What I Learned Watching Phyllida Barlow Create a Funny and Majestic Work for Morally Sleazy Brexit Britain

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Phyllida Barlow was a great sculptor whose massive, messy and overwhelming works were funny, menacing, intelligent, theatrical and tackled – in an elliptical and sly way – the historical and political moments in which they were made. She was also an unforgettable presence, always the smartest person in the room, able to smell bullshit at 50 paces. Her irreverent and always youthful laughter was one of the most joyful and mischievous sounds on Earth.

There are some artists who articulate what they want to say through their work and find it difficult to verbalize or explain their approach. There are some whose very articulation seems to outweigh the work or overshadow it. Barlow had it all. His art, rooted in the rough and tumble of the streetscapes of his busy and busy area of ​​north London, makes you see and feel the world differently. He is compelling, mysterious and full of strange atmospheres that can never be fully defined by talking about it.

But she was also one of the most articulate people you could hope to meet, and to spend time with her was to encounter an electrifying and expanding intelligence. As you listened to Barlow, you began, only briefly, to see the world in his own way – a world of danger and beauty, in which objects such as a simple set of steps or the sloping roof of a house or a series of planks of scaffolding were understood in all their strangeness and sculptural qualities.

She taught for decades in the art schools of London – among her pupils was Rachel Whiteread – and her clarity of mind and curiosity had been sharpened not only by her natural ferocious intelligence, but by years of thinking and speaking patiently with the students. I learned more about sculpture in three hours talking with Barlow than in all the rest of my life.

For years, Barlow worked alone and unacknowledged, making sculptures while her beloved children were at school that no one would ever see, out of garbage bags or whatever she could find, often treating her materials with a certain fury. “There was a lot of binding and tying and dipping and crushing,” she told me. It was only after her retirement from teaching that she was “discovered” by the fashionable art world and picked up by a large commercial gallery. Invitations to exhibit and commissions poured in.

He seized vigorously on these last chances of his 60s and 70s, producing work on a gloriously massive scale, cheeky work, far from polite; a work that he stimulated and debated and practically set aside the gracious patriarchal halls of sculpture in which he built it. I think in particular of one of his finest works, Dock, at the Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2014, with its rickety piles of timber and ramshackle columns, and its menacing and mysterious fence, set, made for the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh the following year.

Related: Defying gravity: Phyllida Barlow’s takeover of Tate Britain – in pictures

I spent many hours with her in 2017 when she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. She was working in a large, freezing studio in an industrial area in north London, and she was wearing a paint-and-cement caked windbreaker and shabby trousers. With the help of an army of assistants, mostly young artists, he was working against time to make the components of his Venice installation – work that seemed to have a lot to say (if as always, indirectly) about the morally bleak post -Brexit Britain where it found itself.

What he produced somehow managed to seem both melancholy and joyous, abject and majestic, dark and terribly funny. In one corner she had a place where she did things on a smaller scale, just for herself, binding and shaping and slapping and banging things together. She worked then and always, she told me, “as if a storm were coming.” How lucky for us that she did, but oh how we will miss her.

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