Gagosian Quarterly

May 1, 2020

Rachel Whiteread onPiero della Francesca

Rachel Whiteread writes about the Italian artist’s Baptism of Christ (after 1437) and what has drawn her to this painting, from her first experience of it at a young age to the present day.

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, after 1437, egg on poplar, 65 ¾ × 45 ⅝ inches (167 × 116 cm), National Gallery, London. Photo: © National Gallery, London/Art Resource, New York

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, after 1437, egg on poplar, 65 ¾ × 45 ⅝ inches (167 × 116 cm), National Gallery, London. Photo: © National Gallery, London/Art Resource, New York

Rachel Whiteread

In Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures and drawings, everyday settings, objects, and surfaces are transformed into ghostly replicas that are eerily familiar. Through casting, she frees her subject matter—from beds, tables, and boxes to water towers and entire houses—from practical use, suggesting a new permanence, imbued with memory.

This is one of the few paintings that I can conjure up in my mind’s eye, because I have had an intimate relationship with it for many years. I first saw it with my parents at the National Gallery in London. I must have been nine or ten years old. I remember seeing it again when I was in the sixth form, and later, when I was in my first year at Brighton College, a boyfriend took me to see his favorite painting, which happened to be this one.

When I look at the painting, I see that there is a quiet symmetry to it, which is one of the things that makes it feel like a silent painting. By symmetry, I mean in the way that Piero has constructed four “pillars” across the canvas—the angels on the left, the tree, the figure of Jesus, and then the partially clothed figure in the background. They give the painting a sculptural and vertical strength. It is almost like a building. To emphasize this verticality, the blue cords on the robes of the garments, about a third of the way up the painting, hold the image together horizontally. This is what draws me into this painting. I can see why this was seen as a masterpiece in early perspective.

The architectural quality of Piero’s work has certainly appealed to me. It exists in other works of his, too, such as the Flagellation and the portrait of Sigismondo Pandolfo. In fact, when I was making Ghost (1990), I had a postcard of The Baptism of Christ on the wall I was casting at the time. The composition of Ghost had to feel right, so I made a drawing on the wall—I was following some kind of solidity that existed in Piero’s picture. It was an intuitive reaction, not an intellectual one.

Rachel Whiteread on Piero della Francesca

Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, c. 1468–70, oil and tempera on panel, 23 × 32 ⅛ inches (58.4 × 81.5 cm), Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino. Photo: Scala/Art Resource, New York

The Baptism of Christ has a very grand gold, but rather horrible, heavy frame on it, while the image in my Piero della Francesca book that I’ve had for many years shows it with two gold “crescents” on either side of the arch. The effect that this creates is to make you think you are looking through a window. Again, it gives a sense of architecture.

Piero painted The Baptism of Christ sometime around 1450, when he was in his early thirties. It was originally the center section of an altarpiece for a chapel of Saint John the Baptist in an abbey in Piero’s hometown, Borgo Sansepolcro. I always imagine it to be smaller than it is. In fact it is quite large—close to 66 by 46 inches, which surprises me each time that I see it. I wonder about this idea of scale—if this means it’s a testament to its intimacy, the way in which a painting can draw you in. I don’t think it’s to do with having often looked at it in reproduction. Things have the “right” scale in your imagination.

Rachel Whiteread on Piero della Francesca

Rachel Whiteread, Ghost, 1990, Plaster and steel frame, 269 × 355 ½ × 317 ½ inches (683.3 × 903 × 806.4 cm) © Rachel Whiteread

There is a harmonious relationship between nature and man in this beautiful naturalistic, dusky Tuscan landscape. You can just make out the town in the background, which certainly seems to relate to Sansepolcro but is obviously not a realistic view of where the baptism would have originally taken place. I find that interesting. There are parts of this composition that are a bit odd. For example, the three kings in the background are comparatively crudely painted; their reflection in the water is actually more prevalent than themselves.

The colors have dulled over five centuries, but they are still soft and alluring, rich and translucent. The angel’s wings are almost like butterfly wings. The rich and sensual way their cloth has been painted evokes materials such as velvet and silk. And there is a sumptuous quality to these materials. The blue and pink colors really shine out.

This painting may tell a very particular story, but Piero’s translation of it into a series of lines, colors, and shapes has transfixed me for more than thirty-five years.

I feel that there is a peacefulness to this painting, as well as a sense of piety—the bowl of the baptism resembles a halo. I would say that there is an eroticism, too. Jesus’s loincloth is suggestively transparent, and there is a strange figure in the background who is undressing and also looks very vulnerable.

This painting may tell a very particular story, but Piero’s translation of it into a series of lines, colors, and shapes has transfixed me for more than thirty-five years. Surely that must be a testament to a truly great artwork.

Tom Eccles and Kiki Smith on Rachel Whiteread

In Conversation
Tom Eccles and Kiki Smith on Rachel Whiteread

On the occasion of Artist Spotlight: Rachel Whiteread, curator Tom Eccles and artist Kiki Smith speak about the work of Rachel Whiteread through the lens of their personal friendships with her. They discuss her public projects from the early 1990s to the present, the relationship between drawing and sculpture in her practice, and the way her works reveal the memories embedded in familiar everyday objects.

Still from the video "In Conversation: Rachel Whiteread and Ann Gallagher"

In Conversation
Rachel Whiteread and Ann Gallagher

Rachel Whiteread speaks to Ann Gallagher about a new group of resin sculptures for an upcoming exhibition at Gagosian in London. They discuss the works’ emphasis on surface texture, light, and reflection.

Anselm Kiefer, Volkszählung (Census), 1991, steel, lead, glass, peas, and photographs, 163 ⅜ × 224 ½ × 315 inches (4.1 × 5.7 × 8 m)/

Cast of Characters

James Lawrence explores how contemporary artists have grappled with the subject of the library.

Rachel Whiteread, Nissen Hut, 2018.

Shy Sculpture: Nissen Hut

Rachel Whiteread’s public sculpture Nissen Hut was unveiled in October 2018 in Yorkshire’s Dalby Forest. Curator Tamsin Dillon explores the dynamic history of these structures and provides a firsthand account of the steps leading up to the work’s premiere.

Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Notre-Dame), 2019.

For Notre-Dame

An exhibition at Gagosian, Paris, is raising funds to aid in the reconstruction of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris following the devastating fire of April 2019. Gagosian directors Serena Cattaneo Adorno and Jean-Olivier Després spoke to Jennifer Knox White about the generous response of artists and others, and what the restoration of this iconic structure means across the world.

Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Summer 2019

The Summer 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring a detail from Afrylic by Ellen Gallagher on its cover.

Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2019

Now available
Gagosian Quarterly Spring 2019

The Spring 2019 issue of Gagosian Quarterly is now available, featuring Red Pot with Lute Player #2 by Jonas Wood on its cover.

Becoming Home

Becoming Home

Rachel Whiteread’s US Embassy (Flat pack house) was unveiled in its permanent home at the new American embassy in Nine Elms, London, in early 2018. Virginia Shore, the curator for the London embassy project who worked with Whiteread to realize this site-specific commission, reflects on the history of prefabricated housing, the power of “home,” and the connecting force of art.

Solid Recollections: Rachel Whiteread

Solid Recollections: Rachel Whiteread

James Lawrence explores the quiet power and critical role of memory in Rachel Whiteread’s public works.

Brice Marden: Sketchbook (Gagosian, 2019); Lee Lozano: Notebooks 1967–70 (Primary Information, 2010); Stanley Whitney: Sketchbook (Lisson Gallery, 2018); Kara Walker: MCMXCIX (ROMA, 2017); Louis Fratino,Sept ’18–Jan. ’19 (Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 2019); Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Notebooks (Princeton University Press, 2015); Keith Haring Journals (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2010).

Book Corner
Private Pages Made Public

Megan N. Liberty explores artists’ engagement with notebooks and diaries, thinking through the various meanings that arise when these private ledgers become public.

Piero di Cosimo, The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, c. 1499, oil on panel, 31 ½ × 50 ⅝ inches (80 × 128.5 cm). A horizontal painting depicting a large a crowd of satyrs around a tree.

There’s Honey in the Hollows: Piero di Cosimo’s Form-of-Life

Daniel Spaulding, prompted by an encounter with Piero di Cosimo’s Discovery of Honey by Bacchus (c. 1499), investigates the potential philosophical and political power embedded within the figure of the satyr.

Rachel Feinstein in her West 15th Street studio, New York, 2002.

Rachel Feinstein

The artist discusses her life and work with Alan Yentob.