‘Going big suited her. Going very big’ – the uncontainable brilliance of sculptor Phyllida Barlow | Art and design

Barricades and baffles, teetering planes of painted board, precarious towers and staircases to nowhere; bulbous ovoids like cartoonish decapitations mounted on sticks; great swaths of bright yet noticeably soiled cloth, piles of discarded pallets, hanging ropes, pillars and ideas – they all collided in Phyllida Barlow’s often sprawling sculptural installations. “It is pointless to define what sculpture is,” Barlow wrote in a series of “provocations” in 2018. Barlow, who has died aged 78, was nothing but provocative – as an artist, a teacher, a lecturer and a writer.

Confrontational, disarming, sometimes confusing, her art had an immediate physical presence, a sense of untameable materiality and a palpable vitality. Standing in her 2014 Tate Britain commission that filled the Duveen Galleries, I feared at times for my personal safety, never mind my clothing, among all the reclaimed timber, the chicken wire and papier-mache, the gouts of plaster, all that concrete, scrim and tar.

I felt I had to crawl to get to the bottom of her work for the Hepworth sculpture prize in Wakefield, with its understory of pillars beneath a raised, inaccessible floor. Negotiating the 22 sculptures that filled her British Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale was not for the faint-hearted. It felt as if her sculptures didn’t really want us there and were arguing things out between themselves.

Palpable vitality … Folly, at the British Pavilion during the Venice Biennale, 2017.
Palpable vitality … Folly, at the British Pavilion during the Venice Biennale, 2017. Photograph: David Levene/the Guardian

Barlow could be confrontational in person, too, forthright, teasing, indiscreet, and given to combative assertions. Her writings reveal her struggles with her own self-doubt. Yet however alarming her sculptures and environments could be, there was something warm-hearted about her work, and about the artist herself, too.

Things are piled, stacked and shunted in her art, they fold, they sprawl, they teeter, they slump and erupt. She once described her art as an adventure of objects. She revelled in the incongruous and the out-of-sync. Her sculptures had no manners. She had a great sense of performance. When the discrete elements, along with a lot of materials, were taken from the studio and constructed on-site, she largely improvised their final form. She, like her audience, became a protagonist in the drama, and here is where her art’s energy lies.

“Why try to compete with the super-artists?” she asked once. “Why go to the macho means of production when twiddling your thumbs and putting things together from your immediate environment was all you could afford to do?” Rather than the stoneyard of the welding shop, the overfilled skip seemed to be the crucible of her work. Her art was awkward and intemperate.

Phyllida Barlow in her studio in 2018.
Phyllida Barlow in her studio in 2018. Photograph: © Phyllida Barlow Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Cat Garcia

It was only in the last two decades that she found fame, and an audience outside the UK, where she had been an artist’s artist and a much-loved and generous teacher to generations of students. For many years, she had little commercial success or even acknowledgement. The ramshackle complexity and sculptural breadth and awkwardness of what she did counted against her. Her work was a journey rather than a trail of individual works. One thing leads to another, and another, and another.

Even individual works were a succession of movements and passages, gags and routines. Going big suited Barlow. It magnified her talents. Going very big suited her best of all. For all that, her works were anti-monumental, for all their size, a wonderful parody of sculpture’s history of self-regarding masculinity, a burlesque of sculptural gravity. She played and fought with her recalcitrant materials, in an art of pleasure and complaint. What a loss this is.