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In the Anti-Room, No One's Home

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page C01

Rachel Whiteread's "Ghost" (1990) was famous before it got here. Over the weekend it went on view at the National Gallery of Art, which has just acquired it. "Ghost" is the ghost of a room. The room, which is the opposite of famous, is a parlor in a narrow rowhouse in a working-class street in the East End of London. "Ghost" is a cast of the empty space inside it. It's classical and august. The room isn't. It's unluxurious and little and sad.

The air in it -- air that Whiteread's plaster visually solidifies -- once would have smelled of mildew and damp wool and boiled cabbage, but not anymore. One odd thing about works of art is how much they can change after being made. The air in Whiteread's piece has been perfumed, most expensively perfumed.

Rachel Whiteread's much-ballyhooed "Ghost": She calls her art "minimalism with a heart." (Rob Shelley -- National Gallery Of Art)

Now it glitters with celebrity. "Ghost" is hot. For Whiteread's plaster has become, through no fault of her own, a signature piece of the "YBAs," the chic Young British Artists, and of London's soaring rise in the international art world, and of all that that implies. "Ghost" is meant to tug at memories, which it does, but those that come aren't only memories of working-class poverty in Bethnal Green. They are also recollections of the makers and shakers who make the art world shake -- its publicity masters, its interfering politicians, its connected dealers, billionaires.

Remember Charles Saatchi, the fabulously successful adman whose campaign made Margaret Thatcher prime minister of Britain? "Ghost" was once his. Remember when Mayor Rudy Giuliani railed against the indecency of the "Sensation" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum? How the New York tabloids loved it; "Ghost" was in that show. Remember the Turner Prize? In London that award for young artists is more controversial than the Academy Awards. "Ghost" helped Whiteread win it, at the age of 30, in 1993. And have you heard of Larry Gagosian? You should have. Gagosian is one of the art world's top dealers and top facilitators. He runs multiple architect-designed galleries in Manhattan and London and Beverly Hills. It was he who arranged "Ghost's" move across the Atlantic to the National Gallery of Art.

Which cost a lot of money. No figure was announced, of course, but, given Whiteread's prices, "Ghost" surely cost in excess of $1 million.

The billionaire who came up with that money is a local one. Mitchell Rales is a Potomac resident, and a collector, and the head of the Danaher Corp. Last year Rales bought the gallery a great Picasso plaster, the 1909 "Head of Fernande." And it is Rales's Glenstone Foundation that gave "Ghost" to the museum as a "partial and promised" gift.

The sculpture is on the mezzanine of the East Building. It's a powerful piece. It really does work. Because it's crisp, and scaled to the human body, and rectilinear, you might think it minimalist. Whiteread prefers, rightly, "minimalism with a heart." As you near it you discern -- curiously in negative -- the coal grate in the fireplace, a grate still streaked with soot, and the room's one door, and its one sash window, and the reveals of the window, and the bruises in the windowsill, and the pathetic gentility of the Victorian picture rail that runs around the walls.

The historian who gets most credit for shepherding the Whiteread acquisition is Jeffrey Weiss, whose title at the gallery is curator and head of modern and contemporary art. He says "the experience of the piece evokes multiple conjoined evocations," and he's right.

"Ghost" is conceptual. The idea that generated it is crystal clear. It's also a piece of process art. When you see it you imagine Whiteread mixing its buckets of plaster, and fabricating the hidden steel cage that supports its plaster pieces, and calculating their proportions. "Ghost" somehow calls to mind all the other poignant, almost-empty rooms in other works of art, say those of Edouard Vuillard's Paris apartment, or the poignant hotel rooms of Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse.

Because it's a sort of a ruin, and because its whiteness suggests that of old marble, "Ghost" also feels sort of classical. Its moldings are classical. So are its proportions. And its placement in the East Building heightens these associations, for beyond it you can see, through a plate-glass window, the cornices and pediments of the neoclassical Mall.

"Ghost" also feels peculiarly British. What's British is its intimate shabbiness, its hip rejection of posh, a quality also glimpsed in the safety-pinned jeans of London punk, and in the battered messiness of Francis Bacon's London studio, and Frank Auerbach's, and Lucian Freud's.

"Ghost" isn't wholly original. It feels uncannily at ease in its many references to other works of art, and that feels British, too. Whiteread, for instance, isn't the first artist to get the idea of making empty space palpable. The glowing light-filled air in the quiet rooms painted by Vermeer feels sort of solid, too.

In 1968, the American Bruce Nauman finished a well-known little sculpture, also plaster, also cast, called "A Cast of the Space Under My Chair."

For a museum that once paid scant attention to sculpture, and, for that matter, to contemporary art, "Ghost" is an important acquisition. It represents a notable moment in postwar European art. It sympathetically acknowledges both the struggles of the common man and the high purities of abstraction. It's ambitious in its scale and its allusions. And it's a big success, and we go for success. Like the art of John Singer Sargent, and of Andy Warhol, "Ghost" now carries references to the fast track and big money, to the iffy intersection of high society and art.

It's got chic in it, and death. "Ghost" is as elegant as it's mournful. It looks sort of like a mausoleum. It's a fashionable tomb.

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