The sculptor Phyllida Barlow RA can just see the tip of a eucalyptus tree from the door to her studio, thanks to a neighbour who planted it. In all other respects her north London outlook is urban: nondescript overhead wires, dingy brick walls, train tracks and a prime view of a Network Rail goods depot where delivery vans chug back and forth day and night. Not that she is in search of the verdant: “I love it here. I love the noise of the trains and the vans. Somehow I find it reassuring. I don’t like dead silence.”
We meet on a day when her long narrow studio, a former builders’ yard, is too cold to stand in for long. Even Mimi, her black Staffordshire bull terrier, looks chilly. “No heating. But light… not very good light, it’s true,” she says. “I used to work in the dark, late at night. It was interesting not quite being able to see what I was doing or the image of the work – it made the experience more tactile.” The studio is part of the house she and her husband, the artist Fabian Peake, moved into in 1978 raising five children, one of whom is RA Schools student Eddie Peake. “It was constructed by a builder for himself in 1880. His yard was underneath – where my studio now is. There were cobbles and hay baskets when we first came so I assume it’s where the horses once were.”
It is still a place of practical industry: power tools, boxes of drill bits, a butler’s sink coated in dried cement, buckets, glue, tins of paint, timber off-cuts, recycled sheets of plywood and hardboard. Some recent sculptures are near the door: five accreted clods comprising cement, plaster, scrim, paint, timber and fabric, each with prongs attached.
How would she describe them? “I’d describe them as pronged objects and the prongs are like rabbit ears, which I’m not sure about. I made them from something else that didn’t work. I cut off the prongs – I like that word – and turned them into new pieces.” Will they have a name? “Probably Untitled: prongs…”
And what would she call the space next to her studio, a featureless, concrete area? “I’d call it a back yard,” she says bluntly, and chuckles. Sometimes she makes work in the yard itself, under tarpaulins, helped by the assistants she has employed since the early 1990s, to gain more room for manoeuvre. Recently, she has also used a bigger studio in Bermondsey. This is where she makes her colossal, often tottering structures, out of wood, plastic and all kinds of detritus.
Barlow was born in Newcastle in 1944, the youngest of three children. Her father, a member of the Darwin family through his mother, was a doctor, posted to the north-east during the Second World War. Her father’s orderly was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He often came to the house and took special pleasure in a children’s book belonging to her brother – The Little Boy and His House, by Stephen Bone and Mary Adshead. It explained how different nations used local materials for their dwellings: snow in Iceland, mud in Africa, paper in Japan. “The quote of his we always remember is, ‘This book says more than I have ever written.’”
This notion of using what is to hand is key to Barlow’s philosophy and aesthetic. Resistant to the tendency in sculpture towards the monumental, or the way a work may look sleek in bronze, say, but is hollow inside, she prefers to work with found objects, or easily accessible, unglamorous, DIY materials. “For me, sculpture is problematic. You begin with an empty space and then you try to fill it, or negotiate it. What are the materials that have authenticity? They may be more interesting in their raw state – a tree, rather than a piece of carved wood. But that’s what drives you on.”
She is self-denigrating about her technical skills as an artist, recalling only her battles, as a child, to make dolls’ house furniture, with conkers, pins, cotton reels. “I was always bad at it. Yet I had a total obsession, a fascination, with things that could be transformed and become something else.” She also claims she was no good at drawing, and that Henry Moore once told her as much, instructing her to practise each day. Did she? “Yes, it was good advice.” The family returned after the war to London where, after leaving school, Barlow attended Chelsea School of Art in the early 1960s.
“I went for an interview with Lawrence Gowing (then Principal, later an RA) when I was 16. My mother came too. She was vivacious and attractive and he seemed far more interested in speaking to her than looking at my portfolio. I always said it was my mother who got into art school, not me.”
Later she went to the Slade, still pursuing traditional methods while other art schools were in the full flow of the artistic revolution of the Sixties. “It was a thrilling time, with Arte Povera and Pop Art bursting through,” she recalls. “I was always more interested in the physical experience of handling materials than sitting in the life room for hours trying to study the figure.” The New Generation show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1965 particularly opened her eyes to new possibilities but was usurped by her fascination for the flood of innovative work being recognised and celebrated from America and Europe.
Throughout her years of bringing up her family, Barlow took teaching jobs while continuing with her own work, but inevitably under pressure. “Often when the children were asleep I would come down into the studio, and work in the dark. I treasured those times.”
Life might have gone on in that relatively quiet way as she approached retirement. Instead, to her astonishment, her stars suddenly changed. Following a show at the Serpentine in 2010, she was taken on by Hauser & Wirth, a major international gallery. Now she is in demand as never before. This year she has major museum exhibitions in America: at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, the Norton Museum in Palm Beach, Florida and the Carnegie in Pittsburgh. And she has been awarded the Tate Britain Commission for 2014 to develop a new work in response to the Tate Collection.
While entirely delighted by this change of fortune, she understands all too well the fickleness of the art market. Not much has changed in her studio methods, in her habit of recycling her own work, in her preference, in dress as well as in manner, for the warm and friendly rather than the cool and chic.
“In art, as in life, things can go wrong, things break, mistakes get made. That’s part of the adventure. I like the bumpy journey, the tricky mountain road rather than the fast motorway,” she says. “Sculpture is a bewildering art form: useless, sometimes hideous, expensive. It rivals us by taking up our space. But there can be an ecstasy in that experience. That’s why I go on.”