Uncovering the Legacy of Max Bill and the Zurich Concrete Art Movement

Uncovering the Legacy of Max Bill and the Zurich Concrete Art Movement

The Zürcher Konkrete: A Selling Exhibition celebrates the unique position Zurich holds as the centre of Concrete Art by exhibiting the artists in the city they lived and worked in. The exhibition includes amongst others a selection of works by Max Bill, Camille Graeser, Verena Loewensberg, Fritz Glarner, Gottfried Honegger, Karl Gerstner and Hedi Mertens.

S witzerland, and in particular Zurich, was one of the main centres for Constructive and Concrete Art throughout the twentieth century. The lives and careers of many of its leading representatives are closely linked to Zurich, as well as the city’s Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Art and Crafts), and it was in Switzerland that some of the most influential early exhibitions of Concrete Art took place. However, Swiss Concrete Art did not develop in isolation. On the contrary, it is rooted in the various abstract movements which emerged in Europe during the early twentieth century.

L-R: Max Bill, zwei weisse drittel, 1959-1967; Max Bill, Komposition, 22.10.67, 1967.

Throughout World War I, Zurich was an international centre for artists and intellectuals with an active network of galleries and exhibition spaces. Artists such as Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hans Arp were at the forefront of the beginnings of Constructive Art in Switzerland. Throughout the 1920s there were fruitful exchanges with the Russian Constructivists, in particular with regard to architecture. Following the closure of the Bauhaus by the National Socialists, many artists emigrated to Switzerland and laid foundations for the blossoming of design and art that brought the country international attention in the post-war years.

The championing of geometrical abstraction was first formulated by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg in the 1910s, and subsequently further developed by the Swiss artist and designer Max Bill. Bill was highly influential, practicing not only as an architect, painter, sculptor and graphic designer, but also as an academic, politician and writer. He initially trained as a silversmith before studying at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s.

Max Bill, Transcoloration aus grün, 1972-73.

In Dessau, Bill met some of the most respected artists of the day, studying under Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer. The ethos of the Bauhaus, simplicity of design with form and function hierarchically equal, profoundly influenced Bill. Throughout his interpretations of Constructivism, he integrated the study of both mathematics and geometry into his artistic practice. The exhibition Zeitprobleme in der Schweizer Malerei und Plastik that took place in Zurich in 1936, was a defining moment.

In the accompanying exhibition catalogue, Bill proposes the following definition: "Concrete design is that design which arises from its own means and laws, without having to derive or borrow these from external natural phenomena. Optical design is thus based on colour, form, space, light, movement."

Following this exhibition, a loose association of artists formed. They were convinced that a work of art is not derived from nature, but rather has its own reality of forms and colours. Max Bill and fellow Swiss artist Richard Paul Lohse also used their work as a critique of current social conditions, referencing back to strict mathematical systems that would define the arrangement of colour.

L-R: Richard Paul Lohse, Grün-Blaue Drehung, 1956; Camille Graeser, Rot plus Grün, 1965; Verena Loewensberg, Ohne Titel, 1974; Fritz Glarner, Painting No. 96, 1966.

Fritz Glarner, Verena Loewensberg and Camille Graeser were further key exponents of the Zürcher Konkrete. Graeser, who emigrated from Germany and Loewensberg created works defined by a more personal lyrical and musical dimension, distancing themselves somewhat from mathematical rigour. Glarner's works on the other hand were influenced by Piet Mondrian’s theory of dynamic symmetry. Like Mondrian, Glarner used a limited palette of the primary colours red, yellow and blue. Different from Mondrian, Glarner expanded the black line into a broad range of greys, which he also used to fill geometric forms.

The 1960s and 1970s saw a re-evaluation of the contribution of women artists to various modernist movements. The exhibition L’altra metà dell’abanguardia, which took place at the Palazzo Reale in Milan in 1980, was particularly significant. It included works by the most important women artists active between 1910 and 1940, highlighting the importance of women for the development of non-objective and abstract art.

Hedi Mertens, Ohne Titel, circa 1965.

The exhibition showed the central role played by women in the artistic tendencies that historically were associated with masculinity and male artists, and their perceived rational and mathematical approach to artistic creation. Verena Loewensberg, for example, clearly refuted this assumption, immediately apparent in her geometric-constructive compositions. Similarly, Hedi Mertens is another key example of a female painter who actively participated in the development of Concrete Art in post-war Zurich.

Contemporary Art

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