Abstract Critical

Michael Bolus (1934-2013)

Written by Lee Tribe, Bill Tucker, Sam Cornish

Bolus in South Africa, 1963

Michael Bolus in South Africa, 1963

The sculptor Michael Bolus died earlier this year. Bolus was born in Cape Town in 1934 and studied at St Martin’s School of Art between 1958 and 1962. After returning to South Africa in 1963 he taught at St Martin’s. He was included in the important exhibition New Generation: Sculpture in 1965, and held a number of solo exhibitions with Waddingtons during the sixties and seventies. There are thirteen sculptures by Bolus in the Tate’s collection, most given as part of the McApline Gift of 1970. To mark Bolus’s death 8th Sculpture, 1963 will be on display at Tate Britain until the 15th of December. A website showcasing Bolus’s work has very recently been set up by Saul Greenberg, and will be updated with images of his work. As well as to Lee Tribe and Bill Tucker, my thanks go to Saul for the images reproduced here, and to Jeff Lowe for his interest in Bolus’s sculpture.

Sam Cornish

Michael Bolus, stone construction, 1959

Stone construction, 1959

When Michael spoke to me about my sculpture his words were delivered slowly, thoughtfully and with a gentle but powerful insight. That was in the early nineteen seventies, when I was a student at Saint Martin’s. Michael was one of the teachers who would make visits to our studios from time to time. He would also participate in the “Thursday Crits” along with several of his peers, where he would make many a valuable contribution and when pressed would show his metal.

My memory of Michael is of a fine sculptor whose work was unique and poetic. He was man who did things slowly – when he rolled a cigarette Michael took his time, considering every move, looking and adjusting, every fag was was a little masterpiece. I only worked with Michael for a few years yet some of the words he spoke about my young sculptures are with me still, like little delicacies whose flavor will linger on.

Lee Tribe, NYC, November 2013.

Sculpture from the 'Green' series, early 1960s

Sculpture from the ‘Green’ series, early 1960s

Mike Bolus was a really private artist and always uneasy about publicity, so it was sad but somehow typical that his death some months ago should have gone virtually unnoticed by the art world. As a member of the original group of ex-St Martin’s students forever defined by a group exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and all the hype and promotion of the 60s, Mike shared in the discomfort of all of us at the attention, but I think because of his quiet, thoughtful and withdrawn temperament it really hit him hardest.

Sculpture Eleven, 1963

Sculpture Eleven, 1963

Mike’s sculpture, like that of David Annesley, Phillip King, Tim Scott, Isaac Witkin and myself, when it was first shown in individual and group exhibitions, and notably the 1965 New Generation show, was so radically different from what had been seen before in Britain that what the work had in common – industrial materials, painted surfaces, standing directly on the floor – tended to obscure the real differences in artistic identity. While Caro’s work in steel was new, he was ten years older and had an established reputation, and Phillip King seemed confident in a completely original and personal vision, the rest of us were still developing, trying to find an identity in this new language in the glare of critical attention and apparent “success”. 

Sculpture Two, 1969

Sculpture Two, 1969

Unlike David Annesley and myself who early gravitated to steel, Mike put in a lot of time at St Martin’s carving stone in the basement studio. There was a lot of energy and invention among the stone carvers, like Maurice Agis, Buki Schwartz and Menashe Kadishman, before steel construction pretty much took over in the basement. But Mike produced one stunning piece in stone that was in a quiet way absolutely original and distinctive. I remember looking at it with Ron Kitaj; he made the comparison with Gabriel Kohn (another fine and neglected sculptor), which seemed to me really perceptive, they have a common sensibility.

Sculpture Three, 1970

Sculpture Three, 1970

Mike went back home for a while after leaving St Martin’s. One day, out of the blue, a fat letter arrived addressed to me from South Africa. Mike had been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting. He described things he had been looking at, such as the smoke curling up from a factory chimney and wondered how he could make a sculpture from the perception. He included sketches of perhaps a dozen ideas for sculpture, most of which I recognized as they emerged full scale in steel or aluminium in the next few years. Mike pondered ideas for sculpture for a long time, and although he was making sculpture in metal – hard, planar, industrial material – the things he did with it, the way he thought about it came through his hands and his eyes. He thought about the way things meet and touch – like the smoke from the chimney, the join between the two stone elements. I think he must always have been playing with material, folding, bending, rolling, cutting paper, card, cigarette packages. Even to think about touching metal sculpture was taboo in the 60s, but somehow, and I think it is unique to Mike’s work, there is an intimacy to his work that implies touching, the feeling generated by the investment of care and invention in such apparently simple acts.

Sculpture Two, 1984

Sculpture Two, 1984

He made a unique contribution to sculpture, and we will miss him.

Bill Tucker



  1. Tim Scott said…

    It was very sad to learn of Mike Bolus’s death. I ‘grew up’sculpturally alongside him as it were, (especially since we shared a gallery). He was ‘one of us’ at St. Martin’s and, of course, as such, one of the ‘New Generation’ group of sculptors, David Annesley, Phillip King, Bill Tucker, Isaac Witkin and myself.

    Mike was a man of few words; but when one did have a discourse with him it was always apparent that he had thought long and deeply about his view, and it was always stimulating to one’s own. He was a very private man, one for whom thought preceding work was paramount. One never had the feeling of haste or ad hoc decision making in the range of sculptures that he produced over the years.
    In my opinion his achievements in sculpture have been sorely neglected and underrated and I sincerely hope that the effort to show his work comprehensively will be made.
    For me, as Bill Tucker’s little anecdote concerning the smoking chimney demonstrates, Mike was above all a sculptural poet; his work always contained an essence which put you in mind of something beautiful in the world without being overtly explicit as to what it might be; one simply contemplates emotions made real in plastic form.

    Mike Bolus did indeed ‘make a unique contribution to sculpture’ and those of us still struggling to move our art forward will lose much by not having his example around any more.

    Tim Scott January 1914

  2. Saul Greenberg said…

    ‘If a thing is worth doing, its worth doing well’
    Michael Bolus’ Epitaph.
    When i was young i found his precision infuriating, all those
    hours spent making sure the countersinks were perfectly
    aligned or the welds straight.
    Together we decorated a shop in Covent Garden and Michael
    spent weeks forming Brass sills that were perfectly scribed
    to 300 yr old wooden architraves.
    Our shop will survive 5 yrs i thought, why spend so long on sills?
    I agreed, foolishly, to paint a decorative
    scheme in true Fresco. Michael researched the techniques and
    made sure we did it….Buon Fresco! His research was
    meticulous. Weeks were spent testing different grades of
    marble agregate to achieve the perfect Sinopia and an ever so slightly different grade to achieve the slower drying Giornata, not forgetting hours of dialogue with Canterbury Cathedral about the correct aging of lime putty!
    Thank God someone invented oil paint!
    The Fresco is still there and the Brass sills, 28 yrs later,
    survive too.
    These were good lessons.
    Michael’s Sculptures are spread around the world, robustly
    built and well able to survive flood (yes, the Tate Britain) and neglect. They are ready to be rediscovered!
    I will fill in his website over the next few weeks.
    Thanks to Sam for organising this tribute and Lee and Bill for their heartfelt comments.