Phyllida Barlow, Whose Towering Sculptures Upended Ideas of Art-Making, Has Died at 78

Phyllida Barlow, the relentless British sculptor who made innocuous materials into idiosyncratic meditations on art-making, has died. She was 78. The news was confirmed by her longtime gallery, Hauser & Wirth.

In a statement, Iwan Wirth, the gallery’s cofounder, said, “Phyllida Barlow was a cherished friend as well as a visionary artist. Her ideas, knowledge, experience and wry humor were always shared with the most extraordinary warmth. Her generosity of spirit extended through her art, her writings, and her many years of teaching and mentorship.”

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Phyllida Barlow photocall. Artist Phyllida Barlow with her piece untitled: upturned house, 2 (2012), a new acquisition which goes on display at the Artist Rooms in Tate Modern, London, from 14 January. Picture date: Thursday January 14, 2016. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire URN:25236841

For more than 50 years, Barlow created “nonmonumental” sculptures that prioritized absurdity over grandeur. Functional materials like cardboard, nuts and bolts, fabric, and plywood were stacked, stitched, and stretched into imposing forms and painted in vibrant colors. The seams were often left visible. The textures contrasted and symmetry was disregarded; sometimes, they tipped dangerously to the side. Many of her works are large, but scale was just one way to investigate the physical negotiations between objects and space. 

“Making from lightweight, disposable things pastiches the monument or the monumental,” Barlow told ArtReview in 2010. “The latter has this heroic, macho thing that I’m attracted to, but which conversely, I couldn’t possibly do myself. So, 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,” she continued, adding that it was “both comic and grimly authoritarian, and that’s my relationship to sculpture”. 

Barlow was born in 1944 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, and raised in London. She studied at Chelsea College of Art, with prominent sculptor George Fullard, who had a lasting influence on Barlow’s ad hoc approach to art-making. Fullard, among others, was able to impart that the act of making was in itself an adventure. “A sculpture that falls over or breaks is just as exciting as one that reveals itself,” she once recalled of her lessons. 

In 1963, Barlow enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art to continue studying sculpture and went on to teach at both schools. Some of today’s most important contemporary Brisith artists, including Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, Douglas Gordon, and Tacita Dean, are among her notable students.

Meanwhile Barlow’s sculptural installations evolved in wily and unwieldy ways. Some resembled surreal homes that dripped and tilted or were coated in a thin layer of cement for a deceptive impression of mass. True to her playful spirit, many installations intervene in the act of viewing. Her 2014 Tate Britain Commission, titled Dock, comprised seven colossal arrangements of ship-making materials—timber, metal, and canvas—that almost overfilled the neoclassical galleries. In its press materials, Tate described Dock as “antagonistic,” forcing chaos and disproportion into the stately vessel.

Phyllida Barlow, dock, 2014. © Phyllida Barlow
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Alex Delfanne

Reflecting on the work, Barlow said that sculpture “brings things into the world, and there is already too much stuff in the world. So, it’s kind of absurd, and its absurdity is what I find fascinating. So perhaps it will mean that people will have to walk around it. I hope that will arouse curiosity about sculpture, about what it is and why it is what it is.”

Barlow was a nominee for the Turner Prize in 1998 and won the Hugo Boss Prize in 2006. She was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 2008, and in 2017, she represented Great Britain at that year’s Venice Biennale. For the prestigious exhibition she presented folly, a constellation of exuberantly painted, bulging baubles. It was a classically Barlow juxtaposition: bright and inviting, like a carousel’s seat, but with a sinister edge. The colors patchy and overripe, like a sweet fruit turned rotten. They reached the ceiling of Britain’s pavilion and even spilled outside, encouraging the viewer “to take on the role of explorer,” wrote the biennial in its citation.

In 2015, Barlow was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2021, she was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II, as part of the late monarch’s annual birthday honor’s list. 

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