“Ghost” by Rachel Whiteread (1990)

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“Ghost” is one of the great artworks of the 20th century, a breakthrough in the most tactile sense of the word. Rachel Whiteread’s 1990 sculpture is a plaster cast of a modest London living room. Imagine that the air inside a Victorian parlor turned to solid stone: “Ghost” is the petrified hulk that would be revealed once the walls were stripped away. Whiteread’s negative impression of the interior setting bears brushes of soot where she cast the inside of the fireplace—a Dickensian flourish that runs through her work.

“Ghost” announced Whiteread as a sensation, the smartest in the class of Young British Artists that seized the art world in the ’90s. Whiteread’s process involves turning architecture into art by rendering everyday voids as inverted solids. With “Ghost,” she flips space inside out, uncovering a severe Brutalist bunker within an anonymous commonspace. Three years later, she took the gesture to its logical conclusion by casting the interior of an entire London home slated for demolition, igniting a storm of controversy that ended with the eerie monument’s destruction.

Within that three-year span is an entire career’s worth of discovery. “House” (1993) might have served as the culmination of the artist’s trajectory, had she not arrived at this masterpiece at just 30 years old, which is also when she won the prestigious Turner Prize. Rachel Whiteread, a survey now on view at the National Gallery of Art, shows how she has carried that practice from such great heights (sometimes to diminishing returns). Despite their heavy presence, Whiteread’s sculptures work best when they register as fleeting ideas.

As with other artists working in the post-minimalist mode, repetition is key in Whiteread’s work. For her “Torso” series, she cast the empty insides of a hot-water bottle in various materials, from rubber to concrete to pink dental plaster. These variations on a theme emphasize the associative nature of her work: She elevates everyday objects, transforming commodities into craft. In making works like “Untitled (Wax Torso)” (1992), her process is simultaneously mythic and methodical—a transubstantiation of one substance into another and a controlled experiment in materials.

Yet a gloom lingers over her work, despite its magical alchemy. As Rachel Whiteread proceeds through the galleries, her casts reach into every part of the home. From resin negatives of clawfoot bathtubs to plaster molds of mattresses, she recreates a living space from its dead air. For “CONTENTS” (2005), Whiteread cast the exterior of boxes she found around her home and studio, creating cubes and prisms in white plaster, her signature. After the death of her mother, she cast some of the boxes she discovered and remembered from her childhood. Negating the personal value of a cherished box of ornaments by tracing its outline in neutral tones is a way of grieving. It’s a process of giving form to the cloud of conflicting and inaccessible emotions that follow a parent’s death. This series culminated in “Embankment” (2005), a warehouse’s worth of polyethylene-cast boxes she installed in the Tate Modern’s monumental Turbine Hall—a depiction, perhaps, of the overwhelming scale of her loss.

Some of Whiteread’s work strays from this focused thinking about memory. More recent works, including casts of windows and doors in clear resin, are more literal (and colorful). They can’t hope to follow “Untitled (Domestic)” (2002), an immense and unsettling plaster cast of the negative space of a stairwell, although they too suggest barriers that can’t be crossed. Color isn’t all bad in Whiteread’s work. One gallery assembles smaller sculptures—casts of cans and other sundries on shelves—that showcase a delightful range of pastels. In the context of this show, these are positive works, in the sense that they build up to something more, something different, than a reflection of a familiar object.

Whiteread’s stolid stairwell stands sentry in the East Building’s open atrium. “Ghost” probably belongs there, too: Her monument is too cramped in the galleries, which show the limitations of a museum better suited for hanging pictures. Concrete, resin, and other industrial surfaces cry out for the dapple of natural light. (“Ghost”—a gift to the National Gallery from Glenstone, the private contemporary art museum in Potomac, Maryland—is usually installed in pride of place in the East Building’s atrium, as pictured.) Nevertheless, the show, curated by the National Gallery’s Molly Donovan with Tate Britain’s Ann Gallagher, is an ideal survey, arranged roughly chronologically with a few loop-de-loops to highlight specific themes.

Only impressions remain of Whiteread’s very best artwork, her house-sized negative image of a home, which was always meant to be temporary but fell victim to a zealous not-in-my-backyard campaign in a matter of weeks. The survey includes historical footage of “House” as well as “Monument” (2001), her contribution to London’s Fourth Plinth, the site of an ongoing contemporary art series. This invitational asks contemporary artists to erect a sculpture (in lieu of a grand equestrian statue) on an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. Whiteread cast the plinth itself in transparent resin, installing it upside down to form a mirror image. “Monument” is both winking and moody, a piece that might inspire a viewer to snicker or mourn.

One gallery in the East Building assembles a collection of ever-more-mundane casts by Whiteread, from inversions of teaspoons to the negative space occupied by high-heeled shoes. Alongside sketches, these artifacts ground her as a disciplined documentarian (and something of a magpie). The gallery offers a revealing and surprisingly playful slice-of-life view of an artist who from her very start has worked in sweeping strokes.

It’s only fitting that Whiteread’s arc proceeds from masterpiece to marginalia. She relishes in such inversions, flipping inside out and bending backward forward. Rachel Whiteread reveals an artist who works, well, sculpturally. She has pursued a concept of negative space as if she were gradually revealing the figure within a block of marble. Of course, it’s the space without that she makes her medium. And in that realm, she’s asking big questions about art, about knowledge, about epistemology and ontology. Even in its philosophy, Whiteread’s work runs in an opposite direction: using a postmodern strategy to suss out Platonic forms. At its best, Whiteread’s work teaches us how to look. 

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