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What to expect from Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

Eddy Frankel

She’s a major voice in contemporary art, known for her imposing cast concrete sculptures. Now she’s getting the full retrospective treatment. Here’s the lowdown

It’s important

When she won the Turner Prize in 1993, Rachel Whiteread became the first woman to do so. It was a landmark moment in the recognition of women in art (I mean, what, had there been no good female artists before 1993? Sheesh), and this show celebrates the legacy of that: 25 years of sculpture that’s so immediately recognisable, so unique and influential that we might as well call it Whitereadian. By casting the ‘negative spaces’ of her environment – creating impressions of the space inside a house, for example, instead of the shape of the outside – she’s created a body of work that’s haunting, imposing and, yeah, important.

Untitled (Stairs), © Rachel Whiteread

It’s big

Whiteread’s most notable works are also generally her biggest. She won the Turner Prize for ‘House’, a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced house in Mile End which was due for demolition. For ‘Embankment’ in 2005, she filled the Tate’s Turbine Hall with huge towering piles of casts of the inside of a cardboard box. But she’s also made loads of smaller pieces, working with objects like mattresses and hot water bottles, always maintaining her ghostly, minimal approach
to sculpture.

Untitled (Pink Torso), Courtesy the artist and Gagosian © Rachel Whiteread Photo: © Tate (Seraphina Neville and Mark Heathcote)

It’s emotional

This isn’t just sculpture for the sake of sculpture. Whiteread’s art works because of its emotional resonance. She found the cardboard box that inspired ‘Embankment’ in her mother’s house just after she died, for example. Whether it’s the wordless library of her Austrian public Holocaust memorial or the memories of forgotten lives captured in her cast house, Whiteread is all about evocative power and emotional gut punches.

Rachel Whiteread is at Tate Britain from Tue Sep 12, find our four star review here.


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