Phyllida Barlow’s golden years7/17/2013
Des Moines Art Center’s (DMAC) new exhibition “Phyllida Barlow: Scree” represents one of the happier stories about life after “retirement.” From the late 1960s until 2009, she was a professor at the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. Barlow produced many drawings and sculptures during those years, but she was more famous for teaching Rachel Whiteread, Douglas Gordon and Tacita Dean — three members of the so-called “Young British Artists” from a legendary exhibition, “Sensation.”
Her own art career took off almost immediately after retiring from teaching. She was featured at the Kunstmuseum in Basel in 2010 and Haus de Kunst in Munich in 2011. Last year she won the top award at the Kiev Biennale for “The Most Significant Contribution to the Development of Contemporary Art.” This year her sculptures at Venice’s Biennale drew raves. She’s had solo exhibitions now at top gallery, Hauser and Wirth, in both London and New York, and at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.
Her Des Moines show shares most of the traits that won her the Kiev prize. Both installations mix light and heavy materials and challenge viewers with daunting, changing perspectives. Both are colossal and take over huge spaces which are rarely filled at all. In Des Moines, 27 tons of stuff include 100 pillars, 11 concrete awnings and 1,000 wooden tiles. The assemblage required 17 installers working six weeks at DMAC, after more than six months of work at Barlow’s London studio. It fills the I.M. Pei wing of the DMAC like nothing else has ever come close to doing.
“I like to use spaces that have not been used before. I love to put things in the corners of ceilings,” she explained. Indeed, one long time DMAC employee said she never noticed a set of windows in one room until Barlow covered them with her sculpture.
For the most part, this English lady seemed more like a professor than a famous artist. She peppered her conversation with instructional chiding. “I can not abide the use of the word ‘curator’ as a verb. Some words are either nouns or verbs and misusing them annoys me. However, words that really are both verbs and nouns fascinate me and direct my sculpture. ‘Reach’ is one of the those. It should lead one into an investigation of space. I want people to want to reach up and touch my work. Of course, I don’t actually want them to do so. I just want to make them want to,” she explained.
The works in “Scree” certainly tempt visitors to explore from forbidden angles. Security guards reported that this is the most difficult exhibit in years to police. Stalagmites rise from floors and support heavy ceilings that sweet talk children of all ages to come in and play. If her colorful awnings remind visitors of a stroll through a North African Kasbah, they have successfully translated one of the artist’s inspirations. “I have always been intrigued by the stacking of stuff in souks,” she admitted.
In a companion exhibition, Barlow assembled pieces from DMAC’s permanent collection. They are shown with a series of drawings she made, more than 50 years worth, mostly of theatrical stages. “Stages are spaces created for performances. Sculpture should be, too.”
The artist, who has famously stated that “sculpture should be seen in the dark,” because “physicality is best sensed when it appears suddenly absent,” explained her attraction to the chosen pieces at DMAC. “They all have a mystery to them — what was left in, what was taken out. When did Joan Mitchell know when this painting was done? Mystery encourages one to approach from every angle. Look at that Brancusi from the back. It’s more marvelous than it is from the front, and yet it’s usually always photographed the other way,” she advised. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.