Whiteread creates plaster casts from objects and spaces, evoking physical memories of them. Untitled (Paperbacks) is the negative cast of the interior of a library, turned inward; a room filled with the spectral marks of books whose contents and titles appear to be lost. The plaster surfaces are a visible manifestation of the room—the books' binding colors, their widths, and even the texture of their pages are still "readable." Whiteread's sculpture creates tension between the haunting and the poetic, the monumental and the fragile, and the ephemeral and the eternal.
Gallery label from Out of Time: A Contemporary View, August 30, 2006–April 9, 2007.
Untitled (Paperbacks) is a room-sized installation that feels empty but isn't quite: on all four walls hang rows of long white objects that look like shelves but are not, for they are plaster, not wood, and their surfaces are uneven, and vacant. These regularly spaced tiers suggest a library without books, yet books were here, and their traces remain. Whiteread made these objects by casting shelves of paperbacks, whose slightly differing sizes account for the plaster's uneven surfaces. Look closely, too, and you may see a residue of paper embedded in the casts, the edges of the pages caught as the plaster dried.
Whiteread specializes in the sculptural reversal that makes a solid object speak less of its own material presence than of objects that are no longer present, yet maintain a ghostly presence in their absence. The early work of this British artist comprised castings of everyday furnituremattress, table, bathtubin mediums from resin to concrete. She next addressed architecture, as in Untitled (Room) (1993), a plaster work also in the Museum's collection: here empty space becomes an opaque cube marked on its outside by the lines of a room's windows and door. Her more recent outdoor Holocaust memorial in Vienna is another room, once lined with books, which left their marks on the outside of a sealed block, symbolizing the lives and the culture lost to Nazi persecution. Untitled (Paperbacks), by contrast, is a library you can enter. Although there is nothing to read in it, it is filled with the knowledge, ideas, and memories contained in books, even if you must bring those associations with you into this serene, but haunted, place.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 346.