Artist to Know: Rachel Whiteread

Liz Catalano
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Swann Auction Galleries Offers Leaf Sculpture by Contemporary British Artist

1993 was a watershed year for British sculptor Rachel Whiteread. She decided to fill a neglected Victorian house with concrete, strip away the exterior, and exhibit the resulting concrete rooms as modern art. The massive piece inspired both praise and mockery in the art world. Shortly after Whiteread became the first woman artist to receive the Turner Prize, another group declared her the “worst artist of the year.” A local contractor then demolished her prizewinning house sculpture. These early controversies did not deter Whiteread. Instead, she used them to propel a career in contemporary art.

Swann Auction Galleries will present one of Rachel Whiteread’s cast sculptures, titled Gold Leaf, in an upcoming Contemporary Art sale. The event starts at 10:30 AM EDT on June 10th, 2021. Discover Whiteread and her work before the bidding begins.

Rachel Whiteread with her sculptures. Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.
Rachel Whiteread with her sculptures. Image by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.

Rachel Whiteread grew up around creativity. Her mother, Patricia Whiteread, was a feminist artist active in London. Patricia and her husband helped Rachel access creative materials and receive a good education in the humanities. The artist eventually studied under Richard Wilson, Alison Wilding, and Phyllida Barlow. Using concrete and other materials, Whiteread explored the voids of everyday life. Her pieces started small. She cast the space under a bed before filling an entire room. 

When Whiteread cast the complete interior of a Victorian house in 1993, she had already perfected her methods. However, she did not anticipate the political interpretations of her work. The sculpture sparked controversy over contemporary art, government spending, and a public housing crisis. Whiteread found herself squarely in the spotlight after its destruction. Instead of changing her methods, she decided to stick with negative space.

“There is emotional energy in the history of people and things around our bodies. Everything you touch has an imprint, whether it is positive and hopeful or otherwise,” Whiteread said in an interview with CR Fashion Book. “I am able to channel that sort of energy, which can be difficult because it is so emotional, but I believe in it.”

Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993. Image from the artist.
Rachel Whiteread, House, 1993. Image from the artist.

Most of Whiteread’s early works are minimalist and monochrome. Their style suggests Brutalist architecture. Whiteread only introduced colors after the birth of her sons. She later scaled down her practice, shifting away from room-sized sculptures in favor of everyday objects.

The upcoming Swann Auction Galleries sale will present a small bronze and gold casting by Whiteread (USD 6,000 – $9,000). This stamped multiple is one of 30 extras created for the Whitechapel Gallery in London. After plans for a frieze never realized, a blank space hovered above the gallery’s entrance for over a century. The gallery commissioned Whiteread to fill the empty façade with her Tree of Life installation of fluttering golden leaves. The available leaf curves slightly to the left. Grooved lines radiate from the center stem.

Rachel Whiteread, Gold Leaf, 2012. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.
Rachel Whiteread, Gold Leaf, 2012. Image from Swann Auction Galleries.

Whiteread’s largest works are public commissions, including a permanent Holocaust memorial in Vienna and a massive water tower in Manhattan. She also maintains a series of “shy” sculptures. These concrete shed castings appear in hard-to-access spots across Europe. During the pandemic, Whiteread turned toward homely subjects. She cast flattened cardboard boxes and recycled newspapers in bronze, causing the viewer to pause over seemingly unfamiliar shapes. 

Most Whiteread art sells for between $10,000 and $50,000. This includes small objects, miniatures, and preparatory materials. An assortment of 25 resin sculptures set Whiteread’s auction record in 2014. Christie’s sold the untitled collection for GBP 578,500 (USD 816,100) against an estimate of £300,000 to £400,000 (USD 423,250 – $564,300). Each piece represents the space underneath a chair.

While Whiteread’s large sculptures command the highest prices at auction, there remains a robust market for her smaller works. A plaster and steel bookshelf sculpture sold for GBP 77,500 (USD 101,900) in 2019 with Sotheby’s. The piece captures the creases, covers, and pages of phantom books.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Twenty-five spaces), 1994-95. Image from Christie’s.
Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Twenty-five spaces), 1994-95. Image from Christie’s.

Beyond slight changes in color and scale, Whiteread’s style has remained steady for over 30 years. “She’s continued to go deeper and deeper into her own vision,” Molly Donovan, a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., said to The Wall Street Journal. “There’s something rewarding and frankly remarkable about an artist doing that today.”

Rachel Whiteread’s Gold Leaf will be available with Swann Auction Galleries on June 10th, 2021. Bidding starts at 10:30 AM EDT. Visit LiveAuctioneers for more information or to place a bid. 

Looking for more artist profiles? Check out Auction Daily’s coverage of Russian futurist David Burliuk

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