Phyllida Barlow (1944-2023): silent sculpture and regeneration

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“Art that never gets seen has its loneliness (…) some artists endure that their entire lives (…) and I admire that.”

This country lost its greatest sculptress last month. Newcastle born and London bred, Dame Phyllida Barlow DBE RA passed away on 15 March. Cause of death? Unknown. Her London based gallery, Hauser & Wirth, refused to communicate the cause of death. The ideas of ‘destruction (…) decay and regeneration’, a product of the visual effects post-war England, shaped her artistic career until the end. Can we even talk about an end when these ideas are so prevalent?

It would not have occurred to me to question the power behind any artist’s residency in an exhibition or a permanent collection, until I stumbled across a reel on Instagram where award winning British visual artist Phyllida Barlow discussed the spiritual beauty of the unknown in the art world.

Her spiritual ideals and passion for contrasts and paradoxes illuminate the intrinsic beauty of her life’s work

Even though it is terribly early to be thinking about what the impact of her teaching and installations will be, I feel that it is important to discuss what legacy she will leave in the art world. What the researchers, curators and aficionados will be writing about in 10 years’ time.

Her formal artistic education started in London, at the Chelsea College of Art in 1960, where she stayed for her undergraduate degree until 1963. She then progressed to the Slade School of Art of Fine Art, remaining for another 3 years in the heart of London.

Barlow became a reputable and popular teacher at the Slade until 2009 when she retired from academia, receiving the emerita distinction of professor of fine arts at the Slade. She then went on to dedicate her time to creating gigantesque, gravity defying installations made from everyday materials and hundreds of paintings that acted as her preparatory drawings. She left a long-lasting imprint on her students, notably those who would go on to form the Young British Artists group, the ‘younger generation of artists’ that seized, shook, and redefined the contemporary London art scene in the 1990s.

Down to earth yet transcending normality

In Katy Hessel’s words, Barlow helped to single out “a new type of subject matter” that could exist outside as well as inside of a museum, re-defining what space per-se needed to be for contemporary art. Rachael Whiteread was one of her students; her cement block shaped House (1993) caused such a controversy in London’s art world and beyond that it divided parliament, pushing for the installation to be demolished only 11 weeks after it was erected in Bow, East London. Furthermore, why would the Tate Modern be such an imposing building, if only to let these space defying works breathe and exist at their own pace?

In homage to her artistry, I would like to consider today her most ambitious project, folly (2016-17), which came to fruition in 2017 at the Venice Biennale where she represented the UK. This period defined the last decade of her life as the paroxysm of her renown as a sculptress. Her work for the Biennale bridges the four-year period where she was first made CBE and then knighted.

In the Gran Bretagna pavilion, she created an extraordinary pathway of towering pillars made with ordinary materials such as timber, concrete & fabric. The concrete megaphone found inside of the pavilion is, in my eyes, the linchpin of the installation: the gritty, criss-crossed cement sculpture protrudes amongst the phallic shaped statues. It stands out as a ‘concrete’ metaphor amongst the abstract forms that surround it, carrying the humane yet hushed voice that Barlow never failed to add in her installations.

Gigantesque, gravity defying installations made from everyday materials

It is truly saddening that we have lost such an artist, especially at a time where women artists’ histories are being re-discovered, not just as part of a mere trend, but as a necessary re-writing of the History of Art. What will her legacy be?

There is, without a doubt, that through her teaching at the Slade and the numerous videos that her gallery Hauser & Wirth has publicised over the years, her influence will be long lasting. Katy Hessel only interviewed her two years ago. Her calming, soothing voice filled with ideas surpassing any theories one could have about sculpture, the world and the shapes that surround us will continue to live on. Down to earth yet transcending normality, her spiritual ideals and passion for contrasts and paradoxes illuminate the intrinsic beauty of her life’s work.

This isn’t the end of Barlow’s residency in the contemporary art scene, only the beginning.

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