Edinburgh

View of “Bill Bollinger,” 2011–12. Foreground: Pipe Piece, 1968–69. Background: Cyclone Fence, 1968/2011.

View of “Bill Bollinger,” 2011–12. Foreground: Pipe Piece, 1968–69. Background: Cyclone Fence, 1968/2011.

Bill Bollinger

View of “Bill Bollinger,” 2011–12. Foreground: Pipe Piece, 1968–69. Background: Cyclone Fence, 1968/2011.

This touring retrospective—organized by the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, subsequently shown at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, as well as at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, and opening this month at SculptureCenter in New York—offered the welcome opportunity to reassess an artist whose contribution to the crucial decade between 1966 and 1976 had all but faded from view by the time of his premature death in May 1988. As with Paul Thek, who died a few months later, Bollinger’s last years were shadowed by frustrations born of a neglect that was both unfortunate and undue. A further parallel with Thek (the differences between them are more numerous) is the challenge of presenting a body of work whose crucial manifestations now exist only in the form of historical documentation. In Bollinger’s case, this is compounded by the fact that his estate, as we learn from the informative catalogue, “is not readily accessible.” Fortunately, a sufficient number of original sculptures and drawings could be borrowed from a few key collections, public and private—enough to provide the substantial bedrock of an exhibition that also included works that had to be specially reconstructed.

The sensibility and concerns that Bollinger shared with such post-Minimalist peers as Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Eva Hesse were immediately and unsurprisingly evident. This was an artist, after all, who featured in three epoch-defining shows of 1969: “Op Losse Schroeven: Situaties en Cryptostructuren” (Square Pegs in Round Holes: Structures and Cryptostructures) at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam; “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form—Works, Concepts, Processes, Situations, Information” at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland; and “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The raw materials from which Bollinger constructed his most characteristic works include aluminum piping, cyclone fencing, manila rope, rubber hose, and steel barrels. Generally rudimentary in composition, they are minimally articulated, if at all, by standard clamps, bolts, and fittings. Bollinger’s attitude toward materials was at once scrupulous and pragmatic. Transatlantic differences between standard industrial elements could be accommodated, but the piece still had to look right. Though he trusted certain people, including Serra, to oversee the installation of particular sculptures in Europe, he agonized over photos of works installed in his absence. One happy result of such concern is an extensive photographic record of his work, much of which was always intended to be amenable to reconstitution. Apt verbs to describe the disposition of various sculptures in a given space include prop, lean, droop, strew, stretch, and curl.

Reconstructions of two floor-based works, Cyclone Fence, 1968, and Rope Piece, 1969, were among the simplest and most arresting sculptures in the show’s Edinburgh iteration. The first is a fifty-foot length of six-foot-wide fencing torqued by a single axial twist, and the second a length of rope attached at each end to eyebolts and stretched taut as a tightrope less than an inch above the floor. Such relatively purist exercises in torsion and tension were complemented by a selection of “Channel Pieces” from circa 1965–68—thin, wall-hung structures made up of sections of extruded anodized aluminum. By the following year, it seems, the elegant lines and residual pictorialism of these early works had given way to the more eccentric orneriness of the “Pipe Pieces,” 1967–69, which typically comprise two lengths of aluminum pipe conjoined by metal fittings or plastic hose. Both series obliquely register a fascination with flowing water, more directly invoked in subsequent works, in particular its capacity to achieve equilibrium by simply obeying the laws of physics. As Bollinger once suggested, in a sequence of now poignant displacements, “water is life and like art it finds its own level.”

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith