ArtWeekend

Lessons from an Unknown Master: Phyllida Barlow at the New Museum

Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: 21 arches”
Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: 21 arches,” (detail, 2012), polystyrene, cement, scrim, paint and varnish (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Phyllida Barlow’s installation at the New Museum, siege, doesn’t waste any time telling you who’s boss. Post-industrial, post-modern — post-everything but post-sculptural — it all but pushes you back inside the elevator.

Its title isn’t kidding either. The scale, mass, texture and color of the installation’s seven components (all untitled but with descriptive subtitles: “21 arches”; “crushed boxes”; “hanging container”; “broken stage”; “balcony”; “massed sticks, bound tubes, bunting”; “compressed stockade”) lay siege to the entirety of the gallery space.

The New Museum’s fourth floor, with its cramped floor plan and impossibly high ceilings, is a difficult space to control, but when an artwork succeeds in activating it, the effect can be overwhelming.

At this year’s Triennial, the same gallery housed exceptional pieces by two young sculptors, Danh Võ (“WE THE PEOPLE,” 2011) and Adrián Villar Rojas (“A person loved me,” 2012). Phyllida Barlow’s massive work supplants the brashness of youth with a seasoned pensiveness, but her forms are no less audacious.

Nor are they any less revelatory: while Barlow, at 68, is more than thirty years older than Võ and Villar Rojas, she is virtually an unknown quantity in New York. Having exhibited for decades on the other side of the Atlantic, mostly in her native Britain, this is her first museum show the United States.

She has therefore emerged on the New York scene as a full-blown master, a true syncretist who fuses every movement of the past fifty years — from Arte Povera to Minimalism to Scatter Art to the latest junk aesthetic — into a variegated practice emphatically her own.

She also shares a cross-generational affinity with the 32-year-old Villar Rojas. Sidestepping the preciousness of the art object, Barlow and Villar Rojas create temporary sculptures for specific sites. Astonishingly, “A person loved me” and siege — both major achievements — were custom-made in the same year for the same space.

Villar Rojas’ materials were recycled at the show’s end (in fact, “A person loved me” quarried the detritus from the previous New Museum exhibition, Carsten Höller: Experience) and the same thing will happen with Barlow’s.

Phyllida Barlow, "siege," installation view
Phyllida Barlow, “siege,” installation view. Clockwise from top: “untitled: hanging container” (2012); “untitled: crushed boxes” (2012); “untitled: broken stage” (2012)

I’m not sure how I feel about that.  When I first read about Villar Rojas’ practice, it sounded like a cool idea — divorcing the experience of art from any possibility of commodification, turning his work into a form of visual theater.

I admire Barlow’s defiance of market pressures as well, but I am also convinced that their art is among the best we have, and I hate to see it go. Maybe my wistfulness is accentuated by having caught Barlow’s show near the end of its run (it closes tomorrow) and realizing too late how much there is to be gleaned from it.

Phyllida Barlow, "siege," installation view
Phyllida Barlow, “siege,” installation view. Front: “untitled: mass sticks, bound tubes, bunting” (2012). Back: “untitled: compressed stockade” (2012)

Barlow’s sense of materials is nonpareil. Each of the seven sculptures on display presents an object lesson in what it takes for everyday stuff, the utilitarian and the useless, to become art.

In a piece like “untitled: mass sticks, bound tubes, bunting,” which is situated so closely to “untitled: compressed stockade” that the two function as a single work, the black, thickly painted bundles of sticks countervail the gaiety of the brightly colored ribbons with a gravity they wouldn’t possess if not for that extra coat of paint.

Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: mass sticks, bound tubes, bunting”
Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: mass sticks, bound tubes, bunting” (detail, 2012), painted calico, painted polystyrene, wire netting, fabric, cement, scrim, paint, spray paint and tape

And yet your eye scans across the dissimilar materials without skipping a beat. The monolithic bundles make a play for visual dominance, but soon merge into an unsettled cohesion with the multicolored tangles and the long tubes swaddled in yards of dun-colored fabric and splotched with pink and white paint.

Phyllida Barlow, "siege" (details)
Phyllida Barlow, “siege” (details). Left: “untitled: compressed stockade” (2012). Right: “untitled: mass sticks, bound tubes, bunting” (2012)
Phyllida Barlow, "siege," installation view
Phyllida Barlow, “siege,” installation view. Left: “untitled: compressed stockade” (2012). Right: “untitled: mass sticks, bound tubes, bunting” (2012)

Paint and color play an integral role throughout the installation. It is worth noting that once I slipped out of the elevator and could see that the dense cluster of columns nearly blocking my egress were actually the piers of attenuated mock-Roman arches (“untitled: 21 arches”), the first association that popped into my mind was Giorgio de Chirico’s late paintings, quickly followed by the late paintings of Philip Guston.

The columns themselves are resplendent/repugnant displays of sooty grays, sky blues and fleshy pinks, accompanied by long strokes of orange, white and black. The touches of color are not there simply to enliven the surface; rather, their slight dissonances create a delicate friction that slows down the eye as it climbs up the arches to the ceiling.

Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: 21 arches”
Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: 21 arches” (detail, 2012), polystyrene, cement, scrim, paint and varnish

Conversely, the shard-like wooden components of “untitled: broken stage” are painted entirely in a very Guston-y grayed-down red, redolent of the canvases he made in Rome. Thrusting into the room like the wedge of an advancing army, the sculpture’s singular use of monochrome splits it off from the rest of the installation and imposes an uncomfortable unity on its fractious surfaces.

Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: broken stage”
Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: broken stage” (2012), timber, cement and paint

The various references creeping into my descriptions of the sculptures — Rome and Roman arches, bunting, an advancing army, bundles of sticks (the fasces, or symbol of Fascism), and even the bulbous and black “untitled: balcony” (from which one could easily imagine Mussolini reviewing his blackshirts or haranguing a mob) — throw the title of the installation, siege, into a very different light.

This may be taking the interpretation of the work well beyond what the artist had in mind, but an atmosphere of hubris, overreach and destruction is surely implicit (“untitled: compressed stockade” evokes the burnt-out husk of a car, and “untitled: crushed boxes” — another remarkable agglomeration of disparate materials, notably cardboard, wooden pallets and black fabric — resemble collapsed buildings). Not to mention the enormous “untitled: hanging container,” suspended like the sword of Damocles barely above our heads.

Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: balcony”
Phyllida Barlow, “untitled: balcony” (2012), steel, wire netting, polyurethane foam, cement, scrim, paint and varnish
Phyllida Barlow, "siege," installation view
Phyllida Barlow, “siege,” installation view. Top: “untitled: hanging container” (2012). Below: “untitled: crushed boxes” (2012)
Phyllida Barlow, "siege," installation view
Phyllida Barlow, “siege,” installation view. Top: “untitled: hanging container” (2012). Below: “untitled: broken stage” (2012)

But these references, whether they pertain to Barlow’s early childhood in postwar Britain, or to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to nothing at all, have little bearing on our experience of the work. The overall sensation of siege remains purely sculptural — not only in the artist’s handling of materials and surfaces, geometric forms and organic textures, but also in the constantly shifting spatial relationships between the objects.

Wherever you move, the volumes seem to move with you, reconfiguring themselves into new vistas, juxtapositions and correspondences. In this way, Barlow’s sculpture is reminiscent of that other great monument to a siege (i.e., the siege of the French city of Calais by the English in 1347 during the Hundred Years’ War), Auguste Rodin’s “Burghers of Calais” (1884–1895), whose six life-size figures change cinematically has you walk around them.

Four installation views of Phyllida Barlow's "siege"
Four installation views of Phyllida Barlow’s “siege” (click to enlarge)

Barlow has taught for decades at the Slade School in London, and her students have swelled the ranks of notable British artists — including Tacita Dean (who has a concurrent show at the New Museum), Rachel Whiteread and Douglas Gordon, to name just a few.

This aspect of her career may bring to mind the artist and teacher Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), who also influenced generations of young upstarts. But while the work of Hofmann’s students, from Lee Krasner to Helen Frankenthaler and Al Jensen, have eclipsed his own, with Barlow this is hardly the case. It’s just taken us this long to catch on.

Phyllida Barlow: siege continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 24.

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