Phyllida Barlow: Unscripted

Hauser and Wirth (Somerset), May/24-Jan/25

Set almost a year since the artist died, Phyllida Barlow ‘Unscripted’ brings together works from as early as the 1970s to work made and conceived last year. Conceived in part whilst Barlow was still alive, and then curated by Frances Morris since the artist passed away, it is an exhibition that plays with ideas of sculptural weight, colossal form and sits within the sculptural traditions of minimalism, which Barlow worked in response to her entire career. Indeed, sometimes her work is like a feminist repost to someone like Richard Serra, almost a joke at the machismo of Serra and others like him, whilst simultaneously being an acknowledgement of their sculptural influence on Barlow. Indeed, one can detect many influences on her work, from Eduardo Chillda to Tony Smith to even someone like Henry Moore (Moore happened to be a visiting tutor at the Slade when Barlow was there, and gave her encouragement), but her work is very much her own.

She has a kind of punk attitude to the making of sculpture, and the process by which her forms come together feels messy and fun. Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a film where you can see Barlow at work and watch her small army of assistants getting messy with her large sculptures. In some ways, Barlow is a fairly traditional sculptor, working using drawing and then to maquette and onto larger forms often made with the aid of assistants or even cast in a foundry, as her last series of large-scale works were. But Barlow never forgot the pleasure and joy found within the process of making. An early tutor called George Fullard encouraged her to relish the process of making the sculpture as opposed to focusing on the end result, and this resulted in a lifelong fascination with her sculptural processes.

The first room of the exhibition in Somerset contains a personal favourite piece of her work, a work from 1994 called ‘Object for a Television’, which is now part of the Tate collection. She said the work was made to distract her young children from the TV at home. It is sort of bunny ears placed on an ordinary television set. For me, this work reveals Barlow at her most playful, but it also succinctly reveals her influences and her playfulness in regard to the sculptural traditions of the 20th century. The work acknowledges Duchamp and the idea of the readymade whilst referring to minimalist sculpture from the 1960s. It’s a joyous work whereby every concept links up succinctly.

As you move around the exhibition, you get a sense of the ways Barlow wanted you to interact with her work. Often colossal in scale, and feeling like they have taken over the space, her forms play with ideas of monumentality, absurdity and work on your body in an abstract way. The sculptures resemble the destroyed buildings that so affected Barlow when she saw the destruction of cities as a child after the war, but as they are abstract in nature, the sculptures take on other significances too. The colours of the works are entirely ‘found’ in that they are from construction sites and building works.

A final room has some late maquette works, including one called ‘Object for Somerset’, which the artist intended to make into a large work but unfortunately died before this could materialise. Her maquette work and small paintings reveal an intimate side to her practice that nicely compliments the large-scale works. Outside in the garden are a series of sculptures titled ‘PRANK’, which are also given individual titles, such as ‘Mimic’ or ‘Antic’. Made and conceived just last year and the year before, these are all similar in that they have a Richard Serraesque grounding with a similar style object to ‘object for a television’ inserted on top of them. These are playful, formal sculptures that reveal Barlow’s dialogue with sculpture and its traditions, which have been such a huge part of her life and career. Although not a formal retrospective, this exhibition reveals much of Barlow’s artistic concerns and really lets you, as a viewer, dive head-on into her vision and artistic process. It is a full-scale, full-bodied sculptural treat.

Archie Franks for London Art Walk
June 2024