Phyllida Barlow is best known for her vast sculptural installations in which complex, stacked-up forms lean and threaten to topple over. She builds these structures from a wide range of improvised materials - cardboard, wooden palettes, fabric, rope, polystyrene, scrim and cement - in which both found and applied colour plays a key role. See for example Dock made for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2014. This works comprised seven separate elements, some of which reached the full height of the building, in which forms were variously ‘suspended, collapsed, stacked, wrapped and folded’.
Described by Barlow as ‘a strange medium that takes up space’, sculpture, she has explained, ‘brings things into the world’, adding, ‘there is already too much stuff in the world. So it’s kind of absurd, and its absurdity is what I find fascinating.’ 1
At a very different scale, Barlow’s works on paper appear as fully formed images, they are typically richly coloured, and made in a variety of media including pencil, pastel, charcoal, acrylic and watercolour. Ideas take shape which may later find their way into sculpture, but her works on paper have their own purpose and stand-alone force. Always made after-the-fact in her studio, Barlow’s drawings might depict a man-made form she has observed, such as greengrocers crates, a sheep pen, or wrapped-up furniture, at other times they suggest imagined scenarios and architectural spaces. Her imagery is always vibrant, at times humorous, sometimes menacing - and reflects the close connection she makes between the world and her work. At times, her drawings share the same hallucinatory atmosphere of Victor Willing’s works on paper and sometimes their forceful, rough execution is reminiscent of Philip Guston.
This energetically rendered, organic form dates from the very late 1990s. It might be a cocoon or chrysalis or, perhaps as likely, an abandoned mattress or sagging roll of carpet. Whatever the source, the form has a sense of rising energy, of something traveling up precariously, which often appears in her sculptures.
Barlow’s current recognition by the commercial art world has come late in her career - she is now represented by Hauser and Wirth, one of the world’s biggest contemporary dealerships, but only joined them in 2010, at the age of 66, after decades of teaching and exhibiting. Given their often immense scale, many of Barlow’s earlier sculptures have been dismantled and destroyed over the years and, as such, her drawings and paintings are sometimes the only remaining record of her ideas. In recognition of both their formal beauty and historical importance, in 2012 the Tate Gallery acquired 30 works on paper for its permanent collection. Several exhibitions have recently focused on this important aspect of her work including ‘Bad Copies’ at the Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds in 2012 and ‘Fifty Years of Drawings’ at Hauser and Wirth in London in 2014.
Barlow was made a Royal Academician in 2011 and in 2017 she represented Britain at the 57th Venice Biennale with her installation ‘Folly’.
1 Lee Cheshire, ‘In the Studio: Phyllida Barlow’, Tate Etc., no.30, Spring 2014, p43