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‘She changed how we encounter sculpture’ – remembering Phyllida Barlow (1944–2023)

16 March 2023

In 1960, a tutor at Chelsea College of Art identified that a student enrolled on to a painting course was in the wrong place. Telling her that she ‘used paint like clay’, he invited her to join the sculpture department. Immediately, the young Phyllida Barlow was transported, her imagination fuelled by the idea that she was no longer limited to just two dimensions.

When I visited Barlow’s studio in 2019, we discussed that moment, which she described as ‘this sense [that] the whole form in front of me was a freedom, a freedom away from something, into something quite unknown’. That exploration of the unknown, and a sheer delight in the possibilities of form, remained with her throughout her career. Of course, Barlow – who has died this week at the age of 78 – never stopped using paint. With a lifelong interest in texture and viscosity, in stuff, in colour, Barlow created works that transcend genre. She didn’t just change the language of sculpture; she changed how we encounter and engage with it. Her works spill out of rooms, push up into ceilings, seep into crevices and jolt out from walls.

Fill (1983), Phyllida Barlow, installed at Tout Quarry, Dorset. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; © Phyllida Barlow

Unparalleled as an educator, Barlow said that her approach to teaching came as a result of her own ‘fucking awful’ experience after her first year at the Slade. She was at art school when a certain type of modernism was dominating British sculpture: dark, tense, expressionistic with a moralising message and a very formal sculptural language. Barlow pushed against this. When her mentor, the sculptor George Fullard, asked how her first year at the Slade had been, she said it was ‘a dark place […] there’s no light in the sculpture’. ‘Do you mean intellectually, artistically, or literally?’ he asked. ‘All three,’ came the reply. When she had arrived at the Slade, her tutor Reg Butler asked her to name a woman sculptor – ‘apart from Barbara’ – before declaring ‘there are none’. At her final year degree show, Kenneth Armitage couldn’t believe her work had been made by a woman, and a photograph of Barlow was produced to assuage his doubts.

Rather than be cowed by such rampant sexism, Barlow said it brought out the fight in her, contributing to a lifelong hatred of immediate judgements. She taught her own students with generosity of spirit, curiosity and verve. ‘I think those things can act as the most extraordinary triggers for your future,’ Barlow told me, ‘because I remember when I did eventually go into teaching I thought, the people I’m most interested in teaching are the ones who are struggling to get a foothold on this whole system. Because, if you have made that kind of decision to go to art school and maybe you come from a background that isn’t 100 per cent supportive, the last thing you need is a load of self-opinionated so-called tutors as artists telling you this that and the other. I quickly wanted my teaching to be of a totally different kind’.

Her respect for her students was matched in the respect for her audiences she expressed in her work. She was never interested in asking people to look passively from a safe distance. In her sculpture, we have to be active lookers, otherwise we might trip over or fail to duck in time. We have a role to play as well. She identified three ‘protagonists’ in her sculpture: the work itself, the audience and the space.

For her installation at the Venice Biennale in 2017, folly, she said she wanted to push at ‘the guts’ of the British Pavilion, built in 1909 when the country was still at the apex of its international power. By 2017, the country’s global reputation was crumbling; Barlow’s work identifies that sense of decay and loss. Her constructions were a precarious artifice; tall and mighty, but, built of ephemera, they looked as though they could topple if caught in the wind.

folly (2017), Phyllida Barlow, installation view at the Venice Biennale. Photo: Ruth Clark; courtesy the artist, Hauser & Wirth and the British Council; © Phyllida Barlow

In her studio, I asked her whether she had found a satisfactory definition for what sculpture is. (If anyone could, it would have been her; she was certainly the most articulate person I have ever met.) She told me she could say only what it was not, and that ‘I certainly know that it is not always about the object. It’s about sensations of being in relationship to [it].’ She said that while she knew people would forget looking at her sculpture, she hoped the ‘notion’ of it would stay with them, that the sensation of the feeling evoked would remain. Barlow’s work was mainly ephemeral, and she often destroyed it herself; she was never an artist concerned with cementing her reputation in bronze or marble. Hers was a quieter power, but no less lasting. Her legacy survives in each of us who encountered her sculpture and were left with the notion of it, of her.