Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures are experiments with colour and collage, making use of everyday materials such as cardboard, fabric, timber, polystyrene, plaster, scrim and cement. Her installations – her largest and most ambitious project to date took over Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2014 – redefine the spaces they inhabit. Despite their abstract and industrial qualities, her works retain elements of spontaneity and sensitivity.
Barlow has been an influential teacher in London. At the Slade School of Fine Art, her students have included Turner Prize-winning and nominated artists Rachel Whiteread and Angela de la Cruz. In 2006, she was invited to create Untitled Red/Brown for the Royal Academy courtyard and was elected a Royal Academician in 2011.
We caught up with the sculptor as she prepares a group of smaller works from the offcuts of her studio.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently I’m working on a group of small sculptures, which is a bit more unusual for me. At the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh where I exhibited this summer, I had made 20 small works to accompany the main installation. These smaller works have been the inspiration for what I’m working on just now.
They’re assemblages on a very small scale and they’re made from the debris and the offcuts that I collect in my studio. I’ve been making them very quickly, using basic methods of pulling the materials together, through tying and using plaster and cement. When I’m constructing them, I’m playing with polystyrene, timber, plywood and fabric; it’s as though I’m doodling. There’s something mindless about making them, but I’m also developing a way of thinking and seeing through the materials themselves.
I’m also repairing a work called Upturned House which is going to Tate Modern in January. It needs to be taken apart and put together again. It’s difficult because normally I construct the piece intuitively. Re-assembling something to put it up somewhere else is challenging because I want to retain that element of spontaneity.
What’s your earliest memory of art?
I have two early memories of art. My grandfather collected Chinese ceramics. There were painted fired clay camels and buffalo and they always fascinated me. I especially loved a jade buffalo; it was a fabulous object and I can remember the shape of it filling my whole hand. I can also remember looking at my parent’s art books, particularly those on Van Gogh.
Drawing is what I can remember doing, and making small objects out of very basic materials, which my mother taught me how to do. I decided I wanted to make sculpture early on at art school when I was 16. One of my tutors said, “I think you paint in a sculptural way. Why not transfer what you do in painting into clay?” And it was an awakening.