Bollinger, Unchained: Long-Overdue Retrospective at SculptureCenter Proves Late Sculptor’s Influence

Today’s artists owe him a debt

  • Sprawling across SculptureCenter’s main gallery right now is an ordinary chain-link fence that lies flat for nearly the length of the space, rises to a torqued wave, and then lies flat again. You may feel foolish to have trekked all the way out to Long Island City to see such a workaday object, but you shouldn’t. Cyclone Fence 1968 (2012), a reconstruction of a piece by the late, relatively obscure artist Bill Bollinger, has much to tell us about sculpture being made by young artists today.

    Over the past five years sculptures that are, superficially at least, totally banal—barrels filled with water, pipe pieces connected by rubber tubing, columns covered with sheets of linoleum tile, shelving units—have come to be commonplace in galleries. Bill Bollinger, who died in 1988 and was the kind of artist who might shop for his materials in a hardware store, is a patron saint of this school, and he is finally getting a posthumous, long overdue retrospective in “Bill Bollinger: The Retrospective.”

    To make his sculptures, Bollinger arranged industrial objects to which he’d made almost no alterations. Plain and bare, revealing no gesture or emotion, his work is an heir to Duchamp’s assisted readymades. His Pipe Piece (1968/1969), a “U” shape made of two iron pipes connected by an elbow of plastic tubing, or Untitled (1970), a steel barrel filled with water, are aesthetically tight-lipped. Beauty is not the deus ex machina it is with so many minimalists; his manila rope stretched across the floor and fastened with clamps and eye-bolts has none of the taut finesse of a Fred Sandback. Often, what he preferred to do with his found materials was simply subject them to gravity. In Movie (1970), he stands next to a 15-foot tall wooden log and gets it to balance, then walks away, letting it fall. When it doesn’t topple, he returns to the frame to assist it with a playful shove. Bollinger’s is the relaxed counterpoint to Richard Serra’s contemporaneous, more macho interactions with materials.

    Bollinger’s art was made on the cheap, using inexpensive processes and prefabricated throwaway materials. When a piece found a buyer, it was sold for a deliberately low price. “Remember it is always possible to make more of these pieces—that is the whole point of selling them so cheaply,” Bollinger wrote to his German dealer, Rolf Ricke, “If you can use more of them, just get the material to assemble them.” He thought of what he made as people’s art. Often, his works were discarded after being shown, and the relic-like manner in which they are displayed today is gently at odds with that quality. Wade Saunders writes of the fate of Bollinger’s two contributions to the famed “Anti-Illusion” exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1969: “The Whitney’s ‘Receipt of Delivery’ … was annotated as follows: ‘Artist did not wish to have either the fence or the stone returned. A man … took the fence, and Auer took the stone to the dump.’” Such utopian material practices, along with Bollinger’s self-destructive drinking and early death—at age 48—proved sizeable hurdles to his legacy.

    The cult of the original Bollinger was in full effect in a recent exhibition at the Algus Greenspon gallery, where the human-size, poured-iron Nike of Samothrace 1973, previously shown at the New York gallery O.K. Harris in 1974, held the place of honor alongside several other original pieces. There was a molding-like steel and black wall piece from 1966 made from anodized extruded aluminum, as well as spray-painted drawings of seascapes (he was not a particularly good draftsman, but horizon lines resonated with his interest in fluids and gravity). But the best work in the Algus show was another Pipe Piece, aluminum pipes of uneven length conjoined like a misaligned pair of chopsticks. The lines and angles generated by walking around the 1967 sculpture were subtle and revelatory.

    The SculptureCenter show has a similar piece, but it’s installed less successfully: it’s too close to the wall to be activated by viewers walking around it. The show’s wall labels hint at but don’t explain Bollinger’s tragic biography, which makes the melancholy tone around the exhibition’s archival displays of letters and journal entries baffling for anyone who hasn’t read the excellent catalog. Another question around this rigorously researched exhibition—which originated at the ZKM Karlsruhe in Germany, where Bollinger’s work has never fallen out of favor—is why the increasingly off-base Museum of Modern Art didn’t pounce on it. Shouldn’t such shows of historically important work by influential, but somewhat overlooked, artists be part of that museum’s mission?

    The Bollinger show is an important one in part because it puts contemporary art in context. Today’s most provocative painting and sculpture makes critics uneasy and drives an older generation crazy because it is blatantly and unapologetically imitative. Broadly speaking, American art of the post-WWII era first strove for originality, then rationalized a relationship with the past with talk of  “sampling” and “pastiche.” The pervasive postmillennial practice of lifting materials and strategies directly from historical artists like Bollinger, Robert Morris or Frank Stella—with no fig leaf of citation—is the most striking indication of a new direction in contemporary sculpture. Consider ambitious and successful artists like Jacob Kassay, Michael Delucia (who just had an exhibition at Eleven Rivington gallery), Ned Vena, Zak Kitnick and David Scanavino, who exhibit no discernible anxiety of influence.

    In The Times, Roberta Smith recently criticized the new generation by saying “a few too many young artists [are] acting as if they have invented the wheel.” Recent art blog posts have come out in passionate defense of the recent revival of affectless monochrome paintings. Then there’s the hipster neo-minimalist sculpture flourishing on the Lower East Side. These are smart artists, and the charge that their imitative relationship with the past makes them lazy or ungrateful perhaps misses the point. With a view to Duchamp’s readymade, such work uses history as another kind of material. It makes us reexamine our assumptions about originality, and our relationship with time. Bollinger himself had a complex relationship with originality; his recouped, barely changed industrial objects feel pertinent as part of a larger trajectory.

    editorial@observer.com