Bill Bollinger disappeared from the art scene in the mid-1970s and passed away in relative obscurity a decade later. Identifying this loss, the SculptureCenter responded by hosting a career retrospective of the artist’s work that will be on view through the end of the summer.
The best of Bollinger’s work would have looked at odds with his contemporaries. While other Minimalists, like Richard Serra, were working with huge chunks of steel, Bollinger made things that were wimpy by comparison. The thirty-eight works on view at the SculptureCenter consist of objects like wheelbarrows, hoses, and garden tools, things that wouldn’t even cross the minds of those other Minimalists he used to show with.
The SculptureCenter’s first floor showcases some of Bollinger’s strongest use of commonplace materials, such as pipes, plastic hoses, and lightbulbs. These objects have been plopped, thrown, and strewn across the floor. Cyclone Fence (1968), a long rectangle of metal chain-links, slinks along the expanse of the floor before elevating into a crest. What’s great about this work is how matter-of-fact it is: the fence’s ability to form a wave is something the material allows it to do, without any external props or pedestals. By showing a fence as-it-is, Bollinger enacts what Robert Morris referred to in the 1960s as the “existential fact of the object.”
Bollinger was concerned with the same issues as other artists of the period, but he made work that looked like theirs, too. On the same floor, hidden in a corner gallery, is a work that riffs on Richard Serra’s Splashing (1968). Graphite Piece (1969) consists of a thin layer of graphite that covers the floor in smudges of deep, black pigment—Serra did the same thing, but with hot chunks of lead.
It’s hard not to see the similarity between Bollinger’s graphite splatters and Richard Serra’s thrown lead pieces: both are flat agglomerations of matter that edge up to the gallery walls. The difference, though is that Bollinger’s work is a sissified version of Serra’s pointedly macho art: Bollinger’s work is thin and easily smeared; Serra’s is rough and durable. The parody, though, isn’t strong enough for Bollinger to best Serra; instead, the graphite flattens Bollinger’s gestures and erases the evidence of his hand.
When Bollinger lets humor prevail, his originality shines through. Untitled (1970), is one of those objects and it’s absurdly simple: it’s two wheelbarrows filled with water. Despite the sculpture’s absurdity, it’s still serious about what sculpture does. Sculpture, at its most fundamental, shows three-dimensional things concerned with volume and mass; and here, in Untitled (1970), Bollinger shows that even something as commonplace as a wheelbarrow full of water does a good job at illustrating negative space.
The SculptureCenter’s lower level contains more works of this ilk. These sculptures consist of objects made from ropes and, in one instance, a barrel. Also located on this level is the exhibition’s only moving image work, Movie (1970). In the film, Bollinger tries to keep a cylinder upright, but throughout the nine-minute clip, he just can’t steady the thing. And once he finally prevails, he knocks it over. While this work shows that Bollinger is still concerned with Morris’ “existential fact of the object,” that object also proves to be a bitch.
The moodiness of this cylinder shows that Bollinger’s sculptural universe isn’t completely wimpy: his objects are bratty, absurd, and also have a life of their own. That focus on the personality of objects led Bollinger to create his own, distinctive brand of sculpture, one that looks strikingly similar to artists working in the tradition of Minimalism today.