Barricades and fins, swaying painted-board planes, uncertain towers and stairways to nowhere; bulbous ovoids like caricature-like beheadings mounted on sticks; large swaths of light-colored but clearly soiled fabric, stacks of discarded pallets, hanging ropes, columns and ideas—all collided in Phyllida Barlow’s often sprawling sculptural installations. “Defining what sculpture is is pointless,” Barlow wrote in a 2018 series of “Provocations.” Barlow, who died at the age of 78, was nothing but provocative – as an artist, teacher, lecturer and writer.
Confrontational, disarming, at times bewildering, her art had an immediate physical presence, a sense of irrepressible materiality, and a palpable vitality. Standing on her commission for Tate Britain in 2014, filling the Duveen galleries, I sometimes feared for my personal safety, let alone my clothes, between all the scrap wood, the chicken wire and papier-mâché, the plaster casts, all that Concrete, scrim and tar.
Despite their size, their works were anti-monumental, a parody of the history of sculpture’s assertive masculinity
I felt I had to crawl to get to the bottom of her work for the Hepworth Sculpture Prize in Wakefield, with its undergrowth of columns under a raised, inaccessible floor. Negotiating the 22 sculptures that filled her UK Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale were not for the faint of heart. It felt like their sculptures didn’t really want us there and things were arguing amongst themselves.
Barlow could also be personally confrontational, direct, teasing, indiscreet, and prone to pugnacious assertions. Her writings reveal her struggles with her own self-doubt. But as frightening as her sculptures and environments were, there was something warm about her work and about the artist herself.
In her art, things are stacked, stacked and ranked, they fold, they spread, they sway, they sag and break out. She once described her art as an adventure of objects. She reveled in the incongruent and unsynchronized. Her sculptures had no manners. She had a great sense of accomplishment. When the discrete elements, along with many materials, were taken from the studio and constructed on site, she largely improvised her final form. She, like her audience, became a protagonist of the drama, and here lies the energy of her art.
“Why try to compete with the super artists?” she once asked. “Why resort to the macho means of production when you could only twiddle your thumbs and assemble things from the immediate vicinity?” Not the stone yard of the welding shop, but the overcrowded container seemed to be the crucible of their work. Her art was clumsy and immoderate.
It is only in the last two decades that she has found fame and an audience outside of Britain, where she has been an artist and a beloved and generous teacher to generations of students. For many years she had little commercial success or even recognition. The ramshackle complexity and sculptural breadth and awkwardness of her work spoke against her. Her work was more of a journey than a trail of individual works. One thing leads to another and the other and the other.
Even individual works were a series of movements and passages, gags and routines. Going big suited Barlow. It increased their talents. Growing up suited her best. Yet her works, despite their size, were anti-monumental, a wonderful parody of sculpture’s history of self-centered masculinity, a burlesque of sculptural heaviness. She played and struggled with her unruly materials, in an art of amusement and lamentation. What a loss that is.