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Becoming Hans Hofmann

By Karen Wilkin

He became a famous teacher in Germany, but it was in the United States that the artist came into his own as painter.”

For countless immigrants, the United States has been a place to reinvent themselves and acquire fresh identities. Yet the celebrated abstract painter Hans Hofmann (1880 – 1966), far from inventing a new persona when he left Germany, can be said to have revealed – or perhaps rediscovered – his true self in the New World.”

Known best as an inspiring teacher before coming to America, he continued to teach in the U.S. and to codify the principles of his teaching in his writings, exerting considerable influence. The alumni of Hofmann’s Eighth Street school include such notable figures as Michael Goldberg, Alfred Jensen, Wolf Kahn, Lee Krasner, Robert de Niro Sr., Red Grooms, Paul Resika and many more. Hofmann’s lectures on art had a profound effect on some of the most significant members of the New York cultural scene; Arshile Gorky attended them and the critic Clement Greenberg always said that hearing Hofmann’s talks in 1938-39 was vital to the formation of his own uncompromising aesthetic. Yet engaged as Hofmann continued to be by teaching and writing after leaving Germany, and influential as his instruction and theories were, the most notable aspect of his American years was his refinding of his original identity, not as a teacher and theorist, but as a deeply engaged maker of art and a master manipulator of color.

As an aspiring young artist, Hofmann was able to paint full time, supported by a German patron, mostly in Paris, where he was exposed to French vanguard modernism during the heady early years of Fauvism and Cubism. World War I forced him to return to Munich, where, to support himself, he established the Hans Hofmann Schule für Bildende Kunst, in 1915. He would continue to teach until 1958. The school became known internationally, but it absorbed so much of Hofmann’s time and energy that in 1930, aged 50, when he accepted an American former student’s invitation to teach a summer course at the University of California, Berkeley, he had painted almost nothing for a decade and a half. Instead, he drew. Hofmann’s first U.S. exhibition, held at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, when he returned to teach at Berkeley, in 1931, was exclusively of drawings.

In 1932, when Hofmann came again to Berkeley, the deteriorating situation for progressive artists and intellectuals in Germany provoked his wife to urge him to stay in America. By the fall of 1933, he had settled in New York and reestablished his school, adding summer sessions in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1935. In Munich, Hofmann was primarily a teacher and a draftsman, but in the Eastern United States, he started painting regularly again. At first, he worked freely from perception, indoors and out, but he soon began to experiment and, eventually, developed the physically robust, brilliantly colored abstractions that established his reputation and cemented his association with Abstract Expressionists. Greenberg called him “a virtuoso of invention.” “I hate to repeat myself,” the painter said. Hofmann made works of astonishing variety, crossing the boundaries between allusion and invention, reference and abstraction, in paintings ranging from the broadly invoked interiors, still lifes, and landscapes of his first American years, to eerie surrealizing “creatures,” minimal geometric abstractions, and finally, the bold confrontations of pulsating rectangles of thick paint – the acclaimed “Slabs” – and the orchestrations of free-floating, varied painterly gestures that characterized his last years.

Hofmann’s aesthetic was largely determined by his extended stays in Paris, between roughly 1904 and 1914. He had first hand experience of the formative years of Fauvism and Cubism and met some of the pioneers of these radical movements. It is difficult, however, to form an accurate opinion of just what he most responded to during this period since very little of his European, pre-American work has survived; everything he made in Paris was abandoned there, at the start of World War I, and apparently destroyed. The extant work suggests that Hofmann was cautious about assimilating the most radical ideas current in Paris during his sojourn, although he was friendly with Robert Delaunay and seems to have shared his interest in constructing recognizable images with Cubist-derived large color planes. Yet it is also clear from Hofmann’s writings that, apart from a persistent undercurrent of a mystical, rather Germanic sense of the spiritual in nature, his approach to teaching was profoundly informed by his pragmatic understanding of vanguard modernism. Becoming a teacher, although it compromised his studio time, forced Hofmann to articulate and build upon his understanding of the advanced art that first inspired him, in order to formulate clear theories of what a painting could be and communicate them to his students. His celebrated “push and pull” dictum – his insistence that every part of a painting participate in a dynamic relationship with every other part – could be described not only as a manifestation of his long-standing fascination with oppositions, but also as an intensified version of the way the transparent planes of Analytic Cubism pulse in relation to the surface of the canvas. The structure of Hofmann’s well-known Slab paintings of the 1960s, with their hovering rectangles, is similarly informed by the generous planes of Synthetic Cubism, while his life-long exploration of color as both a vehicle for emotion and means of creating space can be related to his admiration for the work of Henri Matisse.

Yet if the origins of Hofmann’s grasp of space-making and his sense of the emotional potency of color can be connected with his experience of the French avant garde, his unmistakable palette and equally unmistakable ways of handling paint forcibly remind us that he was a Northern European, specifically a German. Hofmann’s color – always intense, saturated, often acidic – along with his assertive paint application and urgent energy that characterizes even his most delicate works, seem to connect him to the painters associated with the German Expressionist group Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter. Hofmann’s most important connection to these artists, apart from mere affinity, was with the work and theoretical writings of Wassily Kandinsky. Hofmann’s own writings bear witness to his sympathy with the Russian-born painter’s ideas about using abstract means to make spiritual qualities visible, absent the specific values Kandinsky attached to colors, shapes, and the direction of lines. Many of Hofmann’s most uninhibited, “loose” abstractions, with their soft-edged patches of intense color and whiplash drawing, appear informed by Kandinsky’s dynamic paintings from 1910-14 – not surprisingly, since Hofmann owned several intimate Kandinsky works on paper of this type, which his wife brought to America when she joined her husband in 1939.

Once he was established in New York, Hofmann, even as a mature, formed painter, remained open to fresh ideas and built upon this firm foundation. The uncanny “creatures” who haunt his abstractions of the mid-1940s bear witness to a burgeoning interest in Surrealist principles of revealing the invisible, tapping into dreams and the collective unconscious as sources of imagery, rather than reporting on what could be seen. These new concerns may have been triggered by Hofmann’s coming into contact with Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock, in New York, but Jungian notions about the collective unconscious were pervasive among most of the city’s adventurous artists, at the time. Hofmann’s occasional references to mythology in his titles suggest that he, like so many of his colleagues, was also interested in the idea that all human beings shared an inner life of the unconscious mind, embodied by myth, that cut across cultures and through time. In addition, the suggestive, sinuous shapes in Hofmann’s paintings of this type have echoes of Joan Miró’s animated, evocative, but essentially abstract images, frequently exhibited works that pointed the way for many of the New York artists that Hofmann was associated with to explore Surrealist ideas without resorting to the high illusionism and literal approach of Ernst or Salvador Dali.

This rich combination of sources and stimuli, perhaps combined with a growing sense of security and purpose, as Hofmann became a presence in New York’s vanguard art world and World War II ended, provoked an extraordinary range of works from him. We can interpret this outpouring of invention as evidence that in America, the immigrant from Germany became wholly “Hofmann,” yet the diversity of his approaches can make it difficult to decide just who “Hofmann” was. The emphatic, confrontational Slab paintings suggest that he was primarily an exponent of unbridled color-based abstraction. But he could be described, with equal justification, as an expressionist, a neo-Cubist, a landscape painter, a master of still-life, and someone engaged by Surrealist ideas. This wide-rangingness could pose problems. Hofmann the teacher had the authority of relatively fresh information about European modernism, while his European origins and his direct experience of French vanguard art during his early years in Paris added to the intellectual weight and stellar reputation of his school. Hofmann the painter exhibited regularly at prestigious galleries and was the subject of museum shows, enthusiastically supported by such important (and different) critics as Greenberg and his rival Harold Rosenberg. Greenberg was an early admirer, acknowledging Hofmann’s preeminence as a teacher and theorist in a review of a 1945 exhibition, but also noting that the painter had “become a force to be reckoned with in the practice as well as in the interpretation of modern art.” Rosenberg, who often disagreed with Greenberg, here shared his opinion, praising Hofmann’s “inventiveness, vivacity, assurance and powers developed through more than half a century,” in a review of the artist’s Whitney retrospective in 1957. (A taste for Hofmann often cut across aesthetic differences; the critic Thomas B. Hess, who frequently took public exception to Greenberg’s views, was also a fan.)

But despite this acclaim, Hofmann the painter was less warmly received by his fellow artists than Hofmann the teacher. Hofmann’s belief in the importance of modernism allied him with the New York artists opposed to conventional approaches, a particularly with the Abstract Expressionists, despite his being a generation older – he was a contemporary of Pablo Picasso. But more than one of his colleagues recalled that his work was “respected but not admired.” The chief difficulty was the absence of a signature image in Hofmann’s notably diverse work at a time when concentration on a single, characteristic motif was deemed to be an essential manifestation of an artist’s individuality and “authenticity.” Witness Mark Rothko’s floating rectangles, Adolph Gottlieb’s Bursts, Barnett Newman’s Zips. Hofmann’s insistence on exploring all the implications that arose in the course of working on his paintings, no matter what direction they took, led his colleagues to interpret the resulting range of his approaches as proof that he was illustrating theoretical possibilities, as a pedagogue, not expressing his personality, as an engaged artist. Only when Hofmann began to concentrate on the readily identifiable Slabs, with their thick rectangles, hovering above stains and pools of color, or stacked into frontal, unstable walls, was he fully accepted by his peers. His closing of his school, in 1958, aged 78, to devote himself fully to painting, seemed to support the evidence of the Slabs and emphasize the seriousness of his commitment.

Of course, Hofmann’s very refusal to restrict himself to a single path, his unstoppable curiosity about alternatives, and his remarkable inventiveness, like his vigorous touch and fierce, mouth-puckering “Northern” color, can be seen as declarations of a distinct personality as unmistakable as any signature image – in the manner of Walt Whitman’s celebrated lines “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Today, the variousness of Hofmann’s work is a plus rather than a problem. Present day artists often refuse to confine themselves to one approach and present day knowledgeable art lovers, rather than seeking readily identifiable signature images, value evidence of a multiplicity of pictorial ideas. Perhaps as a result, Hofmann’s reputation is has been rising steadily.

It seems time for a major retrospective that will allow us to take the full measure of this compelling, elusive artist. In the meantime, on view through June 16 at the Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserslautern, Germany, “Hans Hofmann: Magnum Opus” is an ambitious survey of the painter’s American years, designed to reintroduce him to his German compatriots. (Full disclosure: William C. Agee and I were co-curators of the show.) And from June 5 through August 25, the University of California, Berkeley, Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will exhibit “Hans Hofmann: Rectangles,” a study of the artist’s fascination with this essential geometric form, drawn from the museum’s splendid collection of Hofmann’s paintings. Respect has become much-deserved, whole-hearted admiration.

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