Commissioned by the Public Art Fund and originally installed in 1998 on a rooftop in the Soho neighborhood of New York, Water Tower is Whiteread's first public sculpture to be conceived and displayed in the United States. The British artist scoured the city in search of a quintessentially New York subject. Looking across the East River to Manhattan during a visit to Brooklyn, she admired the water towers perched high above the streets and was drawn to their uniqueness and their ubiquity in the architectural cityscape.
Whiteread is known for her castings in resin and plaster of familiar objects and the spaces they surround, such as the interiors of a bathtub and a row house in London's East End, and for her ability to make people see these objects and spaces anew. Water Tower is a resin cast of the interior of a once-functioning cedar water tower, chosen specifically for the texture this type of wood would impart to the surface. The translucent resin captures the qualities of the surrounding sky; the sculpture’s color and brightness change throughout the day and it becomes a near-invisible whisper at night. Whiteread has called this work "a jewel on the skyline of Manhattan." Soaring and ephemeral, it inspires city–dwellers and visitors alike to look again at the solid, weighty water towers they usually see without noticing.
Director, Glenn Lowry: In 1998, The Public Art Fund invited Rachel Whiteread to make a site-specific work for New York City. Water Tower was made for a rooftop in lower Manhattan but it was acquired by MoMA a few years later. Youll find it outside on the Museum's roof.
Rachel Whiteread: One of my first times in America I noticed the water towers on the roof tops of New York City and I enjoyed these objects. I didn't really know what they were, didn't really know why they were there, but as these weird wooden barrel like objects that sat on top of many roof tops in very awkward ways. It occurred to me that they were like part of the furniture of the city, sort of street benches or, they're just something that no one really took much notice of. Its something that I often do is try and give those places and spaces that have never really had a place in the world some sort of authority and some sort of voice.
So I decided that what I wanted to do was to cast one of these water towers in a clear resin. I wanted to make a jewel on the skyline of Manhattan. So its a single clear plastic casting of a full sized water tower that sat on the roof on the corner of West Broadway and Grand Street.
I had originally thought of making this piece solid but that's technically impossible. So we had to make it empty, so the whole thing is a skin of about four inches all the way around. And it has the texture of the inside of the water tower, so its really about solidifying water and trying to make this water look like it's just frozen in a moment of time. It's like the actual water tower has been stripped away and theres this solid water left behind. And using a material which was completely in tune with the weather so it could take on its surroundings, so on a white day you could hardly see it; on a blue day, it glowed; at night time it kind of disappears, it just becomes like a sort of smudge. And if the moon is bright, it just caresses the side of it and it just completely takes on its environment and becomes part of the sky, which is what I had always intended.