Phyllida Barlow: the rise in appreciation in female artists’ works


ARTE Generali


The Haus der Kunst in Munich just closed a major retrospective of the British artist Phyllida Barlow, who has risen to international recognition with her participation in the Venice Biennial in 2017, where she represented the United Kingdom.


The artist is only one of several female artists in the later stages of life who have had stellar rises in their careers at a time when other people are thinking of retirement and slowing down. This recent phenomena is worth looking at, not only because it reshapes the canon of art history of the 21st Century, but also because the critical and institutional acclaim comes with an increase of value of these works through art market validation, often driven by large commercial galleries.


As Barlow is a point in case, she is an excellent example to analyse more closely. For most of her life, she was what is often referred to as an artist’s artist. The sculptor was recognised as an inspirational teacher for a whole generation of sculptors in her tenure at the Slade School of Art in London. After retirement, an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010 propelled her into the public’s eye – and the eye of Iwan and Manuela Wirth, who began representing her shortly after; and have since been instrumental in exposing her work to private and public audiences internationally. Finally, having more time for work (and not teaching), allowed the artist to take on ever larger and bigger commissions in institutions such as Tate Britain and most recently a temporary installation at the entrance of famous Highgate Cemetery in, as well as the above-mentioned Venice showcase. Numerous solo exhibitions, of which the exhibition in Munich is a culmination, have added to the international recognition. The Munich show featured work in her typical manner of constructing large scale installations which, due to the often flimsical nature of the materials used, feel fragile and robust at the same time. Tarpaulins, pallet boards and other industrial and waste materials denote an experience which isn’t often compatible with the status of high art. Often called “exuberant”, navigating them feels like navigating an obstacle course. For this exhibition, the artist who previously recycled works of art into new works – before her installation carried any monetary value - restages early works, while also adding new structures as well as drawings. These often-vibrant coloured pencil drawings date back to the 1960s and are especially attractive for private collectors who can only dream of finding a home for an installation which feels more like a construction site than a sculpture. Since being taken on by Hauser & Wirth, it is unlikely that the artist recycles old work and sketches have become a precious commodity. In work owned by Tate London, lines on the floor mark the distance to the work, another signifier of price – in this case insurance values.


Barlow is by far not the only female artists whose prices have gone up when the artists were themselves in their 70s, 80s or even older. Until the end of September, the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan, pays homage to 16 of them in an exhibition with the apt title “another energy”. Amongst them, of course, Phyllida Barlow. Barlow herself was born in 1944. Cuban born, Carmen Herrera, who is now 104, is probably one of the oldest living female artists of stardom. She is represented by Lisson Gallery. She outlived the French American sculptor Louise Bourgeois who died in 2010 at the age of 99. Bourgeois is equally shown by Hauser & Wirth. Similarly, Etel Adnan, Rose Wylie, Carol Rama or Geta Brătescu come to mind. They all share late international fame, institutional recognition at the highest level and blue-chip gallery representation – either of their work or their estate. The interest is easily explained: Wishing to expand Western and non-Western canons at still a fraction of the prize of a male artist of similar calibre, but of equal if not better quality, with decades of work documented and a highly developed and refined practice, these artists are just too good to miss. The art market research company Wondeur ranks most of them in the highest category of recognition – both in regard to museum exposure but also institutional acquisitions at top museums worldwide. With prices having risen exponentially in the past five years, their value – in more than one category - is likely to rise for a long time – often beyond their death.


Written by: Stephanie Dieckvoss, author of ARTE Generali

Image by: Gilber Franco, Unsplash