Seeing a great piece of art can take you from one place to another—it can enhance daily life, reflect our times and, in that sense, change the way you think and are.
In Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures and drawings, everyday settings, objects, and surfaces are transformed into ghostly replicas that are eerily familiar. Through casting, she frees her subject matter—from beds, tables, and boxes to water towers and entire houses—from practical use, suggesting a new permanence, imbued with memory.
During her childhood in London, Whiteread’s parents’ interests in art and architecture made an enormous impact on her understanding of form and material. Her father’s fascination with urban architecture “enabled [her] to look up,” and her mother’s artistic practice allowed her to see the intersection of home and studio, life and art. Whiteread fondly remembers helping her father lay a concrete floor in their basement to convert it into a studio. The processes of looking, emptying, and filling run throughout her work, revealing how the surfaces of daily life can disappear and reappear, bearing the traces of their previous lives.
Whiteread studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic and sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1980s. In 1988 she had her first solo exhibition, at the Carlisle Gallery in London, which included the sculptures Shallow Breath (1988), cast from the underside of a divan, and Torso (1988), the first in a series of cast hot water bottles. The Torso sculptures (1988–) are notably the only works in her oeuvre that make direct anthropomorphic reference. This exhibition marked the beginning of Whiteread’s use of domestic items; in these early pieces, she often left remnants of the original objects—such as scraps of wood—embedded into the cast forms.
Ghost (1990) was Whiteread’s first large-scale sculpture and set in motion the ambitious, architecturally scaled works for which she is widely recognized today. Made by filling a room of a Victorian house in North London with concrete to create a solid cast that picks up the details of the walls, mantle, and windows, Ghost is a positive room-sized object that reveals itself gradually, as one encircles the huge form. Whiteread expanded on this working method in House (1993; destroyed 1994), cast from an entire Victorian terrace house. Whiteread created this work after all the other terraces in the row had been demolished, and it stood alone as a reminder of the working-class homes that once spanned the street. The sculpture sparked heated debates around issues of real estate, class divisions, and urban sprawl.
Whiteread’s first public commission in New York, Water Tower (1998), was cast from one of the city’s distinctive rooftop water towers in clear resin. “On a cloudy, gray day,” Whiteread explained, “it might just completely disappear. And on a really bright blue-sky day, it will ignite.” This ethereal presence contrasts with the weight of her Holocaust Memorial (2000), permanently installed in Vienna. Dedicated to the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered during the Holocaust, the sculpture resembles, in the words of James Lawrence, “a private library turned inside out,” each wall lined with rows of nameless books, with two permanently closed doors on the front. In 2018 Whiteread’s US Embassy (Flat pack house) (2013–15) was unveiled at the United States Embassy in London, where the cast sections of an average 1950s suburban American house, arranged as separate geometric planes on a wall, greet visitors as they enter through the consular court.