The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rachel Whiteread lets us imagine a world in which we don’t exist

Rachel Whiteread. "Line Up," 2007-2008, plaster, pigment, resin, wood and metal. (Rachel Whiteread/Mike Bruce/Private Collection)

Walk through the Rachel Whiteread exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, and the dominant emotion is one of thankfulness. The British sculptor, who for decades has made casts of things in the world — the interior of a room, the space under a chair, the insides of a water bottle, even an entire house in East London — hasn’t wasted a minute of your time. Her work lingers in the memory, draws you both deeper into your own head and back to the world. We have designed a world perniciously perfect in its assault on time, addicting us to distraction and squandering our hours with pettiness and anger. Whiteread’s sculpture fights against that, suspending and enhancing our sense of time in a way that is as powerful to 21st-century sensibility as the daguerreotype was to the 19th-century imagination.

For almost a decade before the National Gallery’s East Building closed for renovations in 2013, Whiteread’s white-plaster monolith “Ghost” sat on the mezzanine level, in front of a wall of windows. It is one of the artist’s essential early works, her first effort to cast the interior of a room-size space. She had made smaller casts before, of household objects, but to make a room-size replica of a Victorian parlor she had to divide up the space into a grid of smaller panels, each about 2½-feet square. These were mounted on a metal armature, and the result was a white cube, with a few enigmatic protrusions and a curious declivity capturing the negative space of the fireplace.

“Ghost” looked ancient and serene, and it was easy to compartmentalize it as some homage to the mausoleum, unless you asked questions about its odd details. Once you realized how it had been made, it became surprisingly intimate and sad, a tangible marker of the small rooms most of us inhabit, full of telltale markings, such as the smear of ash where the plaster touched the fire place, that registered the presence of humans. But you were also keenly aware that you were looking not at the room itself, but a negative, or inverted cast of it. If the plaster represented the interior space — Whiteread once said that she sought to “mummify the air in the room” — then you, as the viewer, must somehow be standing inside the walls, or behind them, and you might have felt a few goose bumps as you contemplated whether you were the animated party, looking at the mummified air, or whether the air was somehow looking at you sealed in the brick of the architecture that surrounds it.

That work is now the centerpiece of an exhibition, first seen at the Tate Britain in 2017, which surveys the arc of Whiteread’s career, from the domestically scaled quotidian objects (the underside of a mattress, the inside of a closet) she was making in the late 1980s, to the focus on color and luminosity in a series of door and window casts made in the last decade. It includes photographs and other documents to give a sense of her larger, public works, including a video of the laborious process of creating the 1993 “House,” which reproduced the interior of an entire house, and drawings and models for the 2001 Trafalgar Square plinth project, “Monument,” in which she created a luminous inverted replica of the empty stone base now used to host temporary installations in London’s busy central square.

A gay artist once censored by the Smithsonian, now celebrated at the Whitney

It was “House” that helped Whiteread win the prestigious Turner Prize, given to British artists, in 1993. Yet the announcement came the same day that a local neighborhood council voted to demolish the concrete sculpture, which stood in the way of local redevelopment efforts. “House” was destroyed a few months later, but not before igniting storms of controversy and arguments that went well beyond discussing the merits of the work, and forced a larger conversation about housing in Britain. Its afterlife has had the vigor and vibrancy of martyrdom.

Whiteread’s work has a curious habit of migrating out of the usual boxes or categories one might think should contain it. With a little tweak, the casts she has made of everyday objects, such as toilet-paper rolls and takeout food containers, could be an abstract take on pop art. Projects such as “House” have a documentary quality, with political ramifications, that suggests an in-the-world community-based practice with an activist edge. Her emotionally fraught pursuit of the spaces in between space, underneath and behind things, often ends up producing objects that have the reticent perfection of minimalism. It would be easy to argue that, with its concentration on domestic objects and spaces, hers is also a feminist art practice, although the work itself seems to float free of gender associations in its stillness and isolation.

Many artists will say they don’t like labels, which are delimiting. Whiteread is the rare artist whose work is sufficiently complex and idiosyncratic that, in fact, labels are inadequate, not because they limit understanding, but because her work encompasses a host of categories and still, one can’t quite define its power, except to say: It is all that, and more.

Glenstone opens, a new must-see museum on the world stage

In 1988, shortly after the death of her father, Whiteread made a plaster cast of the space underneath a narrow mattress, a work called “Shallow Breath.” It is a haunted form in which, to borrow the artist’s own words, she “somehow managed to make memories solid.” The simplicity of this gesture, and its emotional power, can be embarrassing within the rarefied fishbowl of contemporary art discourse. An artist’s work should do more, should have a more cruel conceptual edge, should undermine something or deconstruct itself, or gesture to ideas of indeterminacy. Yet, just as it seems to make labels irrelevant by encompassing all manner of different art practices, Whiteread’s art also lives and thrives at both the intellectual and the emotional levels. It is complex, and wonderfully simple. Her resin door and window sculptures, which capture surface detail of wood and hardware, yet are magically translucent, can be almost anything to anyone: architectural objects, conceptual gestures, cool acts of pure sculptural finesse, memories of real places, frozen and preserved. They are so seductive you almost want to lick them.

Take the pleasure of this exhibition home with you and try this exercise: Imagine the room you are sitting in has been filled with plaster or resin or some other material that will harden over time. Imagine the resulting cast of the room you know well is all that remains of your domestic space. Now imagine someone from the future is looking at this inverted impression of the space you once knew with intimate familiarity. You have almost done the impossible, which is to imagine the world without you in it, without your consciousness to make it real. It is almost as if you have opened one of Whiteread’s luminous doors and passed through to something on the other side.

Rachel Whiteread is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 13.