Art reviews: Bill Bollinger | RSA Open 2011 | George Bain

Work by Bill Bollinger: Cyclone Fence 1968, above, a long rectangle of chain-link wire twisted over itself
Work by Bill Bollinger: Cyclone Fence 1968, above, a long rectangle of chain-link wire twisted over itself
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Bill Bollinger turned industrial materials into objects of beauty with only the slightest of intervention from the artist. Now his minimalist work, long forgotten after its heyday in the 1960s, is again on display to the public

Bill Bollinger - Fruitmarket, Edinburgh *** RSA Open 2011 - Royal Scottish Academy, Edinubrgh ***

George Bain: Master of Modern Celtic Art - Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh ***

BILL Bollinger is a forgotten pioneer of minimalism. His star rose in the late 1960s, but had set within a few years. He once figured alongside Richard Serra as a major figure in American art, but when he died in 1988, aged just 48, he was already long forgotten. For almost 40 years his work had hardly been seen in public until, earlier this year, the Kuntsmuseum in Lichtenstein put on a retrospective aimed at reviving his reputation. Part of that show has now come to the Fruitmarket.

Most of what is on view consists of industrial materials barely modified in character beyond the most minimal intervention of twisting, shaping or fixing. There are plastic tubes filled with water and coiled in a circle on the floor. Ropes are stretched with steel tension hooks from floor to ceiling, or, in one case, two such ropes, paired, draw parallel right angles across a corner of the gallery. Industrial sections of aluminium are displayed as long horizontal sculptures on the wall.

“The fact of the form” was a slogan Bollinger favoured to describe the intention of his work. He meant perhaps that an artist can reach past the accidental character imposed on a form by the artist’s own personality to something more essential in the form itself. When he takes a long rectangle of chain-link wire, lays it on the floor and twists it over itself, you maybe see what he meant. The result is rather beautiful, but it achieves its effect with apparently only the most minimal intervention from the artist. The wire becomes sculpture in the same way as the ropes become drawing, almost unaided.

Nevertheless that ‘almost’ is important. It would be easy to see these works as just another variation on the exhausted theme of the Duchamp readymade, the artist thumbing his nose at an out-of-date establishment. There was a lot of that going on in the 1960s after all.

A sheet of wire mesh hung like a painting on the wall, however, suggests a more conventional, but also more constructive aesthetic. It immediately brings to mind the grid of lines of flowing paint that Jackson Pollock had created in the previous decade. This gives minimalism a different spin from the usual one of a reaction to the apparently exhausted ideals of Modernism. It becomes instead not so much a rejection of older pictorial conventions as a reduction of them, a study in their fundamental anatomy.

Some of Bollinger’s drawings are just a horizon created by dividing a sheet in two, dark spray paint beneath and light paper above. As the wire mesh reminds us of Pollock, these drawings echo Barnett Newman. In a room set apart this idea is taken into three dimensions. On the floor loose graphite is piled against the wall. The ‘drawing’, such as it is, is not provided by the artist’s own touch, however, but by the smudged, graphite hand and footprints left by those who installed the work.

You are enjoined not to add your own amendments by walking around in the graphite dust yourself, however. Implicitly therefore, this work, although a recreation of Bollinger’s original, does have a final form. It is not simply an accident appropriated from reality’s passing flux. The artist surrenders to the form, but does not abandon responsibility for it.

Overall his work is too lean, however. There’s not enough flesh on these sculptural bones. Bollinger’s contemporaries Richard Serra and Carl Andre, both developed the minimalist idea by exploiting the inherent quality of their materials. Bollinger moved in that direction by making remarkable sculptures out of iron, cast in holes in the ground. It is a pity that the show does not include any of these to give his work quite literally more weight.

Nothing except a handful of drawings in Bollinger’s show would have qualified for the RSA Open. Because of the constraints imposed by the National Gallery - and replacing the annual open exhibition which was the RSA’s platform for more than a century and half - the Open is now in the second year of a new format.

It is still selected from open submissions, but they are strictly limited in size so that the show can be accommodated in the lower galleries. In consequence it is an exhibition composed entirely of small pictures and miniature sculpture. The works have been carefully hung so that the effect does not seem as crowded as it might.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with smaller works. They are much more saleable so there may even be advantages in it from the simply commercial point of view, but saleable, domestic scaled works are not an obvious vehicle for ambition. Rightly or wrongly in art there has always been a correlation between scale and significance. It is regrettable that the RSA can no longer offer the opportunity for an unknown artist to reach the public with some big ambitious work.

Still, there are good things here. Elspeth Lamb’s digital print In Pursuit Of the White Rabbit is very atmospheric. David Cass’s Seascape, made from a piece of recycled timber, is not so far from Bill Bollinger’s minimal drawings, but with a richer sense of the object. G.J.Cheape’s Jürg, a pale faced girl in a red cap against a wall of numbers, is striking but enigmatic.

Michael Craik’s Root Two Tootle No 15, saturated blue acrylic on aluminium, is a very satisfactory piece of minimalist colour although such eloquent simplicity struggles to make any impact among such a crowd. The same is true of Philip Reeves’s Primary Scale with Screen which, also demonstrates how intense a small work can be.

The same is true of Elizabeth Blackadder’s small but lovely still life with a melon and a Mexican tile. Catharine Davidson holds her own beside such veterans with a free and lively painting of Arthur’s Seat in Winter. Ronald Buchan’s Warriston Allotments is an equally homely subject, but nicely executed. Saul Robertson’s The Gale is a beautiful little picture of three windblown figures seen in a dream against the sea.

Like so many artists, George Bain, the subject of a small exhibition at the National Gallery, spent his working life teaching. As art master at Kirkcaldy High School, he was just the kind of artist for whom the annual RSA Open exhibition offered an opportunity, not otherwise available, to reach the wider public. Bain was born in Scrabster in the far north, but he was brought up in Edinburgh where he studied art. Although several works in the exhibition demonstrate that he was an excellent artist and printmaker in the more conventional modes of expression, he is best known for his lifelong preoccupation with Celtic design.

When he was a young man in Edinburgh, Patrick Geddes and John Duncan were still leading the Celtic revival. Indeed, Duncan taught the principles of Celtic design, and an illustration to Ossian by Bain, done soon after he left school, shows an early interest in the subject that was to be his life’s study.

He later developed a comprehensive analysis of the principles by which the complex patterns of the carpet pages of the Book of Kells and other masterpieces of Celtic design were laid out before any paint was laid on vellum, or any stone was cut.

In 1951, he published a book called Celtic Art: The Principles of Construction. If it has become the textbook for a flood of tacky Celtic-style design churned out for the tourist market, we shouldn’t blame Bain. His own work here shows how he mastered the principles of the Celtic system so thoroughly that he was able to produce work that is a worthy echo of its inspiration.

• Bill Bollinger runs until 7 January; RSA Open 2011 until 18 December, and George Bain until 13 February.