At Large  March 15, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Phyllida Barlow, Creator of "Non-Monumental" Sculpture, Dies at 78

© Phyllida Barlow, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Elon Schoenholz

Phyllida Barlow, 2022


British sculptor Phyllida Barlow challenged the conventions of sculpture for over fifty years. On Monday, Barlow’s gallery Hauser & Wirth, confirmed her recent passing. She was 78. 

Barlow’s work took inspiration from her surroundings. She is known for creating large, imposing structures made from inexpensive, low-grade materials. She would take cardboard, plywood, plaster, and cement, and construct forms that take over an entire gallery space. The works block, straddle and balance precariously, and viewers are meant to walk through and experience the sculptures up close. Often painted in industrial or vibrant colors, the seams and handiwork of these sculptures was left visible. Though Barlow called these works anti-monumental, they were anything but. These are imposing installations, and they look like they could collapse, twist, or swallow viewers whole at any moment. Being in the presence of a Barlow sculpture is like being transported into a new landscape, and she truly challenged the traditional notion of what sculpture should look like.

© Phyllida Barlow, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Photo: Paul Crosby

Installation view, Phyllida Barlow, ‘scree’, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, IA, 2013

In a statement on her passing, Frances Morris, Director of Tate Modern said, “Barlow’s practice implicitly acknowledges that in a worldsaturated with objects, the role of sculpture and the job of the sculptor might be less about making thingsthan generating a particular type of experience of the work, and of the world in which it temporarily resides.”

What made Barlow’s work so wonderful to experience was her playfulness with her mediums. By using fairly cheap and utilitarian materials, Barlow was able to experiment, leave things unfinished, and unresolved, in a way you can’t do with, say, marble or metal. The final works were funky and oddly shaped, but because of their size and grandiosity, were beautiful and awe-inspiring. In an interview with ArtReview in 2010, Barlow said, “My practice is a resistance to the glamorous art object,” and that her practice was “both comic and grimly authoritarian, and that’s my relationship to sculpture.”

© Phyllida Barlow Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Royal Academy of Arts, London Photo: Damian Griffiths© Phyllida Barlow Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Royal Academy of Arts, London Photo: Damian Griffiths

Phyllida Barlow, untitled: lintelshadow; 2018-2019, Installation view, 'cul-de-sac', Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK, 2019

Barlow was born in 1944 in Newcastle, England. Growing up, the family moved to Richmond, a suburb outside of London. After various bombings from World War II, the city of London worked to rebuild. Living through that reconstruction became a major inspiration for Barlow, who saw the cycles of London in both its ruins and its progress. 

In 1960, Barlow studied painting and then sculpture at the Chelsea School of Art in London. But she found the atmosphere to be male dominated, and the professors teaching methods to be restrictive. As a female student, she was denied access to the welding workshops. This only made Barlow more interested in working with sculptural materials, and she began to experiment with clay. It was at Chelsea that Barlow met Fabian Peake, a fellow artist, whom she married in 1966. After Chelsea, Barlow transferred to the Slade School of Art, where she was able to work with new materials such as plaster, resin, fiberglass, and wood.

© Phyllida Barlow Photo: Greenhouse Media

Phyllida Barlow TIP 2013 Timber, steel, spray paint, wire mesh, cotton, cement, fabric, varnish, Installation view, Carnegie Museum of Art, '2013 Carnegie International', Pittsburgh PA, 2014

After graduating, to continue to fund her own art practice, Barlow taught at a number of schools as an art professor. She taught in at Bristol School of Art, Chelsea, Brighton, and for twenty years at Slade School of Art. Barlow’s passion for teaching in a progressive artistic environment and her dedication to advocate for progression art education was inspiring to students, and created a supported network of artists and students with whom she honed her ideas. Barlow taught some of the most important contemporary British artists including Rachel Whiteread, Sarah Lucas, Tacita Dean, among others. 

Barlow continued using alvaged materials in her work through the 70s and 80s, increasingly seeking out materials that were available from nearby cheap shops as she experimented with new techniques. The artist exhibited her groundbreaking work in a group show at the Camden Arts Centre in London in 1975, but her career really took off in recent years. After retiring from teaching in 2009, she went on to have a solo show at Studio Voltaire in London, which caught the eye of curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who invited her to show at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010. Soon after, Barlow joined Hauser & Wirth, held many solo exhibitions at well-known institutions, and published books on her art practice. 

She was nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998, won the Hugo Boss Prize in 2006, and was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in 2008. In 2017, Barlow represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. She’s also received royal recognition: in 2015, she was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2021, she was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II. 

About the Author

Subscribe to our free e-letter!


Latest News

Denver Art Museum Showcases the Politics of Korean Ceramics
Uncovering the Multilayered History Behind Buncheong
Orlando Museum of Art’s Ongoing Lawsuit For Basquiat Forgeries

It seems that the Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) still finds itself…

Art and Object Marketplace - A Curated Art Marketplace