Rachel Whiteread



1990 Rachel Whiteread (1963 − )

Rachel Whiteread tends to the overlooked: ‘I wanted to give certain spaces an authority they’d never had.’]1] False Door is free¬standing, it commands our sympathy. A workaday door, extracted from its supporting walls, has been made to stand up for itself. The rear, a bald façade in six blocks, could pass for an upright Carl Andre. Conversely, the other side of a foot of plaster is a negative impression of the door, a rather homely conjunction of two halves. Whiteread practises a kind of reverse archaeology: filling in to find out. Usually a mould is negative, but she has cast a positive thing, so the recessed panels become protrusions and the handle fixture becomes a cavity. The hole where the handle should be provides spooky punctuation: the handle is not for turning. Whiteread also drilled holes in a cast of a bath from the same year, its taps leaving orange rusty marks in the plaster. She explains that she wanted to create ‘an airflow like nostrils. I felt that it was too claustrophobic, like suggesting my own death.’[2] In the case of False Door, the hole does notpierce all the way through, reinforcing the sense of claustrophobia. It is a one-way view, as if from inside the body of the door, invoking the ancient Egyptian belief that dead Pharaohs would exit their tombs via false doors painted or carved on the inside of the sarcophagus.[3]

Whiteread uses the chalky inertness of plaster, connoting broken bones and death masks, to take on the weight of the vanitas tradition. Resolutely monochrome, it rescues the door from the obscurity of everyday life, fixing its minute textural variations as they are at a particular moment in time. It is a blockade of detail, discreetly forth¬coming, from smooth, pocked and scumbled patches, to wrinkles in the lips of the panels, chipped corners and splintery grazes. Tellingly, Whiteread studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic (1982–85) before her MA in sculpture at the Slade. David Batchelor distinguishes Whiteread’s ‘direct, clear and literal’ work from contemporary sculpture because it ‘leaves a sense of something being held back’, because this is ‘slow sculpture’.[4]

False Door is a clue to bigger projects Ghost (1990)[5] and most famously House (1993),[6] which won Whiteread the Turner Prize, cementing her place on the international stage. (She would go on to win the Premio Duemila at the XLVII Venice Biennale in 1997.) She took her own cue, however, from Bruce Nauman’s A Cast of the Space under my Chair (1965–68).[7] Where Nauman ribs the weighty seriousness of Minimalism by insinuating context and allusion, Whiteread makes context and allusion her essentials. Patrick Elliott remarks, ‘Instead of being abstract and emotionally aloof, Whiteread’s work is grounded in the faithful description – copying even – of specific objects, and through this implies some sort of narrative.’[8] The concrete yields an alluring mixture of narratives. Besides the sepulchral, False Door is loaded with a heritage of fictional escapades. It summons up the secret panelling in a ‘Famous Five’ adventure, or the other worlds promised in The Chronicles of Narnia or The Secret Garden, where doorways are rites of passage, the thresholds to grown-up life, through which there is no return.


[1]. Whiteread in conversation with Iwona Blazwick, in Rachel Whiteread, exh. cat. (Eindhoven: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1992), 11.
[2]. Ibid., 12.
[3]. Charlotte Mullins, Rachel Whiteread (London: Tate, 2004), 120.
[4]. David Batchelor, Rachel Whiteread: Plaster Sculptures, exh. cat. (New York: Luhring Augustine, 1993), 5.
[5]. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
[6]. Commissioned by Artangel Trust and Beck’s, and destroyed in 1994.
[7]. Visser, Geertjan, Retie, Belgium.
[8]. Patrick Elliott, ‘Sculpting Nothing’, in Rachel Whiteread, exh. cat. (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2001), 12.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009

  • Accession Number P5919
  • Dimensions 214.6 X 152.4 X 40.6
  • Media PLASTER

Glossary (5)

  • Cast

    To form material such as molten metal, liquid plaster or liquid plastic into a three-dimensional shape, by pouring into a mould. Also see Lost-wax casting.

  • Contemporary

    Existing or coming into being at the same period; of today or of the present. The term that designates art being made today.

  • Negative

    An image in which colours and shades of an inage are reversed: the light areas of the object appear dark and the dark areas appear light. Also refers to a film, plate, or other photographic material containing such an image.

  • Painting

    Work of art made with paint on a surface. Often the surface, also called a support, is a tightly stretched piece of canvas, paper or a wooden panel. Painting involves a wide range of techniques and materials, along with the artist's intellectual concerns effecting the content of a work.

  • Sculpture

    A three-dimensional work of art. Such works may be carved, modelled, constructed, or cast. Sculptures can also be described as assemblage, in the round, relief, and made in a huge variety of media. Contemporary practice also includes live elements, as in Gilbert & George 'Living Sculpture' as well as broadcast work, radio or sound sculpture.

Work Themes (2)

Past exhibitions


  • 2009
    • UK, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery


  • 2004
    • Brazil, Sao Paulo, Museu De Arte Moderna
  • 2003
    • Brazil, Rio De Janeiro, Museu De Arte Moderna


  • 2003
    • UK, Cambridge, Jesus College


  • 2003
    • France, Toulouse, Les Abattoirs
  • 2002
    • Germany, Wolfsburg Kunstmuseum


  • 2001
    • Taiwan, Taipei, Taipei Fine Arts Museum


  • 1999
    • France, Valenciennes, Musee Des Beaux Arts


  • 2000
    • Malta, Valletta, St James Cavalier Centre For Creativity
    • Cyprus, Nicosia, Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre
  • 1999
    • Zimbabwe, Harare, National Gallery Of Zimbabwe
  • 1998
    • Zimbabwe, Bulawayo, National Gallery Of Zimbabwe In Bulawayo
    • South Africa, Cape Town, South African National Gallery
    • South Africa, Johannesburg, Johannesburg Art Gallery
  • 1997
    • Pakistan, Lahore, The Old Fort
    • Pakistan, Karachi, Hindu Gymkhana


  • 1995
    • Poland, Lodz, Muzeum Sztuki


  • 1997
    • Macedonia, Skopje, Museum Of Modern Art
  • 1996
    • Czech Republic, Prague, Czech Musuem Of Fine Arts, The House Of The Black Madonna
    • Greece, Thessaloniki, Cultural Centre For The National Bank
    • Slovakia, Bratislava, Mirbachov Palace
    • Russia, Nizhny Novgorod, Kremlin Museum
    • Russia, St Petersburg, The Russian Museum
    • Greece, Thessaloniki, Cultural Centre For The National Bank
    • Greece, Athens, Art Halls Of The Cultural Centre Of The Municipality Of Athens
    • Romania, Bucharest, National Theatre Galleries
  • 1995
    • Germany, Magdeburg, Kulturhistorisches Museum
  • 1994
    • Spain, Jerez, Sala Pescaderia Vieja, Ayunamiento De Jerez
    • Spain, Murcia, Veronicas Sala De Exposiciones
    • Spain, Madrid, Centro Cultural Galileo
    • Spain, Bilbao, Museo De Bellas Artes De Bilbao
    • Spain, Barcelona, Centre De Art Santa Monica
  • 1993
    • Turkey, Izmir, Izfas Gallery
    • Turkey, Ankara, State Fine Arts Gallery
    • Turkey, Istanbul, Istanbul Greater City Municipality Taksim Art Gallery
    • Belgium, Luxembourg, Musee National D'histoire Et D'art
  • 1992
    • Belgium, Brussels, EEC Presidency Exhibition
    • Belgium, Brussels, La Borschette


  • 1991
    • Germany, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau
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