It was junk. It was quite clearly junk. Great heaps of pallets and tarps, towers of unwanted wood, a cardboard column held together with neon Sellotape: these items filled the lofty Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain in 2014. But anyone encountering Phyllida Barlow’s installation, with its precise construction, couldn’t help but see something more than debris and detritus: there was a radical grandeur, a sensitivity in her sculptures which drew you in and subtly shook you.
Barlow, who has died aged 78, only attracted public attention as a sculptor late in life after a long, influential career as a teacher in art schools. Then after she was noticed, things moved quickly. A show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010 was followed by representation at a major commercial gallery, a commission for the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and a damehood from Queen Elizabeth II. But her career faced opposition from the start.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1944 to a writer mother and a psychiatrist father (a great-grandson of Charles Darwin), Barlow grew up in a postwar London scarred by bombs, which gave her an enduring fascination for the rough, the ruined and the incomplete. On her second day at the Slade School of Art, the head of sculpture came up to her and said: “I won’t be talking to you very much, because by the time you’re 30, you’ll be having babies and making jam.” Barlow later recalled: “I had the good sense to say, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”
In the 1960s, modern sculpture was tough, male and monumental. As Turner prize-winner Rachel Whiteread, one of Barlow’s pupils, says: “We were all fighting against the metal-bashers.” Barlow, by contrast, was using “paint and colour and soft forms, [which] meant that she was doing something very different”, producing pieces which had bright familiar component parts but ended up strange, lumpen, not like any shape you had seen before. Whiteread praises the artist’s pedagogy, her passion and her protectiveness of her students.
Barlow intermingled three sides of her life. She had jobs in Bristol, Chelsea, Brighton and — for 20 years — at the Slade, teaching among others Tacita Dean and Monster Chetwynd. She raised five children with her husband, Fabian Peake, two of whom are now artists themselves. And she made art throughout, especially small sculptures in moments snatched away from childcare. “My rule was that when I had those few hours,” she said, “I had to actually have a result at the end of that time.”
It was practicality, then, as much as theory, which drove her work. She used cheap materials because they were to hand — sometimes picking up things her art school was about to discard — and she showed pieces in friends’ houses, quarries, small institutions and even put works on the street or on washing machines and televisions. Scale had to wait.
But scale came. In 2009, Joe Scotland, director of non-profit south London art gallery Studio Voltaire, paid a visit to Barlow’s home studio. Barlow assumed he was there to ask for tips about her most promising pupils, so when he and his colleague offered her a show on the spot, she was astonished. The work, says Scotland, was “exciting and relevant” for its path-breaking use of everyday materials, and her exhibition at the gallery, featuring two massive black beams, demonstrated her command: “It wasn’t just filling the space but taking control and pushing it.”
After that show, the opportunities — and the spaces — came thick and fast. The Hauser & Wirth mega-gallery took on her representation; she filled a vast wood-panelled room there with fabric-draped polystyrene blocks atop stilts anchored in cement. The gallery’s co-founder Iwan Wirth says: “Phyllida was an artists’ artist. We saw her Serpentine Gallery show and fell for the rough-hewn materiality of the work and her utter irreverence for all things grandiose.”
Her success came late, but not too late. “She went from one big project to another right to the end, she didn’t really stop,” says Scotland. “She was so ambitious for the work, not necessarily for her career.”
Having set herself against the cold and bombastic, Barlow’s work became theatrical and anti-monumental: its scale was not an intimidation but an invitation. She used rough materials to provoke astute questions in the viewer: how do I fit into this space? How do I relate to the world? The work stripped you, quietly but surely, of certainties. It made you feel like someone else — your real self. Josh Spero