Phyllida Barlow, Artist, 1944-2023 | financial times

Phyllida Barlow, in her studio, 2018
Phyllida Barlow, in her studio, 2018. She only came to public attention as a sculptor after a long career teaching art schools © Cat Garcia

It was junk. That was clearly rubbish. Huge stacks of pallets and tarps, towers of unwanted wood, a cardboard column held together with neon tape: these items filled the sublime Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain in 2014. But those who stumbled upon Phyllida Barlow’s installation, with its precise construction, couldn’t help but see something more than rubble and debris: her sculptures had a radical grandeur, a sensibility that drew you in and subtly shook you.

Barlow, who died at the age of 78, came to public attention late as a sculptor after a long and influential career teaching art schools. Then, after she was noticed, things moved quickly. An exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010 was followed by representation in 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 met resistance from the start .

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1944 to a writer and a psychiatrist (great-grandson of Charles Darwin), Barlow grew up in bomb-ravaged post-war London, giving her an abiding fascination with the rough, the devastated and the old incomplete. On her second day at the Slade School of Art, the director of sculpture came up to her and said, “I’m not going to talk to you much because by the time you’re 30 you’re going to be having babies and making jam.” Barlow later recalled, ” I had the common sense to say, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”

In the 1960s, modern sculpture was tough, masculine, and monumental. As Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread, one of Barlow’s students, says, “We all fought the metal bashers.” In contrast, Barlow used “color and color and soft shapes, [which] meant she was doing something very different,” producing pieces that had bright, familiar ingredients, but ended up being weird, lumpy, and unlike any shape you’d seen before. Whiteread praises the artist’s pedagogy, her passion and her protective instincts towards her students.

Barlow mixed three sides of her life. She had jobs in Bristol, Chelsea, Brighton and – for 20 years – at the Slade, teaching Tacita Dean and Monster Chetwynd, among others. 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 from childcare. “My rule was that if I had those few hours,” she said, “I had to actually have a result by the end of that time.”

So it was both practice and theory that drove her work. She used cheap materials because they were on hand – sometimes picking up things that her art school wanted to throw away – and she displayed pieces in friends’ houses, quarries, small institutions and even placed works in the street or on washing machines and televisions. Libra had to wait.

Barlow used cheap materials because they were readily available

Barlow used cheap materials because they were on hand © Elon Schoenholz

But scale came. In 2009, Joe Scotland, director of the not-for-profit South London art gallery Studio Voltaire, paid a visit to Barlow’s hometown. Barlow assumed he was there to ask for advice on her most promising students, and when he and his colleague offered her a show on the spot, she was amazed. The work, says Scotland, was “exciting and relevant” for its groundbreaking use of everyday materials, and its gallery display with two massive black bars demonstrated its skill: “It not only filled the space, but took control and propulsion.”

After that show, the opportunities – and the rooms – came thick and fast. The mega gallery Hauser & Wirth took over their representation; There she filled a huge wood-panelled room with fabric-covered styrofoam blocks on stilts anchored in cement. The gallery’s co-founder, Iwan Wirth, says: “Phyllida was an artist. We saw her show at the Serpentine Gallery and fell in love with the rough-hewn materiality of the work and its utter irreverence for all that is grandiose.”

Her success came late, but not too late. “She went from one big project to the next until the end, she didn’t really stop,” says Scotland. “She was so ambitious for work, not necessarily for her career.”

Having opposed the cold and the bombastic, Barlow’s work became theatrical and anti-monumental: its grandeur was not an intimidation but an invitation. She used rough materials to provoke perceptive questions in the viewer: How do I fit into this space? How am I related to the world? The work has, quietly but surely, robbed you of certainties. It made you feel like someone else – your true self. Josh Spero Phyllida Barlow, Artist, 1944-2023 | financial times

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