Q&A: Phyllida Barlow

The artist talks to Art Quarterly magazine about her different approach to sculpture and drawing – and her busy exhibition schedule.

Your exhibition schedule has been extremely hectic the past few years. How important is exhibiting?

I think the pressure on young artists is so absolute, the ‘must show’ culture is so demanding, that it is very difficult to keep the flow of work going. In the late 1960s and 1970s there was a different attitude. When I left art school the main aim was to get some sort of studio. This defined you as an artist – the making of the work, not the showing in an exhibition. Maybe it created a different cultural trajectory, one rooted in making work and then testing it in all sorts of ways.

You are this year’s featured artist for the Tate Britain Commission in the grand spaces of the Duveen Galleries. What were the challenges?

The experience was revelatory. The space (cathedral-like pomposity mixed with grandeur), the budget and a very important conversation with the director, Penelope Curtis, enabled me to leave the work in a raw state. I could abandon it at a stage in its process. It was a remarkably liberating moment. I was reclaiming my method of working of the 1990s and early 2000s but in a very different way. A process of withholding and stopping short.

How does this contrast with your work for the opening exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset?

In Somerset it is a completely different mood: the main feeling is upbeat, bright and joyous. The opening salvo consists of 55 large, labour-intensive pom-poms that devoured tons of fabric. As the exhibition is a journey through six spaces, I am contrasting different moods that reference this environment of farm-turned-into-art centre. I also wanted to keep the rhythm of surprise, as when you go around an empty old building that once had something in it that is now gone – fascinating places.

For your sculpture you choose inexpensive, everyday materials. Why this preference?

I am not actually that interested in materials. Any one sculpture could be made from any number of materials –
it just depends on choosing the one that will do it as I have it in my mind. That is why I use a limited repertoire of materials, but in a wide variety of ways.

Drawing is very important to you. Do you approach it differently?

Drawing is a constant process of erosion that then finds the thing I want to make. It is often about remembering things I have seen and putting them down, almost in a diagrammatic way, where I am relying, to some extent,
on information getting lost. So the remembered thing becomes more important than the attempt of trying to replicate it as it was. Grabbing this image and doing something with it in the sketchbook is incredibly important. It is like when a photocopied image is copied over and over again and begins to fade. I repeat drawings in sketchbooks or then as ‘coloured drawings’ until they take on a life of their own. This idea of approximation is a source of great fascination for me. It has to do with memory and the loss of an original experience.

What inspires you?

Inspiration is always visual. It is often a fleeting thing. People enliven these ideas, but they really generate from the world around us – a moment caught, a half-remembered memory, anything from weather and objects to the way
I behave in relationships, stop at traffic lights or function in a domestic setting. Whatever is out there.

This article appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Art Quarterly. If you would like to subscribe to the magazine, please buy a National Art Pass.

Tate Britain Commission 2014: Phyllida Barlow is at Tate Britain, London, until 19 October; Fifty Years of Drawings is at Hauser & Wirth London until 26 July; Phyllida Barlow: Gig is at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton from 15 July to 2 November. All shows free to all.

Back to top