Phyllida Barlow: Unscripted review – exhilarating glimpses of a colossal talent

<span>Playful spirit … one of the seven sculptures from Prank, in Phyllida Barlow: Unscripted.</span><span>Photograph: © Phyllida Barlow Estate. Courtesy Phyllida Barlow Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Ken Adlard</span>
Playful spirit … one of the seven sculptures from Prank, in Phyllida Barlow: Unscripted.Photograph: © Phyllida Barlow Estate. Courtesy Phyllida Barlow Estate and Hauser & Wirth Photo: Ken Adlard

Phyllida Barlow once said that making sculpture had to be adventurous. “Almost on the edge of being beyond my control,” she said. Almost. Whatever the chaos, she was still in charge. Quite what happens when an artist was scheduled to do a show but is no longer with us to make it is the central dilemma running through Phyllida Barlow: Unscripted, which has just opened at Hauser & Wirth Somerset. It is the first major survey exhibition of Barlow’s work since her death last March, the retrospective she had not had.

Curated with Barlow’s studio staff by former Tate Modern director Frances Morris, the show opens with six statement works from four different decades. They are mid-sized pieces that you can easily walk around, installed soberly, in a bid to get you to draw connections between Barlow’s oeuvre and the art history that so readily sprang from her fingers. It is a bit of an “if you know, you know” setup, though, which is a shame. Still, seeing these important Barlows up close is a thrill.

The feeling is more 'what would Phyllida do?' than 'what Phyllida did next'

There is Shedmesh, the timber and knotted-canvas cube from 1975 that looks back to 1960s minimalism and arte povera. Object for the Television, from 1994, features a pair of white bunny ears atop an old school monitor on coasters, which nods to all the other artists obsessed with rabbits (Brâncuși, Miró, Jean Arp, as well as Jeff Koons and Barry Flanagan) and those obsessed with TVs, too (Nam June Paik’s Magnet TV comes to mind). Eva Hesse, meanwhile, is right there in the loops and knots of Untitled: Tapecoils 2, from 2011: a wall-mounted bracket holding lengths of tubing made of tape, like the electrical tape some couriers use to cover their bikes to make them less attractive to thieves.

In the next big room, things get muddier. The aim here is to – somehow! – address Barlow’s site-specific immersive installations, but without Barlow. This is the strand of her work with which most people will be familiar – the great big mounds and rushes of stuff that occupied ever-bigger spaces in a manner so emphatic that it invariably led to critics reaching for more extreme vocabulary. The work was “mad”, “madly ambitious”, “impossible”, “quasi-architectural”, “colossal”, “monumental”, “indelible” and – once – just “wow”.

To avoid copying or parodying a Barlow installation, Morris has used Barlow’s habits – recycling, repairing, forging pathways, using the ceiling, blocking the entrance – as her methodology. Pieces have been repaired, Morris says, by “slapping on the plaster and the paint”. A wall of coloured wood panels – part of Folly, Barlow’s installation for the British pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale – blocks the entrance. Lumps like those included in the Arsenale in 2013 hang from the ceiling. Meanwhile, 21 room-height, intestine-like arches, first shown in New York in 2012, crowd the opposite end.

This appealing curatorial approach notwithstanding, it is still a roomful of Barlow. But it is more a “what would Phyllida do?” space than a “what Phyllida did next” one. I have this sudden urge to knock things over. This is an artist who made work by drilling and jabbing and prodding and stuffing and pulling and spilling and letting things crash, just to see how gravity might help. How does anyone else find that moment of stillness, of rightness, that she would?

Up close, the cloth-wrapped sticks, the flock of recklessly painted To Let signs and the pockmarked moons swinging on their chains of inner tubing are as exciting as ever. But the whole feels glass-eyed, as if it isn’t breathing. Outside, by contrast, things really are. There are the red chairs spilling out from an outhouse and the William Kentridge-esque megaphone atop a stalk in a corner of the farmyard.

Painting was a skill Barlow didn't think she had

Most of all, there is Prank, the last series of sculptures Barlow made, for a New York park in 2023. It is a remarkably pared-back and coherent group of works. Seven structures of rusting sheet metal ascend the landscaped slope of Oudolf Field behind the gallery spaces on a windy route. Each has a blobby white rabbit-like shape, perched mid-movement on an edge or a corner. They look like kids playing.

The show proffers exhilarating glimpses of Barlow at play, too. A series of relatively tiny sculptures made during lockdown, about as big as a human head or a heart, promise whole worlds still to be explored, as does a row of tiny paintings in acrylic on canvas. Painting was a skill Barlow felt she didn’t have, yet it was exactly what she had planned on using for this show.

In 2017, Barlow came back from Venice – surely a peak in any artist’s career – in a state of flux. It wasn’t exactly a crisis, she would later explain. It was just that she had learned so much. She was 72. If only the art world had started paying attention decades before it finally did.

Phyllida Barlow: Unscripted is at Hauser & Wirth Somerset until 5 January 2025.