Art professor instrumental in the establishment of modernist art history in Germany after World War II. Imdahl studied both (studio) painting and art history, archaeology and Germanistik beginning in 1945 at the University of Münster. His painting skills were good enough to win him the Blevin-Davis Prize in 1950. A year later he wrote his dissertation on the treatment of color in late Carolingian book illustration ("Farbenprobleme spätkarolingischer Buchmalerei") under Werner Hager. He tutored for a year under Hager at the Aaseehaus-Kolleg, rising to assistant professor at the University of Münster. His 1961 habilitationsschrift was Ottonische Kunst (Ottonian Art). Imdahl was a guest professor at the University of Hamburg before joining the newly-founded Ruhr University at Bochum, Germany (Ruhr-Universität Bochum) as its first professor of art history (Ordinarius für Kunstgeschichte) in 1965. Imdahl was a member of the Akademie der Künste (German Academy of Arts) from 1986 until his death. Although a scholar trained in the traditional periods of medieval, renaissance and baroque, Imdahl set about creating a department whose courses would examine the most modern art. This was a radical shift since traditional art history study in German universities generally ended at 1945. He participated in the Documenta exhibition planning for 1966-68. In 1969 his monograph on Robert Delaunay was published in English. Imdahl began advising the modern art collection of Ruhr University in the 1970s. He was engaged in promoting modern art outside the university as much as within. In the 80s he launched seminars on modern art for the employees of the Bayer Pharmaceuticals plant in Leverkusen, Germany. They became a model of art pedagogy. In 1980 his book on the Arena chapel frescoes of Giotto appeared, employing both the subject-oriented approach to iconography and iconology of Erwin Panofsky and the form-based concept of Heinrich Wölfflin and Fiedler. In 1985, Imdahl participated in the celebrated Fachschaft Kunstgeschichte (Division of Art History) lectures at the University in Munich. He taught at the Kunstgeschichtliches Institut at Bochum until his death. His position fostered many personal friendships with modern artists, including Norbert Kricke and Günter Fruhtrunk in Germany and Richard Serra in the United States. The Archiv für Kunstvermittlung - Max Imdahl was created by the art historic institute (Kunstgeschichtlichen Institut) of the Ruhr-Universität. Imdahl formulated a methodology he called "the Iconic." He used the structure of the work to determine its significance, an approach akin to the work of Konrad Fiedler and Adolf von Hildebrand. He diverged from the iconographic approach of Panofsky, asserting that Panofsky's was too complex (entailed too many views), suggesting that his "iconic" treatment provided a more focused approach. In his analysis of Giotto's frescoes at the Padova Chapel (1980), Imdahl concentrated himself on the questions of choreography, forms and motives of the work. He saw the written understanding of a work as performance ("Aufführung") of the work. His color analysis is characteristic of his approach. Whenever possible Imdahl focused on an analysis of an individual painter. Imdahl affirmed that looking (Augenarbeit) was the primary way to interpret art. He disagreed with Hans Sedlmayr that background information on the artwork enhanced appreciation. "Schools" designations or causality based on the artist's early influences rarely appear in his analysis. Instead, individual objects were treated as masterworks, disparaged by some critics as a "canonized approach" to his works. In the age of machine reproduction of works of art, Imdahl emphasized engagement with the real object.
[complete bibliography:] Boehm, Gottfried, and Stierle, Karlheinz, and Winter, Gundolf, eds. Modernität und Tradition: Festschrift für Max Imdahl zum 60. Geburtstag. Munich: W. Fink, 1985, pp. 309-314; Janhsen-Vukicevic, Angeli, and Winter, Gundolf, and Boehm, Gottfried, eds. Max Imdahl: gesammelte Schriften. 3 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996; "Die Zeitstruktur in Poussins 'Mannalese'." in, Fruh, Clemens, and Rosenberg, Raphael, and Rosinski, Hans-Peter, eds. Kunstgeschichte, aber wie?: zehn Themen und Beispiele. Berlin: Reimer, 1989; Farbe: kunsttheoretische Reflexionen in Frankreich. Munich: W. Fink, 1987; Giotto: Arenafresken: Ikonographie, Ikonologie, Ikonik. Munich: W. Fink, 1980; and Vriesen, Gustav. Robert Delaunay: Licht und Farbe. Cologne: DuMont Schauberg, 1967, English, Robert Delaunay: Light and Color. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1969; and Hager, Werner, and Fiensch, Günther. Studien zur Kunstform. Munster: Böhlau, 1955.
Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999, pp. 185-7; Max Imdahl, 1925-1988: akademische Trauerfeier 10 Februar 1989. Bochum: Ruhr-Universität, 1989; Hesse, Michael. "Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität Bochum." Kunstchronik 45, no. 11, (November 1992): 589-591; Kunisch, Norbert, ed. Erläuterungen zur modernen Kunst: 60 Texte von Max Imdahl, seinen Freunden und Schülern/Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Bochum: Kunstsammlungen der Ruhr-Universität, 1990; Jauß, Hans Robert. "In Memoriam Max Imdahl." Max Imdahl: gesammelte Schriften. vol. 3. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1996, pp. 644-52; [obituary:] Hoppe-Sailer, Richard. Das Kunstwerk 41 (January 1989): 194-5.