In the fall 1998 issue of Carnegie magazine, Richard Armstrong, director of CMOA from 1996 to 2008, walked through the galleries with editor R. Jay Gangewere while discussing some of his favorite works in the museum’s permanent collection. Though Armstrong highlighted a number of artworks that day—Pierre Bonnard, Nude in a Bathtub; Edgar Degas, The Bath (Le bain); Joan Mitchell, Wet Orange (Triptych); Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Afternoon; Willem de Kooning, Woman VI; and Mel Bochner, Measurement: Plant (Palm)—he saved his praise for Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Yellow Bath) until last:
Here’s an artist who has helped reinvigorate contemporary sculpture. She’s best known for having cast the interior of a rowhouse in East London. In the 1995 Carnegie International, Whiteread used the negative space of nine different chairs to make resin molds for her Hundred Spaces, a field of translucent abstractions. Yellow Bath is monumental and comparable to the larger work, and so seemed suitable for the collection.
Yellow Bath is made out of rubber and polystyrene. Here we are looking at the impression of a very ordinary, everyday object with a function—a cast-iron bathtub. Whiteread configures sculpture through negative spaces, and we’re encouraged to see this impression of a tub as an abstraction.
Armstrong, who came to CMOA in 1992 to organize the 1995 Carnegie International as curator of contemporary art, found Whiteread’s work refreshing. But not everyone in the contemporary art world at that time shared his sentiment. In critic Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of the 1995 International, she was less than impressed that Armstrong featured Whiteread’s work in the exhibition. She believed that one of the more well-known Young British Artists was an obvious choice:
Mr. Armstrong ignores Damien Hirst, intermittently the most convincing representative of the brash young artists who have reinvigorated the London art scene, in favor of the more sedate Rachel Whiteread. Her sculpture of 100 casts of the spaces beneath four chairs in translucent resin has a quirky geometry and like much else here, a rather too quiet mesmerizing beauty. It seems prematurely complacent.
Smith’s critique of Whiteread’s work as “too quiet” gets at the precise reason why Armstrong seems to have appreciated it. He was intrigued by her use of everyday objects as a way to ask audiences to reconsider their surroundings.
As Armstrong concluded his tour of the galleries that day in 1998, he realized that many of the artworks he highlighted had a common thread.
“I see now that by picking Bonnard’s Nude in a Bathtub and also Degas’ The Bath, and Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture Untitled (Yellow Bath),” he told R. Jay Gangewere, “I’ve created a recurring motif of bathing. I might be showing my evangelical Protestant roots, accidentally. There is baptism and washing away of sins in some of these pictures. I always think of art as a kind of salvation, even if there’s no afterlife.”
Uncrated: The Hidden Lives of Artworks is on view in the Scaife Lounge at Carnegie Museum of Art from March 9, 2015–May 8, 2015. Learn the stories behind some intriguing works from CMOA’s collection and find out more about the people who buy, move, hang, clean, and care for them. Over the course of nine weeks, a team of registrars, conservators, preparators, and curators will be sharing their work with the public as they examine objects recently taken out of storage. Come back throughout the show and visit uncrated.cmoa.org to see what new discoveries the team is making.