018

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