Home Arts Remembering Phyllida Barlow, one of the most important and original British artists of recent years

Remembering Phyllida Barlow, one of the most important and original British artists of recent years

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“The thing about sculpture that is particularly my passion…is whether the work can be about to know what it is and what it could or could be,” said Phyllida Barlow. . The arts journal in November 2013. “In other words, this extraordinary question: ‘Is it over? There’s a tradition of this, through Arte Povera, Giacometti, Rodin, even in some of Michelangelo’s hazy figures emerging from stone – it’s a wonderful aspect of sculpture that defies the monumental. Jeff Koons is a magnificent example of someone whose work absolutely has complete resolution. But they function more like pictorial events for me than like sculptural events.

She managed to achieve both awkwardness and grace, humor and pathos, grandeur and intimacy.

These words reflect many of the qualities that have made Barlow one of the most important British artists of recent years. Ardently attached to sculpture and convinced of its special power, she was erudite and insightful, but also irreverent and suspicious of orthodoxies. This was evident in his combinations of simple materials such as wood, plaster and canvas, cement, paint and fabric. She managed to achieve both awkwardness and grace, humor and pathos, grandeur and intimacy. Hints of a deep knowledge of other artists abound in his work, but his was a singular language. She used the exhibition space dramatically – with sculptures stretching across its heights and depths, occupying its walls and hiding in its corners, as if they were living entities groping, testing its settings.

Barlow was first a student at the Chelsea School of Art in London, then at the Slade School of Art, University of London.

A student from Chelsea

Barlow was born in 1944 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where her father Erasmus Darwin Barlow, great-grandson of Charles Darwin, was a psychiatrist researching traumatic brain injury. Phyllida often spoke of childhood memories related to the themes and forms of her work, such as urban clamor, destruction and hoarding. She recalled the “very powerful experience” of Erasmus taking her and her siblings to London’s bomb-damaged East End and her grandmother’s cupboard under the stairs, where “ she kept everything that could be reused”.

From 1962, Barlow studied at the Chelsea School of Art, where she met Fabian Peake, her artist husband, himself from a distinguished background – he was the son of Mervyn Peake, author of Gormenghast fantasy novels. They married in 1966. From Chelsea she went to the Slade School of Fine Art at the University of London. Her tutors could be supportive, like George Fullard and Elisabeth Frink – “that’s great…keep going,” she recalls saying – or outrageously dismissive, like Reg Butler, who told her: “I’m not so interested, because by the time you’re 30, you’re going to have babies and make jam.

Phyllida Barlow, installation view of Dockas part of the Duveen Commission, Tate Britain, 2014 ©2014 Alex Delfanne; courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

An “astonishing moral” governed his discipline at the time, “where you had ‘real’ sculpture shoved down your throat – it was either good or bad or it was right or wrong, and that was a complete turnaround for me”. A “youthful anarchy” led her to embrace emerging trends including, in Britain, the New Generation, as shown at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1965, artists such as David Annesley, Michael Bolus and William Tucker. But she was mostly inspired by the overseas movements. Although “all eyes were on America” ​​and minimalism and conceptualism, she recalls: “I looked as much to Europe and I was trying to glean as much information as possible”. It would be mainly from texts and images in magazines. The artists she discovered then, from Louises Nevelson and Bourgeois to Germaine Richier and, later, Eva Hesse, will remain touchstones throughout his career.

The Slade School and beyond

Barlow became a tutor at the Slade in the late 1960s and continued to teach until 2009. She and Peake also raised a family of five after 1973. The Peakes are all artists of different genres: Eddie and Florence are best known for their performance. work, Clover is a poet and designer, Tabitha a painter, and Lewis a conceptual artist and film illustrator. Much has been made of Barlow’s frequent assertion that “children and being an artist are very incompatible,” but she also credited the experience of parenthood with the urgency it brought to her work. “For me and for Fabian it was a huge training ground that we can still use now; that you seize every moment that you have. Meeting Barlow in the studio, there was no doubt that she was fully invested in her pursuits – her clothes were covered in paint, plaster, cement and more.

Between the 1970s and the 2000s, presentations of his work were often self-generated, in an abandoned attic, a schoolyard, a disused office, an old stocking factory, even thrown into the Thames. She had started showing more in the 2000s before retiring from teaching, but big success came when she became a full-time artist in 2009. An exhibition at Studio Voltaire in South London in 2010 was followed in the same year by a brilliantly crafted couple. at the Serpentine Gallery with Iranian-born sculptor Nairy Baghramian. Baghramian had written in art forum the previous year of an epiphanic visit to Barlow’s London home where she saw “raw and tentatively glued-together structures”; it was “as if reality could not yet accommodate these still malleable ideas,” she writes.

Phyllida Barlow, installation view at the exhibition Phyllida Barlow—CastKunstverein Nuremberg, Germany 2011 © Stephan Minx; courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Imposing blocks on stilts

A huge change in Barlow’s life and career came when Hauser & Wirth began representing her around the same time. Her first exhibition with the gallery took place in 2011 in a space she owned at the time in a former bank designed by Edwin Lutyens in Piccadilly. It was a magnificent display of Barlow’s engagement with space, with towering blocks on stilts in the main room, anthropomorphic hoops huddled in a hall downstairs, and pom-poms in the attic. Although she continues to do small works and wonderful designs, Barlow is able to be more and more ambitious in terms of size (she doesn’t like the word “scale”). “I like big sculpture,” she said. “I love this feeling that my own physicality is competing with something that has no rational need to be in the world. And that in itself is just an expression of the human condition, of who we are. and who we are. Big ideas came fast and well although she modestly described her existence as “a very small life…it’s family, studio and Tesco [supermarket] Really”.

I like this feeling that my own physicality is competing with something that has no rational need to be in the world.

Phyllida Barlow

Imaginative engagement with the environment and the people around her was key. She said her sculptures absorb “the coincidences and chances of how things physically come together in the world”. She was clear that her sculptures were metaphors of experiences rather than similes. While the work could “just be itself and stubbornly refuse to be like anything else”, she explained, “I think it’s moving forward”.

This manifested itself in an extraordinary series of works produced in the 2010s, from Advice (2013), a forest of cement, wood, steel mesh and fabric that flowed from the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, for Dockhis exhibition crammed into the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain in 2014 and, perhaps most notably, his work from 2017 madness, seemingly filling every square inch of the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In each case, she took loaded spaces: the ghosts of artists who had passed through Carnegie and Tate, Britain’s national pavilion in the year after Brexit – an event that appalled her – with a audacity and characteristic risk.

Phyllida Barlow, installation view of Dockas part of the Duveen Commission, Tate Britain, 2014 ©2014 Alex Delfanne; courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

An unwavering commitment to irreverence

Madness was the zenith of Barlow’s total environments, after which, she says, “I just drew a line under it and started thinking a lot about the single object”. But performances at the Royal Academy in London (2019) and the Haus der Kunst in Munich (2021), among others, showed that his commitment to the imposing and the irreverent remained unwavering.

Part of Barlow’s genius was to judge how far to go too far (to quote Jean Cocteau) with his audience, so “not to get trapped in exploitative emotional blackmail where you vomit on people’s shoes and you you expect to be pitied,” Barlow says. “It’s a fine line where something that might seem awkward or unsightly or ugly can also have some kind of compassion about it. That, for me, is where the balance is.

Phyllida Barlow, installation view, a dateNasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, 2015 Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

In fact, Barlow was openly generous, empowering her viewer. She describes the encounter between the public and the sculpture as an “encounter”. Coming face to face with her works, “which you then have to browse, look at or look at”, she says, “is a performative act, not a passive act”.

Gillian Phyllida Barlow; born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on April 4, 1944; AR 2011; ECB 2015; DBE 2021; married in 1966 Fabian Peake (three daughters, two sons); died in London on March 12, 2023

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