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Max Bill, 85; Controversial Swiss : Artist, Sculptor and Writer

December 14, 1994|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

ZURICH, Switzerland — Max Bill, the controversial Swiss artist, sculptor and former politician, has died of a heart attack. He was 85.

Bill, who was also an architect and writer, suffered a heart attack Friday at Berlin's airport as he was waiting for a flight to Zurich. He died en route to the hospital.

From 1927 to 1929, Bill was at Germany's famous Bauhaus school of architecture and applied arts, where he was influenced by the work of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.

Described by the New York-based Art News magazine in 1989 as the "leading light" of the Concrete and Constructivist art movements, Bill applied what he called a "mathematical" approach to art.

His paintings and granite sculptures showed bold geometric designs in what he said was an attempt to "represent abstract thoughts in a sensuous and tangible form."

Bill, the son of a railroad official, lived and worked mainly in Zurich, where he designed his house. His home was a treasure trove of paintings by other prominent artists, most of them his friends, such as Klee, Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti and Fritz Glarner.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibited a retrospective of Bill's paintings and sculptures in 1974. Times art critic Henry J. Seldis said at the time that "Bill--a professorial-looking bespectacled man of ideas--certainly knows how not to waste his efforts as he pursues his multitudinous activities as artist, architect, parliamentarian and environmentalist with methodological calm and deep conviction."

Bill considered his myriad activities all related to changing the world's living conditions.

"Art is a kind of mode for life without compromise," he told The Times in 1974. "Art is not something created in an ivory tower but rather a model for a more spiritual world."

In the early 1950s Bill planned the construction of the Ulm Design College in southern Germany, which sought to continue the Bauhaus concept. He was its first rector, but stepped down in 1956 because of disputes within the school.

No stranger to controversy, Bill caused an uproar in Zurich in 1988 when he refused to attend a party the city threw to celebrate his 80th birthday. He said he was irritated by the fuss and felt special exhibitions organized by local museums to show his work were unrepresentative.

Bill wrote books about Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and artistic theory.

His paintings are displayed in many museums around the world. His other architectural work included an office building in Germany, a radio studio in Zurich and a bridge in eastern Switzerland. His biggest sculptures are on display in Switzerland, Germany and Israel.

Bill was also involved in politics. He was elected to the Zurich municipal council in 1961 and was a Federal Parliament deputy from 1967 to 1971 as a member of the Independent Landesring Party.

He is survived by his second wife, Angela, and a child, Jakob, an archeologist of international repute who also paints.

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