Rachel Whiteread, First Female Recipient of the Turner Prize

Today we look at the life and works of Rachel Whiteread, renowned British artist and the first woman to win the Turner Prize. Having been previously nominated for her work Ghost (1990), Rachel Whiteread won the Turner Prize for her art installation House in 1993. The Turner Prize began in 1984 and awards one artist from a shortlist with a bursary to extend their practice. Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures are forged using the technique of casting, utilising materials such as plaster, concrete, resin, rubber and metals to solidify inside custom made casts which reflect themes of domestic life and negative space to create large scale impressions.

Born in 1960s Ilford, Whiteread’s upbringing played a significant role in her future success as an artist. The youngest daughter of a geography teacher father and an artist mother, the combined impressions of her mother utilising the family home as a studio and her father encouraging an appreciation for the intricacies of architecture led Rachel Whiteread to pursue art which focuses on the intersections between architecture, spatiality, and memory.

Upon finishing school, Rachel Whiteread enrolled on a foundation course then painting at Brighton Polytechnic before embarking on a Sculpture degree at Slade School of Art, London graduating in 1987. This formal education introduced Whiteread to casting techniques which would become the crux of her works and artistic career, including working under British sculptor and fellow Turner Prize nominee Richard Wilson.

Whilst traditional cast sculpture tends to create replicas of objects, Whiteread’s works instead cast the negative space inside or around everyday forms, ranging from boxes and furniture up to staircases and entire rooms. By allowing the shape of empty spaces to determine the form of her sculpture, she transforms the mundane into colossal pieces of art which express the human influence on our built environment.

Rachel Whiteread’s house view of Grove Road © David Hoffman

Creating the Turner Prize winning House was a lengthy and complicated process. Using a derelict Victorian Terraced house as a mould, a cast was made from the interior by spraying a skin of liquid concrete around the metal framework which supported the weight of the sculpture. It took over a month to coat the house with liquid concrete and an additional ten days were required for the concrete to cure and set. House is the largest singular piece of work Rachel Whitehead has produced, but she has continued to create works which provoke conversation and push the boundaries of contemporary art. Though physically impressive, House proved divisive and stood at Grove Road, East London from November 1993 to January 1994 when it was demolished by Tower Hamlets London Borough Council after 80 days.

Since winning the Turner Prize in 1993, Whiteread’s work has continued to explore themes of negative space, and transforming aspects of domestic life into a series of sculptural pieces exhibited worldwide. Of particular note is Whiteread’s striking Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, or The Nameless Library, in Vienna. Unveiled in 2000, the piece represents a room full of books turned inward; becoming nameless and identical to one another to convey the systematic destruction of Jewish individuals in World War II.

Following the unexpected death of their mother in 2003, Rachel and her sisters were faced with sorting out their mother’s belongings amidst their grieving. It was through this process that Rachel Whiteread gained inspiration to begin casting the space inside boxes, such as in her largescale installation Embankment. Situated in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall from 2005-6, Embankment consisted of a series of 14,000 polyethylene casts made from cardboard boxes stacked and spread throughout the vast gallery space. Whiteread’s work touches on hints of human life and its interference with static objects, with Embankment being yet another example of contemporary art which is both psychically impressive yet emotive at its core.

In recognition of her inspiring artistic practice, in 2006, Rachel Whiteread was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) then Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2019 Birthday Honours for services to art. 

Rachel Whiteread: from the series ‘First Women UK’ by Anita Corbin.

Today, Rachel Whiteread continues to work as an artist from her home studio in East London. Her works are held in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Gallery in London. Still proving popular, she was the recipient of 2022 Robson Orr TenTen Award by the Government Art Collection (GAC) for her print Untitled (Bubble) 2022.

Untitled (Bubble), Lithograph, 2022. © Rachel Whiteread.

First Women UK by Anita Corbin 

100 Portraits of 100 First Women to celebrate 100 years of women’s right to vote, created by photographer Anita Corbin over a decade and launched in 2018.