It was junk. It was quite clearly junk. Huge piles of pallets and tarps, unwanted wooden towers, cardboard columns held up with neon sellotape: these things filled the high Duveen galleries at Tate Britain in 2014. But Phyllida Barlow’s installation, with its specific construction, could not help anyone. But see something more than rubble and detritus: his sculptures had a radical grandeur, a sensibility that drew you in and moved you.
Barlow, who has died aged 78, gained public attention as a sculptor late in life after a long, influential career as a teacher at art schools. Then after she came into view, things moved quickly. A show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010, 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 followed. But his career faced opposition from the start.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1944 to a writer mother and a psychiatrist father (a great-grandson of Charles Darwin), Barlow was scarred by the bombs in post-war London, which gave him an enduring fascination for the rough, the ruined and the ruined. On her second day at the unfinished Slade School of Art, the head of sculpture came to her and said: “I’m not going to talk to you any more, because by the time you’re 30 you’ll be having kids and making jam.” Barlow later recalled: “I Had the good sense to say, ‘What’s wrong with that?'”
In the 1960s, modern sculpture was austere, masculine and monumental. As Turner Prize-winner Rachel Whiteread, one of Barlow’s students, says: “We were all fighting metal-bashers.” Barlow, by contrast, used “paint and color and soft forms, [which] It meant she was doing something very different”, creating pieces that had brilliantly familiar elements but were strange, lumpen, shapes unlike anything you’d seen before. Whiteread admires the artist’s pedagogy, her passion and protectiveness of her students.
Barlow blended the three sides of his life. She worked 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 Peek, two of whom are now artists. And she created a whole range of art, especially small sculptures, in moments taken away from childcare. “My rule was that when I had those few hours,” she said, “I really had to get results at the end of that time.”
It was practicality, then, as much as theory, that drove his work. She used cheap materials because they were to hand – sometimes her art school picked up items that had to be discarded – and she showed pieces in friends’ homes, mines, small institutions and even placed works on the street or on washing machines and televisions. Scale had to wait.
But the scale came. In 2009, Joe Scotland, director of the non-profit south London art gallery Studio Voltaire, visited Barlow’s home studio. Barlow assumed he was there to ask for tips about her most promising students, so when he and a colleague offered her a show on the spot, she was surprised. The work was “exciting and relevant” for its path-breaking use of everyday materials, says Scotland, and her exhibition in the gallery, which featured two large black beams, demonstrated her mandate: “It was not just to fill space but Control it and push it.”
After that show, opportunities — and spaces — came thick and fast. Hauser & Wirth mega-gallery took her representation; She filled a large wood-paneled room there with fabric-draped polystyrene blocks atop stilts anchored in cement. Gallery co-founder Evan Wirth says: “Phyllida was an artist’s artist. We saw her Serpentine Gallery show and fell for the vulgar content of the work and her complete disregard for all things grand.”
Her breakthrough came late, but not too late. “She went from one big project to the next right to the end, she never really stopped,” says Scotland. “She was so ambitious for the work, not necessarily for her career.”
Setting himself against the cold and bombastic, Barlow’s work became theatrical and anti-monumental: its scale was not intimidating but inviting. She uses rough material to provoke clever questions in the viewer: How do I fit into this space? How do I relate to the world? This work quietly, but surely, took hold of you. It makes you feel like someone else – your real self. Josh Sparrow