The Importance of Being Hans: Hans Hofmann Modernizes the Moderns

Painter, teacher and mentor Hans Hofmann’s considerable reputation as an innovator of ideas and methods, as well as one of the great influences on American art in the 20th Century, continues to this day. Despite Hofmann’s professional celebrity, his name does not readily come to mind in the public domain. A selection of Hoffman’s work is on exhibit at the Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery (AMY) in New York, culled from those maintained by the Hofmann Estate, that provides a glimpse into the genius of a man whose coming out party is long overdue.

Hofmann was born in a small town in Bavaria in 1880, and moved with his family at age six to Munich. Despite a brief engagement with science and engineering, the greater seduction for Hofmann was the artistic realm, and so, in 1898, he enrolled in Moritz Heymann’s art school in Munich where he studied under Willi Schwarz. During these years in Germany, painters were experimenting with new visual formats. Emil Nolde, a later member of Die Brüke (The Bridge)—a group of artists engaged in developing expressionist motifs—produced dramatic images of flowers consisting of broadly brushed colors suggesting the flowers in the flush of blooming, rather than as mere objets d’art. In Munich, Hofmann was also introduced to the Impressionists, for, at the time of Hofmann’s birth, they had wrenched canvas painting from the strict domain of representational art. In so doing, they formulated novel techniques that enabled them to produce paintings that declared their own impressionistic views, rather than mirroring images of the outer world.

In the years 1904 to 1914 Hofmann lived intermittently in Paris. Awash in expats of every stripe— from writers Edith Wharton, Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein, to composers Mahler and Stravinsky—Paris was the go to place, bubbling with artistic fervor. In this cauldron of the arts in transformation, Hofmann, alongside fellow artists Matisse, Picasso and Braque, was steeped in such avant garde milieus as Fauvism and early Cubism; the idea of robust coloration coupled with the problem of depicting planes of depth on a canvas, infused Hofmann’s experiences in the vibrant Parisian art world. The Fauves emphasized color rather than representation, in combinations that rivaled the natural world. And, indeed, the Cubists in their turn had, finally, broken the mold of representing the solid, static world.

So armed with a new, variegated vision of painting, in 1915 Hofmann returned to Munich and opened his own art school. He continued to paint and create compositions of complex color interactions, but 35 years would pass before Hofmann met his stride with a burst of energetic, originally conceived abstract paintings. It was a personal evolution that transformed art in America through an astonishing entourage of students and colleagues with names like Frankenthaler, De Niro, Nevelson, Stella, Krasner and Grooms.

In America

Hoffman and his wife, Miz, spent the years after 1915 traveling between Europe and California, while he continued to paint and teach. In 1935 they moved permanently to the East Coast and opened an art school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In 1936 Hofmann relocated the school to Greenwich Village in New York City.

In succeeding years Hofmann began to synthesize his earlier experiences and formulated both a theoretical ground and a methodology that propelled his art forward. Following the Fauves and incorporating the techniques of Cubism, Hofmann devised a manner of painting in which color was the primary subject, and in which color also created perceptions of depth and tension within the painting. He based his methodology on a couplet of effects. One is the perception that dark colors appear to recede when positioned against lighter colors. He approached the second problem—how to suggest spatial depth on a canvas, sans a vanishing point—through the use of superposition, or placing fields of color over one another which then appear to lie along separate planes of depth. Tension arises through the interplay of color placement and techniques of paint application, including impasto, dripping and splattering. It is in these ideas that Hofmann’s influence reverberated throughout the newly emerging art scene in America. Noted art scholar Clement Greenberg wrote of Hofmann’s work:

The open calligraphy and “free” shapes that rule in Abstract Expressionist” were foretold in many . . . pictures Hofmann did before 1948, and especially in numerous guaches and water colors in which paint is wielded with a disregard of “construction.”

Hoffman gave up teaching in 1958, devoting all of his time to painting. The current exhibition of Hofmann’s paintings at AMY includes work from the years 1944-1962, thus covering the time when Hofmann was still teaching, and years in which he only painted. They are works from one of the most productive periods in the artist’s life, a time when his work took on the depth of character and a muscularity of one who was, in middle life, invigorated with inventiveness.

The accompanying catalog is, in a word, lovely; the color images provide a near-to-life sense of the paintings. Exploded views of sections of the paintings reveal brush strokes, and give some idea of the manner and thickness of the application of the paint, sometimes lightly enough to expose portions of the canvas. An introductory essay by multi-genre artist, William C. Agee, is a warm, informative work on Hofmann’s life and influences, and includes some scholarly discussions of the exhibited works in the context of the larger art world. It may be that no book can reproduce the experience of seeing paintings firsthand, but as I thumb the pages of this encapsulation of Hofmann’s oeuvre, a wisp of cerulean blue seems to be crossing my own visual field.

All images courtesy of the Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery.

Further reading:

Greenberg, Clement. 1964. Hoffman. Paris: Editions Georges Fall, 1964.

Perl, Jed, 2007. new art city: manhattan at Mid-Century. Vintage. pp. 4-30.

Hans Hoffman: Art Like Life is Real
Through April 21, 2012
Ameringer McEnery Yohe Gallery
525 West 23rd Street
New York, New York
Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Photo at top: Hofmann in his studio in Provincetown:
© The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust, Courtesy Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe, New York 2012 –
Hoffman is pictured with students in Provincetown. Robert De Niro, Sr. is seen over Hofmann’s right shoulder.

Abstraction in White, 1954
Oil on linen
40 x 50 inches
101.6 x 127 cm

Composition No. 1, 1953
Oil on linen on board
84 x 48 inches
213.4 x 121.9 cm

Aquatic Garden, 1960
Oil on panel
96 x 48 inches
243.8 x 121.9 cm

The Mannequin, 1946
Oil on Academy board
40-1/2 x 31 inches
102.9 x 78.7 cm

Shapes in Black, 1944
Oil on panel
30 1/2 x 41 inches
77.5 x 104.1 cm