As my colleague Thomas Micchelli pointed out in his review of siege, Phyllida Barlow’s exhibition of sculpture at the New Museum earlier this year, she has something in common with Hans Hoffman. Both were teachers who have an impressive roster of distinguished students. In Hoffmann’s case, it included Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Alfred Jensen and Red Grooms. Barlow’s students include Douglas Gordon, Steve Pippin, Tacita Dean, and Rachel Whiteread. However, whereas Hoffman’s students eclipsed their teacher, this is hardly the case with Barlow.
Using industrial materials such as polystyrene, polyurethane expanding foam, wire mesh, paint, dust, cardboard, felt and steel pipe, Barlow makes large ungainly works that jut out from the wall, hang from the ceiling, and sit on the floor, often pushing us to the room’s edges. Her work aggressively occupies a space to such an extent that viewers are apt to feel — as I did — like an unwanted intruder. This was the case in her current exhibition, …later, in which Barlow installed big, bold works on two floors of the elegant townhouse that Hauser & Wirth currently occupies — it was once the home of the Martha Jackson Gallery.
(At one point, as I was going from room to room, it felt as if Barlow had turned the gallery into a storage space for science fiction movie props about a dead planet.)
Barlow’s work pushes viewers out of their comfort zone; they can’t simply stand in front of or walk around a piece, happy to have a rarified aesthetic experience. In fact, in …later, “untitled: upturnedhouse” (2012), which visible to pedestrians walking by the gallery window, is overtly menacing. It is apparent from the street that a very large object (made of differently colored pieces) has been placed on a pile of precariously balanced pallets. What if we bump into it and it slips? Do we or don’t we want to go in?
By using pallets as a base (or pedestal) in “untitled: upturnedhouse,” Barlow underscores that her sculptures are temporary. After examining “untitled: upturnedhouse,” and it is quite complex, I went to the next room, where four huge spherical objects hung mutely from the ceiling, each made of a different set of materials, ranging from black rubber tubing to wire netting covered with polyurethane expanding foam. Their seemingly enormous weight suspended on thick cables, they seem to defy gravity even as they acknowledge it as a constant. There is an economy to Barlow’s work that is unrivaled. In order to get to the next room, I had to find my way through the spheres, which formed a kind of quasi-maze.
This is what I find so compelling about Barlow’s work — it barrages you with questions, but you never feel like someone is there lecturing you. One question she continually raises is about the efficacy of sculpture’s permanence. In fact, I would go so far as to advance that this is the site of Barlow’s conflict.
Barlow loves materiality as well as hates it. She can elevate something as unlikely as polyurethane expanding foam into an incredibly visceral, highly aesthetic experience, but simultaneously views that ability with distrust. In each work she finds ways to evoke history and time through her exploration of basic formal issues. The work seems to rise from a simple question or memory of an everyday interaction: what is the relationship of an object to a wall? One of her answers is “untitled: lattice (small)” (2012). The blackness of this piece is astonishing — it seems like something that you would find in the basement of an abandoned factory or behind the wall in an old building slated for demolition. It drinks up the light, which got me to move closer so I could examine its rough surface, losing sight of the entire piece.
(Another thought that it occurred to me when I was at the exhibition was that the construction materials enclosed with a building’s walls have made themselves visible.)
In one of the upstairs rooms, Barlow transforms a familiar historical format — a pedestal with an object on it — into group of seemingly aged and worn-out things, evidence of time’s relentless ravaging. In “untitled: projector” (2012), she made a pedestal and a movie projector — an obsolete machine — out of plywood, cement, paint, cardboard, metal armature, polyurethane foam, sand, scrim and plaster. Like the other sculptures in the room, “untitled: projector” comes across as a gritty, encrusted thing that might have been found on an archaeological dig. The rough, uneven surface, along with the streaks of gray and pink paint, made the pedestal and “projector” into survivors; they have endured time, even as they have been rendered useless by its passing.
It is possible to see “untitled: projector” as a comment on our love of new technology, which all too quickly becomes the old and archaic equipment we inevitably have to dispose of. Against the backdrop of progress and technology, the idea of sculpture being permanent seems an act of hubris, at once vain and foolish. Even in the sacrosanct domain of the art object, change and entropy are the only constants, not timelessness and stability.
Barlow’s love and disgust with materiality are revealed through her masterful use of a wide range of what she calls “waste materials.” These have helped her to both rebel against tradition and to reaffirm her ethical/aesthetic stance. Her work stands as a critique of a younger generation of sculptors that includes Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. As she stated in an interview in The Brooklyn Rail (October, 2011):
I used anything and everything from paper, polythene, cardboard, fabric, and many other “sheet” materials, which could easily be cut, torn, ripped, sliced. For me, these were in opposition to the labor-intensity of the sculpture processes I had been so doggedly taught at art school, and which defined sculpture as sculpture — carving, casting, welding, construction. I have to say that I now savor and respect those processes and I am deeply grateful for having learnt them. They have given me independence and the opportunity to rebel against them, and to explore other approaches to making.
While Barlow rejected “carving” and other traditional techniques, and began making sculptures that are temporary, taking them apart at the end of an exhibition and recycling her “waste materials” into other works, she did not reject such formal concerns as the relationship of a piece to the floor, wall, ceiling, and environment. It is her synthesis of the temporary with the formal that makes her work so resonant. By bringing together two different kinds of time — human time (or history) and deep time (which is indifferent), she has updated Charles Baudelaire’s definition of modernity as the “conjoining of the fleeting with the eternal.”
Phyllida Barlow’s …later continues at Hauser & Wirth (32 East 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until December 22.