‘Whiteread’s sculpture deals obliquely with social issues, but it is not social history, and making it work in sculptural terms is the principal aim. One can see that she is dependent upon the formal language of the 1960s American minimalist sculpture, and also acknowledges British sculpture of the previous generation’ (P. Elliot, quoted in Rachel Whiteread, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2001, p. 10).
Crafting intangible spaces, Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Twenty-five spaces), exemplifies the key tenets of the artist’s celebrated oeuvre. Casting the space underneath chairs in semi-translucent resin, the forms glow in ethereal amber, rose, and citrine. Arranged in a perfect grid, the rows of luminous, irregular forms occupy space; yet in their translucence they transcending materiality, appearing to float above the floor. Whiteread’s casts of everyday objects form a quiet and powerful body of work that fixes in form the echoes and residue of past human existence and experience. Whiteread’s primary concern focuses on the objects that surround the human body during its lifetime. The negative space underneath the chairs suggests both presence and absence, positive and negative space.
A ghostly yet solid memory of the piece of furniture, Whiteread’s subjects are inspired by both public and personal narratives, driven by ‘an autobiographical impulse, using something familiar, to do with my childhood’ (R. Whiteread, quoted in Rachel Whiteread, exh. cat., Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1992, p.8). This emotive quality is mirrored in the delicate indexical impressions of the chairs. Each unique sculptural element bares the imprint of a particular chair. Following the contours of the legs, the grooves and joints are echoed in the notches and stacked edges around the parameters of the blocks. The gentle curves and bows reflect the underside of the seat. The tactility of the elements is startling; the textured creases evoke the worn chairs of a child’s schoolroom or a family dinner table. The creases and indents of the chair are clearly visible on the surface and denote traces of their origins. Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures solidify space; these particular casts have a strongly material presence. As Fiona Bradley suggests, ‘they hold and occupy space, speaking to the viewer and to each other of the domestic landmarks of human experience’ (F. Bradley, Rachel Whiteread Shedding Life, exh. cat., Tate Liverpool, Liverpool, 1996, p. 34). Situated like isolated cutouts in an expanse of empty space, the blocks represent the now absent, parent chairs.
Laid out in a gridded formation, in its configuration the installation recalls a city lying some distance below. Building upon his earlier casts of dilapidated houses such as House for which she won the 1993 Turner Prize, Whiteread further challenged the preconceived notion of what is considered ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ in the creation of a sculpture. She accomplished this by casting the negative domestic objects of furniture, rooms, to entire buildings. Instead of the Minimalist’s neat dichotomy, Whiteread posits an emotional relationship to her sculpture refusing to prioritise either category. She proffers a pure expression of her concept by casting the negative space beneath chairs, thus simultaneously representing both presence and absence.
The seriality of the composition is balanced by the subtle variations in each sculpture, not unlike the conceptual sculptures of Sol Le Witt. Indeed Whiteread’s casts reference the reductive, visual language of Minimalism such as Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Donald Judd. But in striking opposition to their geometric and repetitious nature, Whiteread’s works retain a distinctly human quality. With closer inspection, the work reveals itself as a powerful subversion of such concerns, instead seeking to engage the viewer in a new experience of space. She thus promotes a stark awareness of human perception. In contrast, Whiteread’s practice is borne not from an emotionally austere framework, but rather from an intensely personal narrative. ‘Whiteread’s sculpture deals obliquely with social issues, but it is not social history, and making it work in sculptural terms is the principal aim. Though formally rigorous and disciplined, Whiteread’s casts have a haunting and heartbreaking quality rooted in narratives marked by the fragility of life. Whiteread’s choice of material, whether plaster, resin or rubber, lends her work a transparency and fragility that revels in the soft edge, and echoes the imperfect spaces created by traces of human life, rather than the machinelike precision used to create the objective and overwhelmingly masculine sculptures of Minimalism. In privileging overlooked places, and creating memories of seeming empty spaces, Whiteread makes visible the invisible.