Phyllida Barlow, British sculptor of playful, scale-defying works, dies at 78

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Phyllida Barlow, British sculptor of playful, scale-defying works, dies at 78
An untitled Phyllida Barlow sculpture at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel in Los Angeles, March 14, 2016. Barlow, who after a four-decade teaching career broke out with her own work of playful, large-scale sculptures when she was in her mid-60s, died on March 12, 2023. She was 78. (Michal Czerwonka/The New York Times)

by Nana Asfour

NEW YORK, NY.- British artist Phyllida Barlow, who after a four-decade teaching career found fame as a groundbreaking artist in her own right in her mid-60s, creating playful, often large-scale sculptures that wryly commented on industrial society, died on Sunday in London. She was 78.

Her gallery, Hauser & Wirth, confirmed her death but did not give a cause.

Drawing inspiration from industrialism’s waste and decay, Barlow used everyday materials like plaster, cardboard and wood to create sculptures, often vibrantly hued, in which she manipulated perceptions of space and scale, arriving at monumental yet intimate statements.

In 2012, the New Museum in New York introduced her work to American viewers with a solo show titled “Siege.” Among other works, the exhibit featured 21 arch-shaped gray structures made of cement and plastic foam, haphazardly splattered with colorful specks of paint, which called to mind both druid ruins and plumbing tubes. They were surrounded by detritus-like sculptures — crumpled black garbage bags, crushed boxes and mounds of ribbons — that were mighty, whimsical and gloomy, all at once.

“It reads all together as, among other things, an anarchic reflection on a society of spectacle and waste,” Ken Johnson said in a review of the show for The New York Times.

“I have a fascination with abandoned industrial objects,” Barlow told the art content producer Art21 in a short documentary about her art, explaining how her work was inspired by her surroundings, including by the vista out of her home’s windows in north London.

“Out of the back of our house where we look onto a railway yard, you see these objects that have this very specific use suddenly becoming moribund,” she said. “To me, the idea of remaking those objects is another form of fossilizing.”

Barlow was born on April 4, 1944, in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to Brigit Ursula Hope Black, a writer, and Erasmus Darwin Barlow, a psychiatrist. The family moved to Richmond, outside of London, after World War II. The ruin and reconstruction she witnessed from the war stayed with her and eventually became an intrinsic part of her art.

She first studied at the Chelsea School of Art in London, and transferred to the Slade School of Fine Art in 1963. There, she rebelled against the restrictiveness of the sculptural tradition and the sexism she encountered.

“When I was 19, on my second day at the Slade,” she said in a video produced by her gallery, “one of my tutors, a male tutor, who was a very successful artist at the time, he came to me and said, ‘Um, I won’t be talking to you very much because by the time you’re 30, you’ll be having babies and making jam.’ ”

The comment, she said, was a “chilling reminder that this was a male domain and girls were very privileged to be allowed into it.”

The skills and materials considered acceptable for sculpture by her teachers were also male-centric. Ideas like domesticity, and traditionally women’s crafts, like knitting and sewing, were taboo, she found. She wanted to move away from such rigid delineations and found inspiration in the works of Eva Hesse, who mounted works out of fabric and latex.

“Artists like Ms. Barlow made the world safer for untold numbers of younger women to assert their own unruly imaginations,” Johnson wrote in 2012.

At Slade, Barlow met her future husband, fellow artist Fabian Peake, son of writer and illustrator Mervyn Peake. The couple married in 1966. He survives her, as do their five children, Florence, Clover, Tabitha, Eddie and Lewis Peake; their six grandchildren; and her siblings Camilla Whitworth-Jones and Jeremy Barlow.

After graduating, she taught at several leading art schools in England before returning to Slade in 1988 as a part-time lecturer, eventually becoming a professor.

During her nearly two decades there, she influenced a generation of British artists and taught well-known artists such as Tacita Dean and Rachel Whiteread. She encouraged her students to disregard the conventions of sculpture and to build their own vernacular.

“My teaching was very influenced by not going towards the right/wrong approach,” she told Art21 in another video, “but trying to find things that could really unravel something quite idiosyncratic to that student.”

Throughout this time, she made sculpture using unconventional material — chipboard panels, salvaged canvases and the like — which were displayed in disused quarries or abandoned homes, and she participated in a number of group shows.

She retired as a professor in 2009 and a year later had a solo show at Studio Voltaire in London. This led to an invitation from famed curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to participate in an exhibit at Serpentine Galleries in London, which launched her international career.

For a commission at the Tate Britain in 2014, Barlow filled the museum’s massive Duveen Galleries sculpture court with several constructions that evoked a wasteland of discarded materials: a giant tube dangling from the ceiling, a pile of wooden scraps stacked in a corner, a colorful cube leaning precariously on slabs of concrete. These were largely made from what she called “recycled offcuts” from her studio.

“I wanted to look at sculpture as a restless object where the whole of the sculptural form was open to scrutiny and not just determined by where it landed on the ground,” she said at the time. The Guardian art critic Adrian Searle declared the show “mad, and madly ambitious” noting “its variety and ramshackle complexity.”

Barlow continued to defy gravity and scale with sculpture installations that soared, bulged or drooped, combining wryness with eloquence, in exhibitions at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and the Royal Academy of Arts in London two years later. Her installation at the Biennale, critic Mark Hudson wrote in The Telegraph, “throws up all kinds of visual jokes and quite profound resonances about scale and endurance, mortality and decay.”

In 2021, she was awarded a damehood by Queen Elizabeth II.

In a 2016 interview with ArtReview magazine, she deftly captured the essence of her work: “There’s this idea of playing the monumental game, but with these crap materials, and because they are crap materials, you can mess around with them, tilting them or balancing them: forcing them do nonmonumental things. It’s both comic and grimly authoritarian, and that’s my relationship to sculpture.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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