‘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).
A fossilized imprint of the domestic, Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Concave and Convex Beds), is a pivotal work from 1992 that exemplifies the key tenets of the artist’s celebrated oeuvre. As if representing an inhale and exhale, the two negative casts of mattresses curves and bow. Serving as ethereal yet tangible memories, 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. Informed by her major monumental works Ghost, 1990, National Gallery of Art, Washington, and House, 1993, for which she won the 1993 Turner Prize, her primary concern are the objects that surround the human body during its lifetime. Of these examples, none are more poignant or haunting than the beds and the mattresses, for they are the plinths on which our most important and profound experiences take place. Human-scaled, Whiteread’s cast mattresses are some of her best known works, with examples in major public museums, such as Untitled (Mattress), 1991 Museum of Modern Art, New York, Untitled (Air Bed II), 1992, with the present work having been exhibited in the artist’s solo exhibition at Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 1992-1993 as well as her retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2001.
Whiteread’s casts reference the reductive, visual language of Minimalism such as Richard Serra, Carl Andre and Donald Judd, but in opposition to their geometric and repetitious nature, Whiteread’s works retain a distinctly human quality. 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 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. 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, 2010, p. 10). Indeed, Whiteread’s work continues a long tradition of British sculpture that can be traced back to Barbara Hepworth, and even more so to her immediate predecessors Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, whose use of discarded everyday objects Whiteread adopted and made her own, using hot water bottles, bathtubs, chairs and tables, and mattresses, as in Whiteread’s Untitled (Concave and Convex Beds).
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). In this light, mattresses serve as sites of our conception, our birth, our dreaming and our death, of our most isolated and fragile moments as well as our most generous and intimate ones. Found on skips or discarded on waste sites, these forgotten documents of life are used by Whiteread to speak of the actualities of life and death. The nuanced casts dramatize the object’s texture, the faintly lined surface and material pliability suggest the imprinted memories of a sleeping body. Untitled (Concave and Convex Beds) asks us to reconsider and scrutinize the meaning of our daily habits and encounters. Though formally rigorous and disciplined, Whiteread’s casts have a haunting and heartbreaking quality rooted in narratives marked by the fragility of life. 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).