Exhibit of the week
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., through Jan. 13
The label “greatest living British artist” has long been abused, said Eric Gibson in The Wall Street Journal. But Rachel Whiteread is “the one person who deserves it.” She has built a career on making three-dimensional casts of negative space—air pockets as small as the underside of a spoon and as large as the interior of a house. The resulting work inverts our expectations of what sculpture is by solidifying absence instead of replicating the things we see. At first blush, the resulting art appears minimalist: simple, solid blocks of resin and plaster, said Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. But “Whiteread’s work has a curious habit of migrating out of the usual boxes or categories one might think should contain it.” Her casts of throwaway items such as toilet paper rolls emit a pop-art insouciance, and her room interiors feel like ghostly memorials. Her casts of doors and windows—done in translucent colored resin—are at once coolly cerebral and “so seductive you almost want to lick them.”
Her work, as seen in the National Gallery’s 100-piece retrospective, represents “a model of unshaken artistic commitment over half a lifetime,” said Jason Farago in The New York Times. Whiteread learned casting techniques in art school, and in her first gallery show, in 1988, she exhibited haunting plaster casts of a hot-water bottle and three familiar pieces of furniture. The apparent preoccupation with domesticity had a political element: Whiteread’s first monumental sculpture, 1990’s Ghost, appears to be a faithful casting of the parlor in a Victorian-era rowhouse, complete with a soot-tinged fireplace. Because it arrived after an era of widespread demolition of middle-class housing, “the sculpture is a mausoleum for a certain social class, a certain way of life.” Three years later, Whiteread memorialized an entire condemned home, represented in this show by photos and video. House, like its source, was destroyed, but not before it helped Whiteread become the first woman to receive the Turner Prize, awarded each year to the best young artist in the United Kingdom.
House might have been a career capstone—“had she not arrived at this masterpiece at just 30 years old,” said Kriston Capps in the Washington City Paper. Not all of her output since has been as indelible, though Untitled (Domestic), a 2002 cast of the jagged underbelly of a staircase, is both immense and unsettling. In more recent years, she’s trained her eye on “ever more mundane” objects—shoes, aluminum cans, packing boxes—and revealed a more playful side in the process. In the end, perhaps “it’s only fitting that Whiteread’s arc proceeds from masterpiece to marginalia.” She is, after all, a master of inversion, an artist uniquely attuned to what we don’t see. “At its best, her work teaches us how to look.” ■