British artist Phyllida Barlow, best known for sculptures crafted of everyday materials that she described as “nonmonumental,” died yesterday, March 12, at the age of 78 in London. Her passing was confirmed by Hauser & Wirth, her representing gallery since 2010.
Barlow found international acclaim in the early 2010s after retiring from a successful teaching career and went on to represent Britain at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Her site-specific sculptures evoke the destructed landscapes of London in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when Barlow was a child, suggesting death, gore, and violations of the human body. Just as Barlow forced the viewer to make sense of her sculptures’ subject matter, the artist also created optical illusions with weight and structure. She combined heavy materials such as cement and metal with low-cost commodities including styrofoam and plywood, building imposing, large-scale works that appeared to defy gravity and stand at risk of falling over.
Despite their typically sizable dimensions, Barlow said of her work that it was “nonmonumental,” rejecting the sleekness and grandiosity of certain modernist sculpture. “Making from lightweight, disposable things pastiches the monument or the monumental,” she said in a 2010 interview. “The latter has this heroic, macho thing that I’m attracted to, but which conversely I couldn’t possibly do myself.”
Born in Newcastle, England in 1944, Barlow enrolled in art school in 1960 and married fellow artist Fabian Peake six years later. After holding various teaching jobs, she became a professor at London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 1988 and taught there until she retired in 2008. After decades of teaching art students such as Tacita Dean and Rachel Whiteread, Barlow encountered a wider audience for her own work.
In 2010, New York’s New Museum exhibited Barlow’s first solo show. Subsequent solo exhibitions included displays at Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center and London’s Tate Britain. In 2017, Barlow presented her colorful series folly at the Venice Biennale. Among other undertakings, Barlow made sharp “rock” shards jut out from a gallery wall, placed enormous round pebbles on tiny poles, and attached a fake balcony to another section of the space’s interior wall. Her sculptures spilled outside the confines of the British Pavilion.
In a 2018 review of the Phyllida Barlow: tilt exhibition at Hauser & Wirth for Hyperallergic, Thomas Micchelli called Barlow’s forms “ugly, crude, and savage” — but “executed with such a wealth of wisdom and experience that, as we allow ourselves to sink into them, we can’t help but feel exalted.”
Barlow leaves behind her husband Fabian Peake, their children Florence, Clover, Tabitha, Eddie and Lewis, her siblings Camilla Whitworth-Jones and Jeremy Barlow, and grandchildren.