British artist Phyllida Barlow, who placed humble materials in the service of massive works that she described as “nonmonumental,” owing to their rejection of sleek, masculinized form, died March 13 in London at the age of seventy-eight. Her death was confirmed by the gallery Hauser & Wirth, which has represented the artist for over a decade. Barlow served as a mentor to artists including Tacita Dean, Sarah Lucas, and Rachel Whiteread before gaining wide recognition herself in the late aughts. “Image and the pictorial are my enemies. They are what I always want to escape,” she told Artforum’s Sherman Sam in 2011. “I want the work to change depending on where it is viewed from so its image and pictorial identity are constantly dissolved.”
Barlow was born in Newcastle, England, in 1944, a great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. The family shortly thereafter moved to London, whose bomb-shattered post-World War II landscape would prove influential to her practice. Barlow in 1960 enrolled at the Chelsea College of Fine Art. There, she studied under sculptor George Fullard, whom she credited with shaping her view of art-making as an adventure. From Fullard, she also absorbed the idea that a sculpture that “falls over or breaks” is as valuable and interesting as one that retains its form: The concept of impermanence was to become a central theme in her practice.
After moving on to the Slade School of Fine Art in 1963, where she spent four years and met her husband, artist Fabian Peake, Barlow in 1966 married and undertook a series of teaching jobs, continuing to make work as her family expanded to include five children. With only a few hours at a time in which to focus on her practice, Barlow became a master of creating within tight time constraints. “I had instigated this rule for myself that there had to be something in the studio when the time was up,” she told a group of interviewers from London’s Courtauld Institute in 2017. “It didn’t matter what, good or bad, just something had to be there to prove I had been there.” Among the materials she deployed in the making of her work were fabric, cardboard, polystyrene, plaster, and fast-drying cement, all of which she brought to bear in colorful works that at once evoked heft, in their blocky or clumsy forms, and lightness, courtesy of their modest, flimsy materials. She rejected the characterization of these materials as haphazard or carelessly sourced on the street or from trash bins. “The precision and attention to detail inherent to the production processes are not obvious characteristics, but they are there,” she said in in 2017.
In 1988, Barlow accepted a teaching job at Slade, from which she would eventually retire as professor emerita in 2009. She was shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize in 1998, and in 2004 exhibited her work at BALTIC in Gateshead, England. Two years later, she won the Hugo Boss Prize, and in 2008 was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts. She enjoyed solo shows of her work at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida; Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh; the Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Germany; and Kunsthalle Zürich, among other venues. In 2014, she was tapped to create a commission for Tate London’s Duveen Gallery. “Her sculptures have an inherent awkwardness, wrote Artforum’s Sam after viewing her massive cardboard-and-wood work there, titled Dock. “Barlow’s achievement is to have made this awkwardness her own.” In 2017, she represented the UK at the Venice Biennale. Barlow was made a CBE in 2015 and was named a dame by Queen Elizabeth in 2019.
“I am interested in the cycle of damage and repair,” she told the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in a video interview in 2022. Her work’s embodiment of it by this time had come to seem even more poignant. On seeing her work at Frieze Los Angeles in March of that year as the Covid-19 pandemic finally began to fade, Andrew Berardini wrote in this magazine, “The messy beauty of her sculptures—their smeary wood legs delicately holding up paint-splattered balls, a swathe of red fabric, the drape of hardened netting—reflected how I felt: a bit rough but still holding up.”