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White Gray Black

Max Bill (Swiss, 1908–1994)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Swiss architect, sculptor, painter, industrial designer, graphic designer and writer. He attended silversmithing classes at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich from 1924 to 1927. Then, inspired by the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (1925), Paris, by the works of Le Corbusier and by a competition entry (1927) for the Palace of the League of Nations, Geneva, by Hannes Meyer and Hans Wittwer (1894–1952), he decided to become an architect and enrolled in the Bauhaus, Dessau, in 1927. He studied there for two years as a pupil of Josef Albers, László Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky, mainly in the field of ‘free art’. In 1929 he returned to Zurich. After working on graphic designs for the few modern buildings being constructed, he built his first work, his own house and studio (1932–3) in Zurich-Höngg; although this adheres to the principles of the new architecture, it retains echoes of the traditional, for example in the gently sloping saddle roof.

In his studio Bill first made pictures and sculptures intended as ‘laboratory pieces’, preparing the way for the design of utilitarian objects, sometimes even of buildings. In 1932 he became a member of the Abstraction–Création artists’ association in Paris, where he first exhibited his work. As a theorist and a painter he was an important exponent of art based on rational principles with reference to mathematics; building on the ideas of Theo van Doesburg, who died in 1931, Bill narrowed down the concept of Concrete Art in 1936, becoming a protagonist of the Zürcher Konkreten art group. But whereas van Doesburg spoke only of the elements of Concrete art, Bill explicitly included the relationships between them. In 1936 he designed the Swiss pavilion at the Triennale in Milan, where the principles of Concrete art were extended for the first time to architectonic design. During this period he also took part in several architectural competitions held by the city of Zurich, and he became a member of CIAM in 1938.

After World War II Bill worked increasingly in the field of applied art. This is also reflected in his writings, especially the essay ‘Schönheit aus Funktion und als Funktion’ (1949), which introduced ideas that were further detailed in his exhibition Die gute Form (1949) at the Swiss Industries Fair, Basle, as well as in the book Form (1952): the aesthetic component of an object was defined not only as arising from a function but as being the actual function of form. The concept of ‘good form’ was substantially adopted by the Deutscher Werkbund and similar movements in different countries. Through his personal contacts with the circle around Otl Aicher (1922–91) and Inge Scholl, Bill collaborated in founding the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm. He designed its buildings on a hillside in Ulm in 1950 and set up the curriculum for a school of creative design that was intended to link up with the work of the Bauhaus and pursue similar objectives. The buildings for the Hochschule (1950–55) were his most important architectural works, and his design is based on complex relationships between a number of unobtrusive, geometrically elegant structures. Seen from outside, the buildings are embedded in the sloping site; in the interior, however, individual units or ‘containers’ are grouped around two central areas. This is similar to Bill’s competition entry for the monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner (1953; unexecuted), London. Bill was principal of the Hochschule until 1955 and head of the departments of architecture and industrial design. Internal tensions forced him to resign and to leave the college in 1957.

There followed a period when Bill was able to realize most of his architectural projects, working in collaboration with others; examples include the Cinevox cinema and residential complex (1957–8) at Neuhausen, near Schaffhausen; two detached houses near Cologne, the Lichtdruck factory at Dielsdorf, near Zurich, and the Imbau administration building in Leverkusen (all in 1960–61). He designed several major exhibition displays and in 1960 he was awarded the important commission to design the pavilion for the Bilden und Gestalten sector of the Swiss National Exhibition held in Lausanne in 1964. This building, now mostly dismantled, consisted of a group of modules spread over a large area; two elements, the box with the theatre and the square with the ‘Hof der Künste’, stood out of this carpet of modules, forming a contrast of ‘solid’ and ‘void’ in a neutral grid. Bill was also commissioned to extend the radio studio in Zurich (1964–74); he worked on the design for the bridge over the Lavina-Tobel (1966–7; with Aschwanden & Speck) near Tamins, and in 1967–8 he built a second house and studio for himself at Zumikon.

In 1968 Bill was awarded the city of Zurich art prize and elected a member of the Swiss Federal Parliament. He held the chair of environmental design at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg from 1967 to 1974 as well as several other public appointments. He was a prolific writer on art, architecture and design, producing several books and exhibition catalogues, as well as numerous contributions to art and architecture journals around the world. He continued to produce architectural designs, such as those for a museum of contemporary art (1981; unexecuted) in Florence and for the Bauhaus archive (1987; unexecuted) in Berlin. In 1982 he also entered a competition for an addition to the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, built to a design by Mies van der Rohe. In the 1980s Bill was able to realize two of his most important, constantly recurring ideas in the field of sculpture on a large scale. The Pavillon-Skulptur (1979–83) in Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich, goes back to a prototype made in 1968 and consists of 64 parallelepipedals out of polished granite, which are arranged together to create a three-dimensional meander. For Kontinuität (1983–6), on the square in front of the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt am Main, he reverts to the theme of the Möbius-strip in the Unendliche Schleife (‘unending loop’; 1935), giving it a new interpretation: there are two strips of granite that as a result of several turns become entwined with one another. Bill’s work was exhibited regularly at museums and galleries all over Europe and in the USA; however, his influence as an architect, as opposed to an artist, was limited, perhaps due to the subtlety of the design principles behind his simple architectural forms.

Hans Frei
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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