Rachel Whiteread



Not on display

Rachel Whiteread born 1963
Object: 89 × 270 × 169 mm
Presented by the artist in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota 2018


Torso 1988 is a sculpture in plaster, cast from the inside of a hot water bottle. In 1988, a year after graduating from the Slade School of Art in London, Whiteread held her first solo exhibition at the Carlisle Gallery, London, showing the four works that began her exploration of small domestic objects and items of furniture: the cast of the underside of a bed, Shallow Breath 1988, the cast of a small cupboard covered in black felt, Closet 1988, and the cast of a mid-century woman’s dressing table with glass top reattached to the plaster cast, Mantle 1988. Torso 1988 was the fourth piece included in this exhibition. The works encapsulated the interests that were to define Whiteread’s career over the next thirty years – the process of casting forgotten space, an experimental use of materials and casting techniques, and the emotional power of everyday objects.

Hot water bottles had featured in Whiteread’s work while she was still a student, but as intact objects inserted into larger tableaux rather than as the moulds for casts. Torso 1988 would become the first of a series of hot water bottle cast sculptures, realised in almost every material the artist has worked in: plaster, cement, rubber, resin, aluminium and dental plaster, completed throughout the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s. Torso 1988 (and the subsequent works in the series) was made by pouring plaster into a hot water bottle until it was full; the top was then screwed into the bottle and it was suspended and left hanging while the material cured. Once the plaster had set, the rubber bottle was cut and peeled away to reveal the cast sculpture. The works are shown on plinths or on shelves mirroring how they might appear in a domestic environment.

Whiteread’s Torso works are among few works within her output for which she has not used her characteristic Untitled titling, alongside a subtitle indicating the source of her cast. The Torsos are also a rare example in which she has chosen an anthropomorphic title; while many of her works have such qualities, it is the series of Torsos that evoke the body most closely and that have been described by Whiteread as her ‘headless limbless babies’ (Rachel Whiteread in conversation with John Tusa, ‘Rachel Whiteread: Selected Sculptures and Interview’, fARTiculate, 21 December 2010, https://farticulate.wordpress.com/20210/12/21/21-december-2010-post-rachel-whiteread-selected-sculptures-interview/, accessed 27 December 2017).

The works in the Torso series are of critical importance to the artist’s work as a whole. They trace a transition from her early work at art school to her mature practice, demonstrate her interest in material and the casting process, and typify the effect of heightened emotional resonance that Whiteread brings to everyday domestic objects by capturing the marks that we leave on the world as we move through it.

Further reading
Ann Gallagher (ed.), Rachel Whiteread, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2017.
Charlotte Mullins, RW: Rachel Whiteread, revised edition, London 2017.

Linsey Young
December 2017

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