Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas
Rachel Whiterad, Untitled, 2005; postcard with punched holes; 4 x 6 inches; courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery, London; Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.; © Rachel Whiteread
Seldom exhibited, Rachel Whiteread’s drawings, on view at the Nasher Sculpture Center in the first museum retrospective devoted to them, offer considerable insight into her thinking. Diaristic in nature, the drawings record the very careful observations of an artist surrendering to her subjects, not imposing ideas upon them. They document a process of learning from lived experience as the artist works through sculptural ideas.
Whiteread’s sculptures often explore architectural negative space—the voids in which people work, live, sleep and make love. But the formal elegance of her sculptures can sometimes serve to distance the viewer from the realities of the lives lived in those spaces. Her more informal drawings connect more directly with the lives shaped by the spaces they occupy. They gain emotional depth even as sculptural space is flattened onto a two-dimensional surface. When Hegel wrote of “the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative,” he meant the experience of coming up short intellectually and having to reexamine one’s view of the world. Something of that flavor lives in Whiteread’s work.
It is significant that one of her preferred drawing mediums is “white out” correction fluid, a material that erases while it leaves an inevitable record of erasure. The medium serves her well: in two studies on photographs from 1992, she whited out a ruined London row house, leaving only its silhouette, an oddly melancholy ghost of a house. (Ghost, incidentally, is the title of her first architectural sculpture, the 1990 plaster cast of the interior of an entire room in a Victorian-era townhouse in London.) Because emptiness has been made so emphatic, there is a sense of loss to the drawings—loss of living space and loss (or at least displacement) of the lives it once contained.
Study (Blue) for “Floor”, 1992; correction fluid, ink and watercolor on paper; 16 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches; Tate: Presented anonymously in memory of Adrian Ward-Jackson, 1992; © Rachel Whiteread
The photocollages included in the show recall the work of Gordon Matta-Clark, whose collage drawings and “anarchitecture” are clear antecedents of Whiteread’s project. But references to earlier, minimalist art are also very prevalent, if somewhat warped. Her floor sculptures nod knowingly toward Carl Andre. Her contribution to the 1995 Carnegie International, One Hundred Spaces, evokes Donald Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (1982–86) at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Yet there is always a more individuated and private aspect to her work than is commonly associated with Minimalism. A 1992–93 series of herringbone parquetry drawings, for example, merges early Frank Stella abstraction with semiotically resonant representation. Considered both as an object and as the subject of drawings, a parquet floor shares certain formal and geometric qualities with Stella’s mid 1960s paintings. But people stand on a floor. It supports them and helps define the spaces of their daily lives. As the herringbone pattern is repeated, mantralike, in drawing after drawing, Whiteread’s lines grow unruly and meander away from their subject’s geometry, abandoning Stella to become something far more idiosyncratic and personal.
Stairs, 2003; collage, gouache and pencil on paper; 26 3/16 x 20 1/16 inches; courtesy the artist and Gagosian Gallery, London; photo by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.; © Rachel Whiteread
Sculptors often excel at drawing. This probably has something to do with learning to be hypersensitive to spatial relations (Naum Gabo called space an emotion). In a sense Whiteread comprehends space as we all do. What she adds to that understanding is self-awareness, a way of seeing the play of mass and void as it intimately shapes daily experience. This awareness enabled her to present windows as silhouettes in drawings from 1991, both imagining a void as a solid and quoting Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920). The same awareness, directed towards the interstices among houses, is at play in her recent collages and drawings that invent imaginary neighborhoods in conjunction with Place (Village) (2007–09), a series of museum installations of dollhouses. As with the other drawings in the show, these recent works are not preparatory for the installations in any specific sense. Rather, they embody the artist’s thinking about the affective implications of her project.
Whiteread’s drawings are mostly private. They are musings and meditations. They poke around the nooks and crannies of ideas, discovering possibilities and celebrating “Eureka!” moments both great and small. Presenting them publicly deepens our understanding of her better-known works, making her sculptures, in turn, more intimate and human.
Michael Odom is an artist and critic living in a tiny town not far from Dallas.
This exhibition runs through August 15, 2010.