Phyllida Barlow

1944 – 2023

Phyllida Barlow was a British artist who was inspired by the urban environment.  She is known for sculptures and installations cobbled together from abandoned industrial objects. She remade these found objects in stand-alone sculptures, painting them or affixing the colored fabrics, which identified corrections needed in industrial buildings. 

Barlow grew up in the 1940s in the shadow of World War II where the idea of damage and repair was an inherent part of her life and would become an integral part in the making of her sculptures. When she was 16, she studied painting at London’s Chelsea College of Art from 1960-63 and then studied at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1963-66. She left painting for sculpture, but each sculpture started with a detailed drawing. She was a mother of five children, and for forty years she worked as a teacher at the Slade where she was Emerita Professor of Fine Art. She fostered many contemporary British artists, one of whom is the Turner Prize-winning artist Rachel Whiteread. 

Barlow was amazed by artist Eva Hesse and her unique approach to sculpture. Like Hesse, Barlow’s abstract sculptures were an assemblage of unconventional items that looked like found objects.  Her source of inspiration was the everyday as she mixed up the industrial with the domestic.  She joined together disparate materials of fiberglass, resin, fabric, steel, cardboard, plywood, plaster, and cement, mixed them with fabrics, and often painted them in vibrant colors.  Her invented forms were made through layered processes that were “more functional than artistic.”  Before Barlow was able to show her work in galleries, she used public and temporary spaces as she challenged conventional ideas of where sculpture could be shown.

Her smaller works were the initiation for the larger, often-soaring massive works that stretched the limits of mass, volume, and height. While her works tower over us, their instability can be precarious, menacing or even playful. Their exposed, unfinished seams reveal the ways they are constructed. Even in a grove of trees there is a sense of industry about a sculpture which is placed up high, wrapped around a tree. A viewer is looking at the sky through the steel frame high up in the tree. 

In 2019 at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Barlow created an exhibition where she conceived her own interpretation of a residential cul-de-sac. By closing the exit door in the last room, she forced viewers to turn around and look at each sculpture from the other side. She made forests reaching the upper height of the gallery with looming beams, blocks, and canvases.

In 2011, Barlow was named a Royal Academician, and in 2012 she received the Aachen Art Prize. In 2013 and 2017, she participated at the Venice Biennale.  In 2019, she received an Art Prize for Women Artists in Warsaw, Poland. Her work has been exhibited at New York’s New Museum, Tate Britain, Nasher Sculpture Center in Texas,  London’s Royal Academy of Arts, among others.

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