New York

Rachel Whiteread

“Poignant,” promised the press release, “an exploration of the human traces left on everyday objects.” “Poetic,” I heard the dealer opine. Sadly, Rachel Whiteread’s recent exhibition of plaster casts of the insides of cardboard boxes was nothing of the sort. Rather, these new sculptures are a decadent fusion of geometrical abstraction and Pop art, two equally retardataire modernist modes. Where Andy Warhol’s boxes are characterized by the dull flatness of their silk-screened surfaces, Whiteread’s are distinguished by the dead tone of dusty plaster.

But despite the effacement of the brand names printed on the artist’s source objects in their sculptural derivatives, the underlying banality remains the same—the ultimate impression here is one of nakedness and vacuity. Unlike, say, the geometrical boxes of International Style architecture, neither scale, site, nor social function are at issue in Whiteread’s blocky forms. Of course, she has made excursions into large-scale site-responsive museum installation (Embankment, 2005, in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall) and large-scale outdoor art (the infamous House, 1993) before, but these projects notwithstanding, her new sculptures would look lost and ridiculous in public space. Though demonstrably part of a lineage of “box art,” they still look more than anything like stylishly recycled trash.

Doubtless the cardboard box does have compensatory “aesthetic and conceptual subtleties,” as the press release claims, not because of the “concepts . . . [of] packing, storage and moving” supposedly inherent to it, but rather because it’s all too easy to associate Whiteread’s “revision” of them with a variety of art-historical precedents. She seems to evoke Giorgio Morandi’s intimate still lifes, especially in her smaller clustered arrangements, and of course Cubism, in whatever labored, unwittingly comic form. Ditto Concrete art (rendered colorless, worn-out, and tepid in Whiteread’s reading), and Constructivism. Even early Conceptual art might be a point of reference: Is the placement of a box on a simple chair an homage of sorts to Joseph Kosuth? Or Bruce Nauman?

Study, 2005, features box-casts packed around a table and chair, with one long horizontal example stretched across and extending beyond the table, confirming that the furniture may no longer be used. Most of the works are somewhat simpler, slightly untidy arrangements of boxes put together with the studied naïveté typical of Whiteread’s approach. Still, there is a peculiar kind of desperate meaningfulness here, if one thinks of the casts as the reified corpses of industrial forms: There’s something morbid and melancholy about them. It may be simpleminded to cast cardboard, a soft material doomed to crumble, in plaster, preserving it the way the bodies in Pompeii are preserved in ash, but it is a succinct and startling way of directly presenting the reality of death. Whiteread’s installation is a wasteland of art and an industrial wasteland in one.

Donald Kuspit