Max Bill

Accents from six zones


Not on display

Max Bill 1908–1994
Original title
Akzente aus sechs Zonen
Oil paint on canvas
Frame: 915 × 1267 × 73 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Ampersand Foundation, the Nicholas Themans Trust and Tate Members 2020


Max Bill’s Accents from Six Zones 1955 is a landscape-format oil painting that has a plain ground on which are located the six coloured ‘accents’ of the title. Each is bilateral and broadly rectangular, made up of paired colours brushed out from their borderline and linked in sequence. The four vertical and two horizontal borderlines between these ‘accents’ reveal the underlying geometrical structure of the composition. This is confirmed by the dimensions of the canvas (which the artist took care to inscribe on the reverse of the stretcher as ‘105 x 70’ centimetres) and equates to an alignment of six 35 x 35-centimetre squares, arranged in two horizontal rows of three.

Geometrical analysis of the painting shows that Bill must have sub-divided the six major squares further by eighths to yield the smaller grid which determines the size of the colour blocks. This, in turn, reveals Bill’s system which is based on a simple, if concealed, additive sequence governing the geometry. It may be unravelled as follows. Starting with the major square at the top right, the orange block is located in the seventh grid square in from the right side along the horizontal half-way line. Moving clockwise and rotating the major square in the bottom right corner, locates the next colour in the sixth grid square (now counting up the vertical dividing line). In the major square in the bottom centre, the blue block slides into the fifth grid square. A further clockwise rotation to the bottom left major square places the red colour block in the fourth grid square in from the left edge. For the major square at the top left, the colour block (again following rotation), falls in the third grid square from the top. The sequence is resolved in the central major square at the top, where the colour block is located in the second grid square from the top. The pairing of the colour blocks, and the numerical differentiation between eight subdivisions and six division results in the satisfying location of both of the colour blocks in the top right major square within the second grid square (one on the vertical and the other on the horizontal dividing line).

None of this hidden geometry is immediately revealed. However, it is strongly implied by the rotational pattern laid out through the orientation of the paired colours around the vertical and horizontal axes. From the top right, the colours are as follows: purple/orange, orange/magenta, magenta/blue, blue/red, red/green and green/purple. These colours do not, however, follow an orthodox artistic colour wheel nor do they fall into a pattern of paired complementaries. It would appear, therefore, that Bill broke with strict serialism in this process. This is typical of his practice and shows his willingness, following the example of Paul Klee (1879–1940), to infuse rigour with randomness in achieving a harmonious composition.

Made in 1955, Accents from Six Zones comes from an important period in Max Bill’s activity. In 1953, with Inge Aicher-Scholl and Otl Aicher, he co-founded the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm (the School of Art and Design in Ulm), serving as the school’s architect and Director. The institution was explicitly Bauhaus-inspired and drew from his own experience as a student at the Bauhaus in Dessau between 1927 and 1929, where he studied under Klee, Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946). Like the Hochschule, Accents from Six Zones falls into a significant period heralded by Bill’s major exhibition at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in Brazil in 1951, which coincided with his being awarded the Prize for Sculpture at the São Paulo Biennal. He was a member of the jury of the Second São Paulo Biennal in 1953 and gave lectures during that visit. As a result of this exposure, Bill was acknowledged as a point of inspiration and challenge for a subsequent generation of Brazilian artists that included Hélio Oiticica (1937–1980) and Lygia Clark (1920–1988).

Bill conceived his paintings and sculptures as ‘concrete’, meaning that they were conceived aside from any reference to the natural world. He maintained this designation from the pioneering practices of the Bauhaus, through the international alignment of Abstraction-Création (to whose annual publication he contributed regularly from 1933 to 1936) and in the foundation of the Allianz group in Zurich in 1937. In an important suite of lithographs of that moment, Fifteen Variations on a Single Theme 1936–8, Bill explored a set of structural systems that could generate compositions of extremely varied appearance. This ability to work creatively within a set of limits reflected Bill’s admiration and interpretation of Paul Klee’s practices and such strategies provided the foundations for Accents from Six Zones and other works of variation. Addressing this in his ‘Fifteen Statements on Art’ in 1969, Bill asserted: ‘Art is an expression of freedom. If it ever loses this function, it will lose its point.’ (Bill 1969, p.21.)

The painting remained in the artist’s collection until his death and was retained by his estate until 2017. It has been widely exhibited as a result.

Further reading
Max Bill, ‘Fifteen Statements on Art’, Chroniques de l’Art Vivant, no.5, 1969, pp.20–1.
Valentina Auber, Max Bill ou la recherche d’un art logique, Lausanne 1979.
Marta Herford, Max Bill: Ohne Anfang ohne Ende; No Beginning No End, Zurich 2008.

Matthew Gale
March 2019, updated September 2019

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Display caption

Max Bill believed that art could be used for political and social good. Working as an artist, architect and designer, he was very active in the 1950s. Bill’s art was mainly abstract, although he based it on logic rather than feeling or expression. ‘A work of art’, he wrote, ‘must be entirely conceived and shaped by the mind before its execution.’ Bill was awarded the prize for sculpture at the first Sao Paulo Biennal in 1951. He also gave a series of influential lectures when he visited Brazil as a member of the jury of the second Biennal. He made Accents from Six Zones in 1955. While Bill used geometrical structures within his work, he balanced them with instinct, later declaring ‘Art is an expression of freedom’.

Gallery label, December 2020

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