Interview with Phyllida Barlow

Since retiring from teaching at the Slade school after 40 years, the sculptor has found her large, site-specific works in great demand—not least at Tate Britain, where her new show opens later this month


It’s been a busy time for Phyllida Barlow, and it doesn’t look like it will be quietening down in the near future. Last year, the London-based sculptor was a prominent presence in both the Venice Biennale and the Carnegie International as well as ­having a major solo exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach. The year before, there were one-woman shows at the New Museum and Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York, the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany and a drawings survey at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

This output is especially prodigious given that Barlow’s modus operandi is to make unique sculptures-cum-structures for each location using vigorously manipulated commonplace materials—builders’ planks, sheets of plywood, plastic sheeting, plaster, scrim—on an epic scale. Barlow has long been respected among British artists (she taught at London’s Slade School of Art for more than 40 years, where her students included Rachel Whiteread, Douglas Gordon and Tacita Dean) but this international profile is relatively recent and coincided with her retirement from teaching in 2009.

Barlow, who turns 70 this year, is now working with a gang of assistants to fill Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries with a body of work under the collective title of “Dock”, while later in the ­summer she is inaugurating Hauser & Wirth’s extensive new art centre in rural Somerset.

The Art Newspaper: The Duveen Commission invites artists to make work in response to the Tate’s collection and to the physical space of the Duveen Galleries themselves—quite a tall order. How did you approach it?

Phyllida Barlow: I’ve known Tate Britain since the early 1950s, since I was seven. It’s part of my love of sculpture, so relating my experience of the collection wasn’t a problem. I love it and all the stuff that is ugly and neglected in terms of it being from the 1940s and 1950s—it fascinates me. One of the things about sculpture that intrigues me is, what is it? How does it distinguish itself from all the other objects we have? And that is the idea of gravity. Usually sculpture is governed by gravity and we tend to be the moving object around the still object, but one of the most sculptural Duveen Commissions for me was Martin Creed’s runners [Work No. 850, 2008], where visitors stood still and the movement was in the objects themselves. This fleeting quantifiable experience seemed similar to how you peruse a sculpture, because you are constantly losing it as well as owning it. So, I had this idea of catching objects in a state of abeyance where they were neither grounded nor ungrounded. The original proposal was to flood the Duveen with suspended objects, but financial constraints meant that suspending 40 or so objects throughout the galleries rapidly went out of the window.

So what did you decide to do instead?

Penelope [Curtis, the director of Tate Britain] ­suggested something lean and edited for the space, and why didn’t I revisit my works of the 1990s? Oddly enough, I was also thinking, how can I strip the work back? So, I went back to the things that have always fascinated me about sculpture: the armature, the undercladding, the trappings that get hidden. My work of the 1980s and 1990s was largely concerned with exposing hidden materials. It was exciting to return to that, and to make the studio almost become the thing that would be taken to the Duveen. The idea is to keep the moment of making alive, but to keep it in a raw state so things are hardly interfered with, because I’ve been layering things a lot in the past. Where there is paint, it is minimal and used to attract attention to a particular place, rather than being used as another material in its own right, like clay or plaster.

Your work seems to be grappling with issues of monumentality: you make huge sculptures but they are anti-monumental because they are made of cardboard, tape, plaster and stuff that isn’t built to last.

I have been asked, “Why is your work so big?” And I think the answer is to do with reach and stretch and going to spaces where I can’t get to and where we don’t usually go to in terms of looking or seeking out. The physical adventure of making the work reach there is not so much about the shape, but about the experience: I find it thrilling that you can make cardboard go up to ten metres. It fascinates me being able to make, in a day, something that high and tickling a part of the Duveen—making the relationship of the space to the piece of work slightly strange. It’s not to be utterly disrespectful, but it is saying, is this space only for the great and the good or can one put something slightly “bad” in there as well? I’ve always found the phallocentric object absolutely fantastic: during the rampant days of feminism when one was meant to smash it to pieces and hurl it around the room, I always thought, “Oh God! That’s not my take on sculpture!”

Do you have an audience in mind when you are making the work?

This whole thing of the audience and the viewer is not important at this stage, it’s just how I manage to get the things to be articulated in the way I want them to be. But the minute the work hits the space, then people become a material: they are physically part of the whole thing, even if they are not interested in the work. Whether the work is liked or disliked is not important; it’s the fact that it’s there, and there’s some kind of relationship, either of wanting to distance themselves from it or become engaged, that is fascinating. It’s as much an anthropological as an artistically led experience.

While you don’t want your sculpture to have any literal associations, you’ve talked about inspirational “triggers” that can lie behind work. Were there any specific triggers for the Tate Britain commission?

The river. This time last year, having been in that dark space of the Duveen and then going out into the winter light and just seeing this black, shiny, coiling surface of water with the quasi-industrial riverside stuff on the other side and the floating objects, the boats and barges with big containers on them—I just thought, “That’s what I want to do!” It is as though the Duveen is a portal to that view, watching this procession of sculptural objects passing in front. There was one particular barge loaded with containers and I just thought, “That’s fantastic.” It had this weightless sense of something being suspended, being held by the water and air around it. It was also a wonderful minimalist reference in the sense that the cube is a plinth, a container, a vitrine—it’s all these props for sculptural language.

So your response to the Tate’s collection seems to be an interrogation of what you consider to be the essential nature of sculpture.

I wanted to bring a range of objects that I felt were part of my experience of sculpture, and I was thinking about those quite disparate informants of what sculpture is. So, on the one hand it was very simple formal shapes that come out of Minimalism, like the cube or the circular drum-type shape. And then in complete contrast is the idea of the invented form that comes out of a very European tradition—Arp, Moore, Hepworth, Brancusi and a host of other people—which is like the high moral quest of Modernist sculpture from the mid-20th century.

Your sculpture is consciously handmade and you attach great importance to the energy that comes from a direct and often vigorous manipulation of materials, yet much of your large-scale work is now made by assistants. How does this work?

I demonstrate and then they work alongside me as I direct them—it’s really quite ordinary. Everything is easily translatable and after about two hours they’ve got the hang of it and can take over: it’s more a job a builder might do, rather than an artist. What I love about these readily available materials—cement, plaster, clay—is that the less you handle them, the more there is a sense of the moment trapped in them: as Louise Bourgeois said, the material does its own thing and you can’t argue with it. And even if the assistants make mistakes, I quite want that to be part of the whole process.

The art world has changed almost beyond recognition since you studied at the Slade in the early 1960s, when you didn’t need gallery representation and a string of exhibitions to be taken seriously as an artist.

The pressure on young artists is inhumane and the biggest challenge they have to face is this “If I’m not exhibiting, I’m dead” attitude, which doesn’t actually come from them at all. If they want to have a revolution, then they should have a revolution against that, because it’s not necessarily going to suit them all—it’s going to suit those who get the exhibitions. What about the ones who don’t? That doesn’t mean they’re bad artists, but this philosophy has become built into the system, and it’s tragic.

Since joining Hauser & Wirth in 2010, a year after retiring from teaching, you have had an almost constant stream of shows. Has what you’ve described as this “volte-face” in your career had an impact on your work?

Yes it has. The gallery has been so supportive. Their encouragement has enabled me to have ambitions I never thought I’d fulfil. And their relationship with the smaller works has been very exciting: these works have gone to the gallery and they have sold. I never in a million years thought that some of my strange ­fumblings in the studio might have some ­significance and resonate with an audience.

• Dock, Tate Britain, London, 31 March-19 October



Born: Newcastle upon Tyne, England, 1944

Education: Chelsea College of Art, 1960-63; Slade School of Fine Art, 1963-66

Lives and works: London

Represented by: Hauser & Wirth, London/New York/Zurich

Selected solo exhibitions: 2014 Duveen Commission, Tate Britain; Hauser & Wirth, Somerset and London 2013 “Scree”, Des Moines Art Center; “HOARD”, Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach 2012 “Siege”, New Museum, New York; “Bad Copies”, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds; Ludwig Forum für Inernationale Kunst, Aachen 2011 “RIG”, Hauser & Wirth, London; “Cast”, Kunstverein Nürnburg 2004 “PENINSULAR”, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead

Selected group shows: 2013 “Carnegie International”, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Venice Biennale 2012 Kiev Biennale 2011 “Sculptural Acts”, Haus Der Kunst, Munich 2010 Serpentine Gallery, London; “Old Ideas”, Kunstmuseum Basel


Untitled: Upturned House, 2012

Barlow has made three different versions of Upturned House and, while avoiding any specific description, she attributes the initial inspiration to a radio account of a resident of New Orleans returning to his house after Hurricane Katrina and finding it balancing on its roof. “The way he described it was as though he was walking around a sculpture… the object was divested of its literal association,” she says.

Tip, 2013

This riotous barrier-like structure, made from a multiplicity of materials, including timber, steel, paint, cement and fabric, bisected the Carnegie Museum of Art’s entrance plaza. It playfully disrupted the relationship between a permanent, large-scale steel sculpture by Richard Serra and a reclining figure by Henry Moore to form a tumultuous celebration of the chaotic unpredictability of public space.

Object for Street Furniture, 1999

The “object for” series from the 1990s explored Barlow’s enduring interest in the relationship between art and life, and art objects and other objects. Made at a time when she had few conventional exhibition outlets, Barlow positioned these smaller sculptures on the furniture and floors of domestic interiors as well as in the urban environment—on traffic lights, mailboxes or lampposts, “in casual places that performed as a kind of plinth”—demonstrating that “the gallery could be taken to the most mundane situation possible”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Phyllida Barlow'