The sober work of polymath architect Max Bill – a child of the Bauhaus and peer of Mondrian – should help fill a gap in British art appreciation, writes Andrew Mead
Max Bill: Five Decades, Annely Juda Fine Art, London W1, until 30 July
When the Swiss architect Max Bill (1908-94) visited São Paulo in the early 1950s, he was horrified by Oscar Niemeyer’s Palace of Industry: ‘modern architecture sunk to the depths, a riot of anti-social waste, lacking any sense of responsibility toward either the occupant or his customers’.
Bill saw Niemeyer as a self-indulgent formalist who forgot that architecture was ‘the social art above all others’. His own position is clear in the sobriety and subtlety of his most famous building, the Hochschule für Gestaltung (School for Design) at Ulm in Germany, completed in 1955. Bill envisaged this as a successor to the Bauhaus, where he had studied from 1927 to 1929, and he was a true child of the Bauhaus, not just in his social commitment but also in his dexterity in different disciplines. As well as being an architect, he was an artist, sculptor, product designer, graphic designer and typographer. There is now a rare opportunity to see his work in depth, for this show at Annely Juda contains some 60 of his paintings, sculptures and drawings, which fill both floors of the gallery.
Bill was a leading exponent of Concrete Art – a term coined by the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg in his manifesto in the one and only issue of Art Concret magazine, 1930. It was an art that didn’t try to represent the external world but was entirely self-sufficient. ‘Nothing is more concrete, more real than a line, a colour, a plane,’ said van Doesburg. In the spirit of this manifesto, Bill argued that individual expression must be governed by ‘a principle of order’ and that art should be based on ‘mathematical thinking’. If this all sounds rather dry and didactic, the work at Annely Juda may come as a surprise, given its variety and visual impact.
Geometry is the key, whether in relatively simple compositions or in much more complex ones. Primary and secondary colours dominate one group of works, but Bill’s palette is by no means restricted to them and he knew how potent pure white space can be. Paint is applied evenly, edges are sharp, and the only evidence of Bill’s personal ‘touch’ comes in his preliminary drawings, which are often on graph paper. Like Piet Mondrian, he sometimes made paintings in a lozenge format, turning a square canvas 45 degrees so it hangs diagonally with a point at top and bottom. Such works have a precarious poise. When logic and self-effacement are so systematically pursued, the obvious question is whether the painting is more than just a demonstration of the system that generates it. Of course some pieces here are more arresting or absorbing than others, but the gallery doesn’t seem like a maths class.
In the bibliography on Bill, the majority of books or catalogues aren’t in English, though one elegant exception is Eduard Hüttinger’s Max Bill(Rizzoli, 1978), which was partly designed by Bill with a scrupulously lower-case typeface throughout. This reflects the fact that Concrete Art found its practitioners and audience on the continent (and in South America) much more than here, though British artists such as Victor Pasmore and Anthony Hill shared affinities with it. This seems like a blind spot on our part, for elsewhere in Europe there are institutions wholly devoted to Concrete Art. In a converted granary in Würzburg, Germany, the Ruppert Collection has some 250 works by numerous artists. At Mouans-Sartoux in the south of France, there is L’Espace de l’Art Concret, housed in a building by Gigon/Guyer Architekten, while in Zurich there is the superb Haus Konstruktiv with its programme of substantial exhibitions. The popular success of Tate Modern shouldn’t delude us into thinking that we’re now a visually sophisticated nation. In fact Tate doesn’t own a single work by Bill.
So it’s good that the show at Annely Juda includes an instructive 90-minute film on Bill’s life and work by filmmaker Erich Schmid. Along with reminiscences from his widow and former colleagues and students, it features the Hochschule für Gestaltung, with Walter Gropius giving the opening address, and the house Bill designed for himself at Zumikon, Zurich, in the late 1960s. There is also some atmospheric footage of Bill’s large sculpture, Pavillon, on Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, shot in the snow and rain. With its interlinked post-and-lintel portals in grey granite, this is one of those rare pieces of public art that actually enhances
the space it occupies.
In an interview he gave in 1972, Bill said that ‘art has a unique opportunity to form a counterpoint to the technology-ridden, polluted and commercialised consumer civilisation’. Is this wishful thinking, or can art really claim such high moral ground? Whatever the answer, at a time when the pursuit of ‘icons’ in architecture is mercifully on the wane, Bill’s whole output is ripe for reappraisal. Encapsulated now at Annely Juda, it’s worth a very close look.
Andrew Mead is a writer and former reviews editor of the AJ