Phyllida Barlow is a British artist who is inspired by the urban environment. She is known for sculptures and installations cobbled together from abandoned industrial objects. She remakes 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 does start with a detailed drawing. She is a mother of five children, and for forty years she worked as a teacher at the Slade where she is now Emerita Professor of Fine Art. She has fostered many contemporary British artists, one of whom is the Turner Prize-winnng artist Rachel Whiteread.
Barlow was amazed by artist Eva Hesse and her unique approach to sculpture. Like Hesse, Barlow’s abstract sculptures are an assemblage of unconventional items that look like found objects. Her source of inspiration is the everyday as she mixes up the industrial with the domestic. She joins together disparate materials of fiberglass, resin, fabric, steel, cardboard, plywood, plaster, and cement, mixes them with fabrics, and often paints them in vibrant colors. Her invented forms are made through layered processes that are “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 are the initiation for the larger, often-soaring massive works that stretch 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.