Phyllida Barlow has upped her game in the last five years with a string of international blockbuster shows and commissions. Omnipresent as she currently is, one would think that Barlow has always enjoyed this kind of success, but that isn’t the case; the work hadn’t received the kind of attention that anoints an artist as “successful” until her Baltic show in 2004. As she is in the habit of permanently dismantling her sculptures and installations to be used as raw material for new projects, there isn’t a lot of work (or even documentation) to trace her evolution. So that it is a rare treat that it is possible to have Fifty Years of Drawing as a historical view of the concerns within Barlow’s practice.
Barlow is known mainly as a sculptor, with work rooted in the anti-monument stance of modernist formalism. Her concern is for the consequences of the physical object in relation to the surrounding environment, and the resulting impact of that relationship on the viewer. Barlow’s acute understanding of the psychological effect of sculpture developed when she was a young artist, in opposition to the orderly and proper English art of the 1960s, when precedent dictated a “correct” way to make a piece of sculpture. Her focus was to reject the seriousness of pure or idealized form and its inherent misogyny by creating work that was the result of the experience of making. Using non-traditional art materials, her art is constructed to look quick, clunky, and precarious. Embracing absurdity, her pieces are physically menacing while simultaneously embodying a sense of lightness and humor. Constructed by layering materials such as cardboard, cement, fabric, plaster, polystyrene, tape, timber, and household paint, the work demonstrates the experience of intuitive making and asks the viewer to engage likewise.
Fifty Years of Drawing is a smartly hung show that avoids a chronological survey and instead offers groups of works to highlight common threads among drawings that are stylistically similar. The framed drawings are either stacked or hung side by side, and although there are many really strong individual pieces, to consider any one in isolation is to miss the point. They function as discrete components in service of a larger process that lays out Barlow’s history of development with all of the experiments, shifts, and styles. More than just sketches for larger projects, the drawings function similarly to the sculptural work: Though each piece is distinct, it builds off of previous work while simultaneously laying the foundation for the next piece.
What becomes evident throughout is Barlow’s urgency; her gestures are the most consistent part of the show and are characteristic of her art production. The early work encapsulates that time when a young artist is experimenting with a belief that the results are forever going to change the world of art. Pushing boundaries and searching for answers—along with looking terribly like everything else—is what makes these drawings powerful and honest. They reflect hunger, desire, ambition, and most importantly a search for meaning.
The early influences are recognizable as what was fashionable at the time, digested through Barlow’s filter of understanding and gesture. The wildcards in the show are the works from the mid-to-late 1970s, which can only be called hard-edged. One set of four drawings—labeled untitled, circa 1975—utilizes compressed charcoal to depict abstracted interiors and exteriors of buildings in beautiful black lines. It’s as if Patrick Caulfield made a drawing while restricted to Frank Stella’s black stripes. Viewers can see Barlow sifting through all that modernity has to offer, trying to make sense of it. Only in the drawings from the 1990s can one see a more confident artist with a developed, cohesive style that becomes recognizably Barlow. With a nod to Philip Guston’s palette and gesture, the later works—heavy-handed, loose drawings of places, objects, and of her own installations—are more pictorially grounded. These are consistently solid works from an artist who has hit her stride.
This exhibition wouldn’t be nearly as successful if it was limited to work from a specific period. Witnessing Barlow’s lifelong investment in her practice and her process makes this show engaging. She is the type of artist who works from the gut. She captures moments of failure as a means to embrace the absurdity that is often the outcome of the process of discovery. Fifty Years of Drawing succeeds because it doesn’t try to hide the fact that Barlow, like most artists, had grappled with continuing to make something that is meaningful; by avoiding a clean, reverse-engineered view of Barlow’s oeuvre, it celebrates every artist’s attempt to make sense of the world.
Phyllida Barlow: Fifty Years of Drawing is on view at Hauser & Wirth, London, through July 26, 2014.