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A. Rachel Whiteread

Rachel Whiteread casted the negative space of library shelves in a few pieces of the mid-1990’s to the early 2000’s.

Untitled (Paperbacks) is a plaster cast from a polystyrene mold on a steel mount. Whiteread made the piece in 1997 and it is currently in the MoMA collection. Installed as an entire room, facing the interior, these casts contain subtle hues and signs of wear on old texts or the generic binding of library books. In a MoMA interview found here, Whiteread says, “There’s a lot of color in there; it’s subtle color, but it’s there.” Whiteread prepared the shelves and the book assortment herself. This aspect of her process alters the notion of the found collection in other book-related artists (e.g. Hoefer photographing a library as it is; and Katchadourian working with the limitation of a given library).

Rachel Whiteread, "Untitled (Paperbacks)" (1997). Plaster and steel. 15'x16'x20'. as installed at MoMA.

Although wear and dents in the covers are visible, the spines face away from the viewer, into the wall on which the piece is mounted. Information is turned away from us, and, as in Victor Schrager’s photography, we must weigh the pure book form  instead of the signifiers pasted or written on it. The horizontal black line which results from Whiteread’s casting resembles Minimalist sculpture, like Donald Judd’s Untitled from 1987, steel mounted with nothing around it. Untitled (Library) at the Hirshhorn was installed in a corner of the basement level, with a tape line demarcating the viewer’s approach.

Rachel Whiteread, "Untitled" (2000)


Black Books casts a single shelf of books. The piece is composed of black pigmented plastic and steel, roughly three and a half feet wide and under a foot tall, and exists in an edition of 10.The casting form and the absence of strong color are two elements which unify Whiteread’s oeuvre, though some works since 2007 have included pastels. [Domestic subject matter and a human scale are another two elements.] Quoted in David Batchelor’s Colour, Whiteread says, in an endearing quote, “Color confuses me. Every day when I get up, I have to think about it. I love color, but there are too many decisions to make. Am I an aesthete? Is color about necessity for me in my work…I try not to dwell on it; if I did, I would only ever use black and white.”

Rachel Whiteread, "Black Books" (1996-7). Black pigmented plastic and steel. 3.5' x 1'.

“The function of the individual book is to be read, but a shelf of books is always sculptural,” as a Cambridge essay online says, regarding Whiteread’s work. 

Rachel Whiteread, "Untitled (Library)" (1999) installed at Hirshhorn. Dental plaster from polystyrene mold and steel mounting.

Compare Richard Artschwager’s 2008 Book in Formica and wood, wherein he simplifies the book to its iconic shape.
Or, compare Victor Schrager’s Composition as Explanation series, which pictures unlabeled books as color compositions.

Or compare the image of books from Kirby Pilcher’s Room Temperature series. This photograph of unidentified books at a windowsill is evocative and the most located of the works discussed in this show–a certain desk, not “a desk,” and certain floral curtains, not “curtains.” Kirby depicts the singular–a small set of books in a specific place, where Whiteread casts the inparticular and sometimes imposing form of the library bookshelf.


Rachel Whiteread, "Sequel IV” (2002). Plaster, polystyrene and steel, 32" x 30" x 10".

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2012 9:28 am

    Thanks for this post. Nice to see a reading of Whiteread’s work – excuse the pun! This site is great, it’s nice to see a cover of a strong selection of artists…excuse the pun.

  2. February 9, 2013 5:16 am

    Exactly how long did it require u to write “A. Rachel Whiteread
    Art’s Books”? It has got a lot of wonderful details. Thank you -Carey


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