Hammer Museum, Los Angeles CA
January 31 – April 25, 2010
Originally published in ArtUS 29
Unlike the other famous British artists of her generation—Damien Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracy Emin et al.—Rachel Whiteread can’t be called nimble. In 1989, shortly after graduating from art school, Whiteread made her first cast-plaster sculpture, Flap, a whitish block representing the negative space surrounding a hinged wooden table (an echo of Bruce Nauman’s 1965 Cast of the Space Beneath My Chair), and ever since her work has tended to cleave to that initial sculpture’s methods, themes, and materials. Ghostly, somber, often monumental, emotionally immediate, legible across languages and cultures, her best-known sculptures communicate a kind of mute sadness regarding the passage of time, mortality, and carved-up space—qualities that have made Whiteread a natural choice for public projects like Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, completed in 2000. But her tight focus captions a limited correspondence with the world. By 2001, when, invited by the Royal Society of Arts to create a sculpture for an empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square, she cast the plinth in resin and inverted the duplicate atop the plinth to make a transparent echo of the original form, one sensed that the realm of possible choices in her art had come full circle.
“Rachel Whiteread Drawings,” at the Hammer Museum (through April 25), organized by Allegra Pesenti, doesn’t cause a major shift in our understanding of the past trajectory and shape of Whiteread’s practice, but it softens the edges and admits a great deal of light and air. The show fades Whiteread’s sculpture into the background, bringing over 120 of her works on paper—not preparatory or technical drawings, but works created in parallel to the sculptures, and mostly, until now, filed away in Whiteread’s studio—to center stage. Often fluid and lively, they indeed reveal another side to a familiar artist, striking different, more delicate notes while still ruminating on themes of absence, time, and the structure of human habitats. Their materials correspond closely to her three-dimensional work: yellow-white correction fluid assumes the blanked-out quality of plaster; ruddy varnish echoes the feel of resin; graph paper refers to sculptural space. Other media include ink, watercolor, gouache, silver leaf, and collaged photos, all laid down, for the most part, in a palette mirroring the muted tones of her sculpture.
The best drawings in the show are highly elegant and playful. A 1993 study shows a herringbone floor spilling out irreverently from its pattern, loosening into a wavering grid of diamonds at the bottom of the page. In two 1995 drawings done in white correction fluid on black paper, long lines flow down from every right angle on a pair of staircases, creating a screen of layered vertical threads, as if the architecture were unraveling. Untitled (Torso) (1990), a simple pencil drawing of a water bottle, its contours traced several times, evokes a chest expanding with breath, beautifully distilling a relationship between body and built environment in a few economical strokes. A cabinet displaying a cross-section of the numerous collected objects Whiteread keeps in her studio, including such colorful curios as a group of shoe lathes, miniature furniture, and a bronze cast of her ear, provides another playful and revealing moment, while a series of drawings on postcards contains some gems. An untitled 2005 work consisting of differently sized holes punched through a postcard of a Gothic cathedral, the whole picture Swiss-cheesed except for the ceiling and pillars, makes an inspired poster image for this exhibition, since it literally ventilates a stuffy image and is also delightful.
Pesenti devotes the final galleries to Whiteread’s later work, from a 2005 installation of cast cardboard boxes at the Tate’s Turbine Hall (which seems to mark a turn to intimate scale in her art) to more recent projects like studies of villages and streets that incorporate brighter and more varied colors—evidence that Whiteread has emerged from the funnel neck and found directions in which to expand.