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Talk by Dr Alan Fowler: DOCOMOMO: London; May 2011
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
Painter, sculptor, architect, graphic designer, product designer, typographer, educator, writer and politician – Bill’s extensive range of activities makes it impossible to describe him with any single functional label – though he mainly used the term ‘architect’. Perhaps an appropriate description would be as a ‘master of the modern movement’ – in all its many manifestations.
This overview deals mainly with his work as a designer, painter and sculptor as another speaker will focus on his architecture. Reference is also made to UK graphic design and to two groups of constructivist British artists for whom Bill was a highly significant figure:
THE CONSTRUCTIONIST GROUP: 1950s & ’60s
Victor Pasmore, Anthony Hill, Adrian Heath, Mary & Kenneth Martin, Gillian Wise, John Ernest, Robert Adams
Anthony Hill: Catenary Rhythms, 1953, collage on paper, 30 x 55 cms
THE SYSTEMS GROUP: 1960s & ’70s
Jeffrey Steele, Malcolm Hughes, Jean Spencer, Peter Lowe, Colin Jones, Gillian Wise, David Saunders, Michael Kidner, John Ernest
Jeffrey Steele, Y Cynllwyn, 1964, oil on duck canvas, 61 x 61 cms
Two artists were involved in both groups – John Ernest and Gillian Wise: and although both groups had expired by 1980, their individual members continued (and for the survivors, continue) working in a broadly constructivist mode for the rest of their careers. Given the extent to which abstract constructive art was (and continues to be) ignored by the UK art establishment, these artists were greatly encouraged by the support they received in continental Europe, and particularly by the concepts they discovered they shared with two older and leading Swiss artists – Richard Paul Lohse and Max Bill, with whom a number of them met and discussed ideas.
To understand Max Bill’s development it is important to know something of his early
years. Born in Switzerland in 1908, his boyhood ambition was to be an architect;
but with no architectural training then available in Zurich he enrolled in a silver-
A work of his prior to the Bauhaus shows something of the talent for design which the Bauhaus experience developed. It is a poster for which, at the age of 17, he won first prize in a national competition for a poster to celebrate the centenary of the famous chocolate company, Suchard.
Max Bill, Suchard poster, 1925
Although somewhat expressionist, it is evidence of the significant ability in both
layout and typography which his later studies at the Bauhaus helped to re-
Graphic design was Bill’s primary occupation after he left the Bauhaus and then set up his own graphics business, producing advertisements, sales brochures, book covers, posters, magazine layouts and the like for dozens of commercial clients. Subsequently, many of the design principles he applied to his graphics became common to all his other work.
Three posters illustrate both the development of his constructivist style after the Bauhaus, and the evolution of his graphic design and typography over 30 years.
Max Bill, poster, 1931
This 1931 poster for an exhibition of Negro and prehistoric art is an early example
of the use of an underlying grid – an integral feature of most constructivist graphics
and painting -
The 1960 poster (for a Duchamp exhibition) incorporate’s Bill’s distinctive use of
In the late 50s and throughout the ’60s the Swiss style of graphics and typography, which owes so much to Bill, made a major and lasting influence on British graphics designers. Some examples include the typography of road signs and National Theatre titles, and the British Rail logo.
Essentially, Bill was concerned with the creation of ‘objects’ for human use which met the following four conditions, which he defined as:
“Utility: the object should fulfil all the functions for which it has been created
Usefulness: the choice of materials and the means of production should enhance the usefulness of the object
Suitability of form: The form of an object should accord perfectly with its intended purpose.
Aesthetic unity: The form should not simply be a response to its use but should be manifest as a harmonious whole, evoking a general impression of beauty.”
The addition of ‘beauty’ to ‘form following function’ is of particular significance
as it runs throughout Bill’s writings and works. Beauty is not a term often used
by constructivists as it may seem to introduce a subjective or expressive element
into what otherwise is an essentially rational and objective approach. Bill was
well aware of this, and consequently stressed that beauty was not a quality which
could be added to an object after its form had initially been determined by its function.
Nor was it anything to do with the imposition of any personal expression of the designer
It was a quality integral to the form. In a very down-
Max Bill, clock & timer, for Junghans, 1951
Max Bill, chairs, 1951
Bill’s use of the terms ‘beauty’ and ‘beautifuul’ accord most directly with their use by scientists and mathematicians. Professor Brian Cox has written about the ‘beautifully simple’ Michelson Morley experiment which proved that the speed of light was constant. Another scientist has described Einstein’s E=mc2 as ‘the beautiful equation’, while John Ernest (one of two artists in both the British constructivist groups) once said: “I am trying to achieve some of the beauty of a formal mathematical system in a visual experience.”
It is pertinent to ask how the utilitarian principles of his graphic and product design can be applied to his art works – painting and sculpture – particularly in relation to his emphasis on the making of objects which have a use. His own explanation was that in his art works he was making “objects for spiritual use” – using ‘spiritual’, not in a religious sense, but as things which are intriguing, interesting, satisfying to the mind as well as the eye.
His concept of the constructive art work was as an autonomous object – hence his use and development of the term ‘concrete art’, a term also favoured by the British Systems Group, though they avoided using the term as in the UK it carried inferences of sand and cement. The term originated with the Dutch artist and writer, Theo Van Doesburg in 1930. Doesburg had been a founder member, along with Mondrian, of the movement and journal De Stijl which had many of the same aims and concepts as the Bauhaus. Bill’s 1936 definition of concrete art stated:
“We use the term concrete to refer to those works that have developed through their own intrinsic means and laws – in other words, works that bear no relation to external phenomena and are not the result of any kind of ‘abstraction’.”
As Bill’s art is often described as abstract, this may seem confusing – but he was
using the term ‘abstraction’ in the way it was defined by the Paris-
This constructional approach can be seen in a relatively early 1942 work of Bill’s.
which is built-
Max Bill, Horizontal Vertical Rhythm, 1942, oil on canvas, 120 x 60
The concept of a rational aesthetic free from individual expressionism was a central feature of the ideas and work of the British Systems Group artists of the 1970s – one reason for the importance they ascribe to Bill.
As well as the view that his paintings and sculptures were ‘objects for use’ (like
his chairs or posters) Bill explained that the commonality of all his works arose
from their reliance on the same vocabulary of basic geometric forms and colours and
the exploration of relationships between them as governed by largely mathematical
principles. Writing about the mathematical component in 1949 he stressed that he
did not mean the production of mathematical illustrations or the production of mathematically
formulaic imagery. What he referred to was a more subtle “mathematical line of approach”
– pointing to a parallel in the music of Bach. He wrote: “Bach employed mathematical
formulas to fashion the raw material known to us as sound, into the exquisite harmonies
of his sublime fugues… The art in question can best be described as the building
up of significant patterns from the everchanging relations of, rhythms and proportions
of abstract forms.”: in other words, using calculation and measurement as a structuring
method or process. It is another of Bill’s concepts of great importance to the British
Constructionist and Systems artists. The mathematical and musical parallel can be
illustrated by a 1992 work of Jeffrey Steele’s. (Steele was a co-
Jeffery Steele, Syntagma 111 104, 1992, oil on linen, 61 x 61
The use of arithmetic or topological factors does not imply a highly complex use of maths – indeed most of Bill’s works and those of the relevant British artists involve only simple arithmetic factors. Take this example of Bill’s from 1980.
It is made up of a number of groups of 3, 4 or 5 small squares, with four squares
in the corners,four small and four larger white squares and five assemblages. Note.
too, that the diamond assemblage in the centre is slightly tilted to the left – an
asymmetric feature common to much constructive and systems-
Max Bill, Construction on 3: 4: 5, 1980, oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cms
Peter Lowe, a member of the Systems Group who is still working in his London studio, provides an example of a work which uses a relatively simple arithmetic formula. It is a relief made of black and white Perspex. The top row shows the six different ways in which black and white bars can be formed into an orthogonal cross. A numbering formula is then used to change the sequence step by step in the following five rows. By the sixth row, the sequence is reversed: forming black and white diagonals, with each row, vertically and horizontally mirrored by a reverse row.
Peter Lowe, System of Six Elements, 1969, Perspex, 49 x 49 cms
Two features of Bill’s paintings and those of many of the British artists are the
dominant use of the square, and the production of variations on a theme. In both
the examples just shown, the square is the basic building block -
This painting of Bill’s, below, titled Construction in 19 squares, also demonstrates that the use of the square does not necessarily imply an orthogonal outcome. The rotational effect in this work also points towards another simple shape which Bill used in a number of paintings and sculptures – the spiral.
Max Bill, Construction in 19 Squares, 1941, gouache on board, 102 x 72
Among the British constructivist artists who made extensive use of the square as
a simple constructional element which lends itself to a wide range of permutations,
were John Ernest, Gillian Wise and Mary Martin. Ernest (together with Wise) was
involved in both the British groups. One example of his work -
John Ernest, maquette for IUA Congress, London, 1961.
The concept of a theme and variations is common in music as it lends itself to the manipulation of chord and rhythm structures and note sequences . Bach’s Musical Offering is just one example. In the same way, artists like Bill and his British admirers – using a basic vocabulary of forms – could take one system or image and explore a range of constructional possibilities. Bill produced a set of 15 variations on a single theme as early as 1938 Some are shown below. An interesting feature of this approach is that any one system or theme may generate a huge number of possible variants.
Six of the variations are shown here, with the theme being the continuous spiralised
line, formed by moving out one side of the triangle in the centre. There are potentially
many more variants than the fifteen Bill chose to work up – presumably with the fifteen
selected being, to him, the most intellectually and aesthetically satisfying. Similarly
in Britain,, Kenneth Martin selected his Chance and Order paintings from literally
hundreds of exploratory drawings, all based on the same systematised process and
The theme and variations approach takes us directly to Bill’s sculpture, which can
be broadly classified as either curvilinear or rectilinear. Many of the curvilinear
works are derived either from the spiral or from that curious, apparently one-
A mathematician confided
That a Mobius Strip is one-
And you’ll get quite a laugh
If you cut one in half
For it stays in one piece when divided.
Two British constructionists also made works based on the strip – Marlow Moss (a founder member of Abstraction Creation with whom Bill exhibited in the 1930s) and John Ernest. Both were intrigued by the visual qualities of an object which has contradictory or apparently impossible physical characteristics.
Bill’s ‘Endless Loop’ of 1935 is a bronze of the Mobius Strip in its simplest form.
Max Bill, Endless Loop, 1935, bronze
Bill returned to this form many times during his career, using the twisted strip in a
variety of ways and in stone as well as bronze.
Max Bill, Mobius Strip sculptures in granite.
The Mobius strip and the spiral – a form used in his wire sculptures – can be seen as elementary forms whose very simplicity can be the source of a multiplicity of visual variants.
Bill’s rectilinear sculptures are architectonic in their use of a few very simple orthogonal forms, and often, too, in their scale. His 1982 Einstein memorial consists of two sections, the top half using the same components as the bottom closed half, but reversed to create an open structure.
Max Bill. Einstein memorial, Ulm, 1982
The large Pavilion Structure in Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich, finished in 1983, uses the same components but is even more architectural in its size and in the spaces it creates.
Max Bill. Pavilion Structure, Zurich, 1983
In Britain, one thinks of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion which Pasmore described as “architecture as sculpture” and which DOCOMOMO campaigned to save from demolition a few years back.
Victor Pasmore, Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee, 1970
Bill’s Endless Staircase combines an implied rotational spiral with the rectilinear units of the Zurich and other related public sculptures. It can be compared with a 1967 work by Kenneth Martin for an engineering laboratory in Cambridge, in which aluminium bars are rotated in accordance with a predetermined arithmetic sequence.
Max Bill, Endless Staircase 1989
Kenneth Martin, Construction in aluminium, Cambridge, 1967
Neither artist derived ideas directly from the other, but both independently followed similar constructional and design concepts.
I want to finish by looking at a work of Bill’s which was never constructed and for which we have only a site plan and rather poor photographs of a maquette. It is Bill’s entry in 1952 for the competition, organised by the ICA in London, for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner. It attracted 2000 entries, whittled down to a shortlist of 45, of which 12 were from outside the UK. The first prize went to Reg Butler. Bill’s work was awarded the 3rd prize.
Max Bill, Maquette and plan for the Unknown Political Prisoner competition, 1953
It consisted of three cubes set in a triangle. Each cube was stepped, vertically and horizontally, so that the visitor walking into the work would experience a shrinking space. In the centre space was a triangular steel column, polished to a mirror surface. As the visitor emerged from the cube, he or she would be confronted by – a mirror image of themselves. This brilliant conception , rich in the symbolism of the relationship of the individual to the social and political environment, shows Bill’s qualities not only as the rationality and elegant simplicity inherent in a master of the modern movement., but also as the imagination and humanity of a man whose lifetime aim was to improve the quality of the human experience. Isn’t it time for a resurgence of these qualities and values to replace the froth, pretentiousness and self–promotion which characterises too much of the contemporary cultural scene?