Remembering Phyllida Barlow (1944–2023)

The British sculptor who raised the humble to the monumental is honoured by former students and colleagues

BY Larry Achiampong, Sutapa Biswas, Louisa Elderton AND Andrew Renton in Opinion | 24 MAR 23

Phyllida Barlow, who passed away on 12 March 2023, made a substantial contribution to the field of sculpture, in a career that lasted 60 years. Born in Newcastle in 1944 and raised in London, Barlow’s practice revealed a fascination with the detritus of urban decay. Often using humble media, such as plywood, concrete, fabric, clay and polystyrene, she played with mass and scale, building a sculptural language that folded together industrial and domestic worlds.

She taught for over 40 years at the Slade School of Fine Art, before retiring aged 65 to dedicate herself fully to her practice. With a roll call of successful students to her credit, including Tacita Dean and Monster Chetwynd, Barlow eventually won the attention of a British art establishment that had overlooked her quiet genius for decades. International recognition soon came when she represented Britain at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The commission, ‘folly’, expressed a playful sense of collapsed monumentalism, conveying a jovial foolishness that many interpreted as a jab at Brexit-voting Britain. In 2021, she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to the arts. Here, Barlow is remembered by her former students and colleagues, Larry Achiampong, Sutapa Biswas, Louisa Elderton and Andrew Renton.

Phyllida Barlow in her studio
Phyllida Barlow in her studio, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photo: Cat Garcia

Larry Achiampong, artist

Phyllida was the best tutor I never had at the Slade (alongside Klaas Hoek, may he rest in peace). I had just one tutorial with her in 2008 while I was studying for my MA in sculpture, and I was gutted to have not met her earlier. I felt like there were so many things I could have achieved in my practice. Little did I know that I would be invited by Phyllida a few years later to help deliver a widening participation programme at the Slade, a two-week intensive course designed to introduce prospective university students from under-represented backgrounds to studio-based practices.

My fondest memory of Phyllida is from when she invited all the programme leaders to her home for lunch. The plan was to have a formal meeting but it was completely chill. We were breaking bread, talking, laughing and just being human. She didn’t have to open up her home in this way, but that was just her personality.

Phyllida Barlow, Haus der Kunst
Phyllida Barlow, 'frontier,' 2021, installation view, Haus der Kunst, Munich. Courtesy: the artist and Haus der Kunst, Munich; photo: Maximilian Geuter

What I also admired about Phyllida was her simple approach to art: make it and see what happens. Feel your way into the moment. She also believed that so-called ‘mistakes’ can lead to new ideas. She was never pretentious and there was always a warmth in how she delivered her philosophy. It certainly inspired me to think about my art making. Nowadays, if I have an idea I will just try it out. There’s nothing to lose and much to gain. Phyllida and her generous energy will be hugely missed.

Sutapa Biswas, artist

Phyllida Barlow was one of the greatest sculptors there has been. In the wake of her passing, her surviving works, like revered ghosts, are rare gifts to us all. I first met Phyllida as a postgraduate student at the Slade. In an often-complex institution, Phyllida was a breath of fresh air, always showing genuine warmth alongside a sharp intellect. She engaged with us as people and as artists. Unsurprisingperhapswhen you consider the early black and white photographs of Phyllida in the studio which capture and celebrate all her identities; young sculptor, woman and mother.

Covering her work with materials like string and ribbon, Phyllida drew inspiration from what was at hand, in the same way a child might spontaneously bring blocks, objects and cardboard boxes together. Her installations captured hearts and imaginations, had the power to stop people in their tracks and make them gasp.

Phyllida Barlow, Dock, Tate Britain
Phyllida Barlow, ‘dock,’ 2014, installation view, Tate Britain, London. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photo: Alex Delfanne

Phyllida’s work combined the precarity of the present with the detritus of the past, constantly in flux as if caught in the tidal waters of the river Thames. Her extraordinary work ‘dock’ (2014) blocked, interrupted and challenged the architecture of the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain. Its sheer beauty and scale conjured all of life, from the minutia to the monumental. We have lost a great artist, a great woman. One of the best.

Louisa Elderton, writer and editor

Some people have the power to reshape you, or at least remake your day. That’s how I felt after visiting Phyllida Barlow in her north London studio in 2018. On a grey morning, thundering with rain, I was consumed with thoughts of my failing relationship, and had also just seen a friend whose mother was critically ill. An industrial estate spat me into Barlow's unit, where I arrived dripping wet and anxious to hide my melancholy. After all, this was the genius I’d desperately wanted to meet for years, and I finally had the chance to interview her for Mousse Magazine

Phyllida Barlow, 1978
Phyllida Barlow, 1978: Courtesy: Phyllida Barlow

Barlow’s warmth of spirit, generosity and openness revitalized me within minutes. So engrossed was I by her intellect and energy that I only took one picture of her studio, despite it brimming with works for her then-upcoming exhibitions ‘tilt’ (2018) at Hauser & Wirth in New York, and ‘cul-de-sac’ (2019) at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Our discussion ranged widely, from her time as a teacher at the Slade to issues of gender and race in the art world. Some of the most intriguing parts of the conversation concerned the expanded reach of sculpture and how she wanted people to become 'absorbed on equal footing' with her works: ‘Sculpture isn’t just an object,’ she told me, describing how art inhabits space. ‘It’s the weather, the temperature.’

Phyllida Barlow, 'folly'
Phyllida Barlow, ‘folly,' 2017, installation view, British Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. Courtesy: the artist, Hauser & Wirth and British Council; photo: Ruth Clark

Barlow expressed empathy with struggling artists, considered the pressures of age, the need for escape, and the importance of prioritizing care. Then she shared a pearl of wisdom that will forever stay with me, as I hope it will with you: ‘For God’s sake, enjoy this time as much as you can. Do as much [as possible] with the work, even if it’s just you and the work alone in a cupboard under the stairs: do it.’

Andrew Renton, writer and curator

I’m deeply indebted to Phyllida and the days teaching with her at the Slade. She was the most generous teacher I ever encountered. There are generations of artists who owe her so much but also generations of teachers for whom she was more than a role model. She represented a standard of engagement to which we could only aspire.

Phyllida Barlow, installation piece
Phyllida Barlow, 'quarry,' 2018, installation view, Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh. Courtesy: the artist and Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh; photo: Anna Kunst

Her crits at the Slade were unlike anyone else’s. She gave things time and she was interested in everything. I can still recall the considered silences of those sessions – never uncomfortable. It was as if she carved out a space for us where we could think deeply about the work that was in front of us.

From time to time there would be a student project that resisted interpretation and yet she had a way of opening it up, as if letting it speak for itself, never offering a reading until she’d heard from everyone around her. Smiling, she would then give her take on what she saw. The miracle of Phyllida was that she was never cynical, never bored. After decades of teaching she didn’t lose the capacity to be surprised. She always had absolute faith in the object, and belief in what it might do in the world.

Main image and thumbnail: Phyllida Barlow, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photo: Elon Schoenholz

Larry Achiampong is a BAFTA longlisted (2023) and Jarman Award nominated (2021) artist, filmmaker and musician. He completed a BA in Mixed Media Fine Art at University of Westminster in 2005 and an MA in Sculpture at The Slade School of Fine Art in 2008

Sutapa Biswas is a British Indian conceptual artist, who works across a range of media including painting, drawing, film and time-based media.

 Louisa Elderton is a Berlin-based writer and editor. She is currently the Managing Editor of ICI Berlin Press, and was formerly the Curatorial Editor at Gropius Bau and Editor-in-Chief of Side Magazine at Bergen Assembly.  

Andrew Renton is a writer and curator and is Professor of Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London