Rachel Whiteread is in but not entirely of “Sensation.” From the outside, she looks like one of them. Along with Damien Hirst, she commands some of the highest prices of all the young British artists, and in 1993 provoked one of the decade’s biggest artistic brouhahas. And check out the YBA action on her bio: 1991, up for the Tate Gallery’s annual Turner Prize-doesn’t get it; 1992, Documenta IX; 1993, House, her full-scale cast of an abandoned row house situated in a depressed area of East London, causes an uproar. Newspapers denounce it, arguments are traded in the House of Commons. Before it’s demolished, in 1994, Whiteread can only go near House at night or in disguise. In 1993, she also wins the Turner Prize (the first woman to do so). In response, the K Foundation, a group of self-styled art police, awards her 40,000 pounds for being the “worst artist in the U.K.” (Whiteread accepts this money, then gives it all away to
other artists.) In 1997, protest greets her proposal for an Austrian memorial commemorating the 65,000 Jews who died in Vienna or were deported from the city to concentration camps.
But résumés can be deceiving. Detractors accuse Whiteread of stealing an arrow from Bruce Nauman’s quiver (he was the first to create sculptures from negative space). But so what? All art comes from other art. Supporters hail her as the anti-Damien-the purer YBA who’s not about shock, schlock, and surface (though she recently claimed surface as “absolutely 100 percent” of her work). Whiteread’s art is situated at a critical juncture on the English continuum. The clamor her work sometimes elicits suggests she is solidly YBA, but the fact that she joined this wave of young Brits from a different art school (she from Slade, they from Goldsmiths) and has a predilection for old-fashioned formalism, situates Whiteread’s art astride a dynamic fault line between generations.
At 36, she is the link between the old and new schools of British sculpture. Whiteread combines Tony Cragg’s use of the found and cast-off with Richard Deacon’s monumentality. Spiced with liberal doses of minimalism and postminimalism, she adds the go-for-the-throat insistence on subject matter of the younger English artists.
Whiteread is the rare case of an excellent public sculptor being an iffy gallery artist. Usually it’s the other way around. Out of doors, too many artists turn into idiots, foisting unfortunate, overblown renditions of their work on the public. (See Jim Dine’s giant Venuses on Sixth Avenue or the monstrous, smoking wall piece by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel facing Union Square.) At a time when 99 percent of all public art is shit, Whiteread rules outdoors. She has an uncanny knack for site, subject, scale, and material. Making casts of everyday things, she materializes emptiness, and opens up some amazing, almost metaphysical third space between reality and imagination, the public and the private, stillness and frenzy.
Watertower, her simple-looking cast-resin sculpture, sits atop a building at Grand and West Broadway like a translucent mirage or a gelatinous gargoyle. A bashful visitor from another dimension, this albino sculpture is a little too small for its base, and a bit humdrum; nevertheless it’s a quiet classic. Somehow, Whiteread embeds the stillness of Vermeer and the regal stateliness of Piero della Francesca into clunky modern life.
At Luhring Augustine, Whiteread again falls short of bringing the scale and the realness of her outdoor sculpture indoors (Ghost, a cast of an English parlor now on view in “Sensation,” is still her most successful gallery piece). Here, she fills the space with 18 white, sepulchral, bathtub shapes. Each is cast in bronze from a mortuary slab, then cast again from its “parent” mold, so that there are nine pairs, or couples, one with a concave surface, the other convex. Set in a grid, the whole conjures a mausoleum, a hospital operating room, an ancient observatory, or a procession of giant tofu loafs. These works fill the space with an antiseptic, abstract volume, but the gridded arrangement feels too by-the-book. You think of a hundred installations involving repetition. This places Whiteread at the treacherous crossroads of homage, unoriginality, and garden-variety formalism.
Things improve in the second gallery as the coolness and obscurity of the front space turns warm and tactile. Untitled (Library) is a walk-through archive, cast in plaster and set up in two rows. Wandering between the bookcases, you again sense Whiteread’s “third space.” The details-the imprint of someone’s name on the edge of one absent book; traces of color left behind where the books were torn away from the plaster-are enchanting, and give this mammoth sculpture the lightness of a watercolor. Still, something is missing.
The best thing about this show is not on public view. (If you ask nicely maybe they’ll take you upstairs to see it.) It’s a model of a piece for the long-empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in front of London’s National Gallery that Whiteread will unveil next October. An inverted 70-ton translucent-resin cast of the plinth will rest on the existing one, like some dyslexic doppelgänger or a twin separated at birth. This remarkable work has the drop-dead obviousness that takes your breath away in Whiteread’s outdoor work, and the abstract essence that, indoors, tends toward the academic and the decorative.