Phyllida Barlow-critical writing.


Phyllida Barlow is a British artist, born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1944. She studied

at Chelsea College of Art (1960-63) and Slade School of Art (1963-66) . She went on to 1

teach at the Slade School of Fine Art for more than twenty years, while raising a

family that eventually encompassed five children. It is remarkable how she

maintained an academic career and an artistic practice within an almost hostile

environment for a woman. Her era was characterized by discrimination against

women, sexism and bigotry. The manifestation of all of the above was the extreme

lack of opportunities for a woman to succeed in most social, professional, creative

and academic fields up to recent years. Barlow went through the obstacles and

managed to be a very successful artist and at the same time maintain a family.

From a young age she was fascinated with animals and anthropology and ever since

this has been a major influence in her work. Barlow started out at Chelsea as an

easel painter but soon one tutor noticed that her use of paint was more tactile than

pictorial and George Fullard (British, 1923-1973), suggested that she should start

using clay . She followed the suggestion and discovered a visceral thrill in clay’s 2

messy, malleable nature. At this same period Germaine Richier’s (French, 1902-1959)

post-war bronzes with their agitated surfaces representing animals and plants, were

an important early influence for Barlow. According to her, in her art there are two

predominant forces fused together. One is the process of making, which is related to

the notions of construction and deconstruction, damage and repair, perhaps on a

deeper level, with her own psyche too. The other force is closely connected with her

way of perceiving the world and her numerous observations regarding the

ever-present another word fragility of it. In this short essay I will focus on these forces

and connect them with elements from her actual work, referencing at the same

time other artists that according to me relate to her artistically and conceptually.


Installation view, British Pavilion, Venice biennale (2017)

1 Source : (2019)

2 Alastair Sooke , Phyllida Barlow : Nothing Fixed, Phylida Barlow : Cul-de-sac (Royal Academy of Arts,

2019), p.11

Folly was Barlow’s contribution to Venice Biennale and her major work for the British

Pavilion. The expanded installation challenged the viewer’s perspective of space,

materiality and playfulness. She created a different state of reality using discarded

objects, everyday materials and superficially insignificant elements.

Her work instinctively brought to my mind the movement of Arte Povera. Some of

the group’s most important works come from the contrast of unprocessed materials

with references to the then emergence of consumer culture . 3 The artists of the

group wanted to diverge the new from the old in order to distract the audience and

complicate its sense of space and time. As Barlow did in Folly , the Arte Povera

members, presented absurd, harsh and one would say comical juxtapositions. They

did that in order to challenge the established value and propriety, critiques evident

in Barlow’s work too.

Her sculptures invite you to explore the physicality of things. Through pieces bigger

than humans, Barlow adopts a dominant approach over space. She triggers almost

theatrical encounters of large proportion, a play into a play, and questions the idea of

the viewing position.

Installation view, Tate Britain (2014)

In Dock, a colossal installation commissioned by Tate Britain in 2014, Barlow

showcased her ambivalence about the purpose of sculpture through formal tensions

that dominated the work and are visible through the process of making4. On one

hand the installation, made of several pieces, is monumental but on the other hand

it seems ready to collapse. The pieces are primarily made out of timber, polystyrene,

cardboard, discarded metal and rope and again here we see a very dedicated

relationship that Barlow has with materiality and the fragility of it. I believe the

installation is reflecting very successfully the representation of the river with the

3Source :

4 Source


wood resembling shipyards with boats under construction. Another challenging

element of this work is the contradiction between the nature of it (unfinished,

de-formed, distorted) with the classical architecture and the formality of the

building. It’s like being inside a giant theatrical scenario, or maybe a 2D collage in a

piece of paper that you zoomed into and suddenly you found yourself there. Looking

up at all the suspended pieces offers the sensation of being part of the installation

and activates the space above the viewer.

In that way the spectator becomes a collaborator in a symbiotic relationship with

Barlow. The sculptures evoke stillness and the audience becomes a figure moving

through the space, cutting through it, triggering a physical sensation.

Dock brings to my mind some of the early influences of Barlow, Eva Hesse, Bruce

Nauman, Richard Serra and Robert Smithson, whose work was also very much

related to process and drew from unconventional materials with a malleable nature.

In some cases many of these artists abandoned the studio, something that I notice

in Barlow’s practice too. Suspended, collapsed, wrapped and unfolded the works on

this exhibition come from an investigation of the most fundamental aspects of

sculpture : its physical qualities and its spatial characteristics.

Installation view, Royal Academy (2019 )

In the Cul De Sac exhibition, Barlow continued with her signature usage of

materials but this time interacted with the audience in a very interesting, for me,

way. She “forced” the public to view her exhibition twice but through different

directions, by literally shutting the back door of the RA leading everyone to go back

through the pieces they’ve just seen. That’s why she called Cul De Sac.

She wanted to challenge the perception of the viewers regarding space continued

as in this installation she invited them to experience it in an “informal way”. Using as

a starting point Auguste Rodin’s (1840-1917) sculpture The Kiss, she illustrated an

epiphany about sculpture that she had early on in her life . Rodin’s 5 piece shifts the

viewers’ idea of how an act like kissing can be approached and seen, same with

Barlow’s installation. It was a groundbreaking work that put the audience in a

position to see the various shapes from unexpected angles and she did this, I believe,

5 Alastair Sooke, Phyllida Barlow : Nothing Fixed, Phylida Barlow : Cul-de-sac (Royal Academy of Arts,

2019), p.15

successfully. According to her too, the installation works quite extraordinarily

because at a stroke the sculpture’s legibility is lost, it becomes nothing but a

succession of folded forms.6


After researching Barlow’s work for a while I concluded that her work connects

(consciously or perhaps subconsciously) with the movement of Informalism.

Informalism was a mainly pictorial movement that developed in the 1940’s in the US

and challenged the idea of abstraction, pioneering at the same time radical gestural

movements. Barlow adopts some of the principals of Informalism in her work such

as the non geometric shapes, the lack of form in her figures and the importance of

the presence of the artist in the work. However, Barlow goes further than the

Informalists did and expands her practice into space, manipulates it and gives the

chance to the public to be part of her work (as we’ve seen before in the text). Barlow

also overcomes limitations regarding materiality by using inexpensive elements,

industrial offcuts and discarded objects to assemble her installations. She questions

the preciousness of an art piece and the traditional methods or means to make

and/or experience it. Barlow treats her work mostly as an on-going project and does

not separate it between pieces but only seeing it as a whole.

Barlow’s anti-establishment approach is informed also by her lack of affiliation with

British art. She herself denounced her role in it claiming that “ I don’t want to belong

to this British tradition” , which for her seems so moral. Moral is a word she often

uses in interviews or talks to describe attitudes that as an artist she only wishes to

avoid. This strong position against British art, as a term, led her to move away from

the work of “giants” such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth unlike most of her


Barlow’s work has been a major influence in my practice so far. The lack of dictation

by traditional and conventional means and the importance of forms and textures is

something very inspiring for me. At the same time the combination of sculpture,

performance and drawing in her work is something that deeply affects my

printmaking techniques. Her work symbolises for me a very raw and unpretentious

approach that is purely based on the artist’s intuition and emotion.

6 Louise Long, Phyllida Barlow On Her Landmark New Exhibition At The Royal Academy, (2019)


Hore, Rosie, Phyllida Barlow : Cul-de-sac, Royal academy of Arts, London, 2019

Burri Alberto, Burri grafica opera completa , edited by Petruzzi, Citta di Castello,

Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, 2003

Afro Basaldella, AFRO, Edited by R.L Stamperia d’arte( Museo Nationale San vitale e

Casa Farini 1991)


The sculptor taking over the art world , Phyllida Barlow – BBC , – 1 Mar 2019, (Accessed 23 Nov 2019)

An Age of Fallen Monuments Phyllida Barlow- 20 May

2014,(Accessed 15 Jan 2020)

Phyllida Barlow in conversation with Francis Morris , 30 Sep 2014, (accessed 3 Jan 2020)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s