Irene F. Whittome. Room 901

CONTENT photography and essay
DATE 2013
ISBN 9782922892598
FORMAT 24.5 x 24.5 cm
LANGUAGE French, English
PRICE $49.95
In bookstores

This is a very ambitious design.

During the summer of 1980, Irene F. Whittome completed an important body of work. Her studio now stood empty; the brick walls and columns had been painted white and the floor and windows renovated. Primed like a fresh canvas, Whittome’s Saint-Alexandre studio was set to become the medium for a site-specific process that would evolve over a period of nearly two years, from October 1980 to July 1982. On the wall adjacent to the arched windows, the artist painted a minimal form that through many stages of modification would bear a resemblance to a cross: a black square on white background, a white band on grey background, a white square on grey background, a truncated cross on white background and, finally, a black cross on white background. At the end of this intense process, in October 1982, Whittome had produced over 1,500 photos, a video, numerous model boxes, and three exhibitions. Thirty years later, Room 901 is the subject of an in-depth re-examination and a comprehensive re-enactment.

Marie J. Jean, publication editor



Irene F. Whittome’s artistic career spans close to fifty years. Born in Vancouver in 1942, the artist took up residence in Montreal in 1968 where, alongside her creative activities, she pursued a career as a professor in Fine Arts at Concordia University until 2007. The recurrent themes that emerge in her work are collection, exhibition, the museum, duration, time and traces. Over the years she has produced a considerable body of work using a great variety of techniques such as printmaking, photography, painting, drawing, sculpture and installation. Her work has been widely exhibited in Canada and abroad, including, among others, her solo exhibitions at the CIAC – Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal (1995), at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (1997), at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1998), the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (2000) as well as at the Art Gallery of Bishop’s University (known today as the Foreman Art Gallery) (2004). Irene F. Whittome has received numerous awards for her artistic excellence: the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts (1991), the Gershon Iskowitz Prize, Toronto (1992), the Prix Paul-Émile Borduas awarded by the Government of Quebec (1997), and the Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts (2002). In 2005, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Her works are included in the collections of Canada’s most important museums. Since 2005, she has been represented by the Galerie Simon Blais in Montreal.

Authors collective: Marie J. Jean - executive and artistic director of VOX, centre de l’image contemporaine. She is also an exhibition curator and teaches at Université du Québec à Montréal and Université Laval in Quebec City - Eve-Lyne Beaudry - curator for contemporary art at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec - and Vincent Bonin, author and independent curator.


Back from Quebec City, walking toward our temporary office on Saint-Alexandre Street, I noticed that the windows on the top floor of the building resembled those in the photographic compositions of Room 901. I was working in the building in which the artist had realized her project thirty years ago! I decided to pursue my research and immersed myself in her aesthetic universe, comprising an important corpus of works that embraced media as varied as photography, painting, sculpture, installation, and the museum itself. I quickly understood that Room 901, although relatively unknown, belongs to a category of production that presents itself as the formal and conceptual synthesis of future works. From 1980 to 1982, the empty studio on Saint-Alexandre Street represented a space that limited, confined, isolated, and protected. In this sense, it took on a role comparable to that of the box, the display case, and the museum, which would become fundamental components in the artist’s aesthetic vocabulary. The studio represented not only the support for prolific production but also a place of retreat, allowing Irene F. Whittome to isolate herself for an extended period in order to focus exclusively on this painstaking process whose precise outcome remained to be finalized.

Marie J. Jean

In 1980, Irene F. Whittome’s work was the subject of a retrospective survey at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, an exhibition subsequently presented across Canada.1 During the same year, the artist decided to circumvent the dictates of productivity that follow institutional recognition. She isolated herself in her studio at the corner of Saint-Alexandre and de La Gauchetière streets in Montreal to take stock. At first, she acted out a sequence of gestures that seemed to bear little fruit. In a section of her studio (Room 901), she positioned a small number of objects – a painted black cross and a canvas covered in white pigments – on the wall and floor respectively. Every day, the artist repainted the walls and rearranged these pictorial signifiers. Whittome also took more than 1,500 photographs that bear witness to these permutations and capture the variations of light in the studio. She does not appear in the photos, although traces left in the pigments occasionally hint at her presence. The cross and canvas provided an immediate visual anchoring point, and the photographs attested (to her, at that point) to the passage of time.

Vincent Bonin

To successfully ensure the integrity of certain art works for the future, it is imperative that museum curators carefully assess the nature of the pieces in their collections. With regard to contemporary art, particular attention must be paid to the status of documents stemming from artistic operations, actions, and performances. Straddling the frontiers between performative act, in situ installation, and conceptual work, Irene F. Whittome’s Room 901 constitutes an exemplary model for such an evaluation.

Eve-Lyne Beaudry


« This is a very ambitious design; the spine and pasteboard are well done, the front matter looks great, the pacing of the images is just right, and the production values are high. »

Judges' comments, The Alcuin Society Awards