PRINT January 1998

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Rachel Whiteread’s Water Tower Project

Considering the double-whammy of rows sparked by Rachel Whiteread’s two previous public sculpture commissions—her London project House, an entire East End row house cast in concrete, was prematurely demolished, and her Jewish Memorial in Vienna is stalled at model stage due to political machinations—she has shown notable pluck in going ahead with her latest alfresco project. Soon after the London debacle Whiteread was approached by the Public Art Fund, the nonprofit organization that sets art in New York City public spaces. Financial muscle was supplied by Beck’s, the German brewer that has lately brought its flair for progressive arts patronage to New York, having established a reputation on the London scene as the sponsors behind projects ranging from Gilbert and George’s 1987 exhibition at the Hayward to Whiteread’s ill-fated House.

An initial trawl of possible sites produced no results and Whiteread was wary of occupying a street-level location; she wanted somewhere less visible, less obviously public. Looking up, she saw the ubiquitous rooftop water towers that accent the skyline. While these are generally taken for granted by New Yorkers, for visitors they are “bien typique” of the city. Here was something both familiar and remote, a containing object in the utilitarian mold of the bathtubs and hot-water bottles she has previously cast. The water tower’s silhouette, from conical top to stumpy legs, is something of a Modernist icon, having been memorably depicted by Stieglitz, Hopper, Sheeler, and Demuth. But never before has one been cast.

Whiteread’s tower will sit atop a building on West Broadway in SoHo. The American Tank Company is scheduled to dismantle the existing tower for casting in January and then haul the resulting work into position by the spring. Clear resin is Whiteread’s chosen medium; expense prohibits a solid casting, but its hollow inside will not be apparent. The sculpture will be for the sharp-eyed: the artist herself has said that she wants “to make something not there.” On clear days the work may be almost invisible; on cloudier ones it will merge with the sky; nocturnal visibility will be determined once it’s in place. Here’s something for your eyes only.

Richard Shone