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Rachel Whiteread - Biography and Legacy

British Sculptor

Born: April 20, 1963 - Ilford, United Kingdom

Biography of Rachel Whiteread


Born in Ilford in Essex, Rachel Whiteread moved to London when she was seven. Her mother, the artist Patricia Whiteread, was involved in important exhibitions of feminist art at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts in the 1980s. Consequently, Whiteread and her older twin sisters grew up surrounded by art and materials for art making. Her father Thomas, a geography teacher, supported his wife's artistic career, and converted part of their house into a studio, where Whiteread remembers helping to install a concrete floor as a child. The artist has frequently cited the importance of her upbringing to her later artistic practice, feeling a particular debt to her geographically minded father, "whose interest in industrial archaeology enabled me to look up" and appreciate concepts of architecture, spatiality, and memory.

As a child, Whiteread was sent to a progressive public school, which she remembers as "awful [...] but I kind of loved it; it was a big world soup, fights all the time, influxes of Bangladeshis, Greeks, Turks, Romanians, a really interesting bunch of people all thrown together. I wasn't good at school. I didn't behave or sit down, I mucked about, doing what I could do to get by."

Early Training and Work

After school, Whiteread studied fine art on a foundation course and then painting at Brighton Polytechnic. While she was at Brighton, she studied under British sculptor Richard Wilson, who taught her the casting technique that would be so vital to her later career. She applied for courses in both painting and sculpture at London's Slade School of Fine Art, and chose sculpture, revealing later that "I couldn't make things stay on the wall ... they always ended up on the floor". At the Slade her tutors included Alison Wilding and Phyllida Barlow, two highly revered sculptors working today.

By the time she graduated in 1998, Whiteread had hit upon her signature style, casting the negative spaces inherent in everyday objects. The year after she graduated, Whiteread had her first exhibition at a small London gallery, where she showed just four pieces. These included casts of the interior of a wardrobe and the space underneath a bed, works which marked the beginning of her mature period.

At this time, she was living in East London and her a studio was part of a large complex in Carpenters Road in Stratford. She remembers her time there fondly, but recalls that the area was quite run-down at the time: "There were a few of us: Grayson Perry, Fiona Banner, Fiona Rae, Simon English. It was a sort of silent club: if you could survive Carpenters Road, you could survive anywhere. It was the Badlands."

Although Whiteread knew other artists of her generation, she always felt separate from them due to her lack of interest in being in the media: "People like Grayson Perry, who I shared a studio with back when he was still struggling, great show-offs who want to be in the media all the time... It's not for me."

Mature Period

Whiteread's self-assurance in her own practice (which has changed remarkably little in the last 30 years) is perhaps what helped her to become well known and respected relatively quickly. In 1990, at the age of 27, Whiteread created her early masterpiece Ghost at London's Chisenhale Gallery, and was subsequently nominated for the Turner Prize. In 1992, one of her pieces was selected for the prestigious Documenta IX exhibition. She was also included in exhibitions of work by Young British Artists such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, even though she was not generally a part of that group.

The following year, Whiteread produced arguably her most important - and certainly most debated - work. Untitled (House) was a cast of an entire Victorian terraced house in London's East End that had been scheduled for demolition. The work, which was shown in situ, caused huge public controversy, and became a symbol of "contemporary art" in the press (for those both for and against it). Some critics loved it, but a petition for its removal received a large number of signatures. Whiteread recalls that it was very unusual for the general press to be interested in contemporary art at the time: "You have to remember, it wasn't like it is now, with art being this rock 'n' roll thing with the media."

Whiteread was awarded the Turner Prize in November 1993 (the first woman ever to achieve this), but the local council ruled that Untitled (House) should be destroyed on the same day. Whiteread was also awarded £40,000 for being the "worst artist of the year" by the K Foundation ¬- a pop music duo whose career had made them enough money to burn - who claimed they would set light to the cash if she didn't accept it. Whiteread found the whole process stressful and ended up accepting it and then giving most of it away. In January 1994, House was destroyed; the contractor chosen to carry out the task claimed "'It's not art, it's a lump of concrete." The art world, however, was outraged, seeing Untitled (House) as an important milestone in contemporary art.

In 1995, Whiteread's work was shown as part of the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

In the same year, she was awarded a commission to produce a memorial to the holocaust in the city of Vienna. As part of the planning and fabrication process, the artist travelled in Germany and Eastern Europe to sites where Nazi atrocities took place and to cemeteries and battlegrounds, deepening her understanding of the issues. Due to the political and sensitive nature of the commission, it took five years to come to fruition, but it also led to a series of public and institutional commissions for Whiteread from around the world.

In 1999, Whiteread and her partner - the sculptor Marcus Taylor - bought a former synagogue in Bethnal Green, London, which had most recently been used as a place for storing textiles. Whiteread spent several months using her casting method to get to know the building and its architectural elements. In the years that followed, the area became fashionable, partly due to the influx of artists and designers during the early 2000s. Whiteread and her partner later moved away, but when asked if she felt guilty about adding to the area's gentrification, she replied: "Guilty! For changing Shoreditch? No. We bought a weird building that had been empty for years, and it took people like us to work out a way of living there."

In 2003, Whiteread was pregnant with her first son, Connor, when her mother unexpectedly died after a routine operation. Whiteread and her sisters waited a year before they felt able to go through their mother's possessions. It was this experience of encountering boxes of objects and images from her childhood that inspired her to make a series of works based on cast boxes, including her huge 2005 Tate Modern installation Embankment.

Current practice

More recently, Whiteread has cut down her studio size and is working with fewer assistants. Consequently, her recent work has been on a smaller scale than the earlier monumental pieces from the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2007, she gave birth to her second son, Tommy. After this event, Whiteread began to introduce more color into her work, where white, grey and organic colors had previously predominated. Some of these works include translucent resin casts of windows and doors. She has also taken on a number of commissions creating casts of small sheds for locations including London, New York, and Norway.

The Legacy of Rachel Whiteread

Whiteread's <i>Boathouse</i> (2010), set on the shore of a Norwegian fjord

Rachel Whiteread is one of Britain's leading contemporary artists. As the first woman to have won the Turner Prize, Whiteread is an important figure for many contemporary female artists especially in having developed a way of working that is not focused on women's issues or on an explicitly feminist view point - indeed the industrial scale and materials of many of her sculptures takes any consideration of her work beyond any reductionist reading around gender.

Whiteread's remarkably consistent use of the casting method has changed perceptions of how an artist can create variety within their practice; rather than experimenting with different media, she has used the same basic method to push the media of plaster and resin to their limits. In her work she continues to experiment with ideas around space, perception and memory creating, through allusion and suggestion, pieces that have a highly emotional and sometimes political content. Although not an actual part of the group, Whiteread's loose association with the Young British Artists movement also meant that she is part of a key legacy that would influence British art for several years.

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Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Nicky Hodge

"Rachel Whiteread Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Nicky Hodge
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First published on 18 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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