January 15, 2014

Hans Hofmann: More than "Push/Pull"

Joy II, 1947; oil on panel, 30 x 35 in.

I was perplexed when I walked into Ameringer ❘ McEnery ❘ Yohe gallery recently; the artist's name was not readily evident and when I looked closely at the signature it seemed to be Hofmann. The only paintings of Hans Hofmann that I knew were the painterly geometries of the 60s; the free flowing lines and curvilinear form of these paintings had a very different sensibility, using biomorphic form and transparent color. While the later paintings (see the last image) are pinned in a backward and forward movement, these paintings danced exuberantly. I realized that I had to see more of Hofmann's work and reassess my middling opinion of it.

Telescope, 1946; oil on panel, 30 x 24 in.

Hofmann (1880-1966) was a German artist, educated in Europe; he studied art in Paris. He is often described as an "American" abstract expressionist although he did not move to the US until 1932, when he was over 50. He then became a famous teacher, with many of his students going on to illustrious careers. You can see an excerpt from a PBS documentary about his teaching here. I liked the man I heard about in this bit of documentary: open, engaged, supportive, excited by painting and what it could achieve. The works from the 1940s in this show at Ameringer ❘ McEnery ❘ Yohe (until Jan 25) have a freshness that is very appealing and were a happy surprise for me. They are not all completely abstract; in Telescope we can see an object busy on a table that looks like it's about to run off the canvas with its abundance of energy.

Yellow, 1945; oil on panel, 22 x 25 in.

Yellow has brilliant color floating on a richly dark ground. Lines freely enclose forms or move your eye from here to there.

The Mannequin, 1946; oil on paperboard, 40 1/2 x 31 in.

A more figural work, The Mannequin happily struts its brilliant color and wacky pink shape.

Untitled, 1946; oil and gouache on paper, 19 x 25 in.

a work on paper

These works on paper––I suppose they should be called drawings––have a darker mood for me than the previous works. Perhaps it's the red: it's the color of life, of blood, but it's also a dark color, of blood. The forms are organic, squeezed uncomfortably into a tight space, writhing, pressing outward. I should mention that at this time biomorphic form was widely used in the Abstract Expressionist community; Pollock, Motherwell, Gorky, Rothko all explored these forms.

Landscape, 1935; casein on panel, 24.7 x 29.6 in.
image courtesy Artnet

As I thought about the paintings in the show, I was curious as to what other aspects of Hofmann's work I was unaware of. In the video link above, Mercedes Matter spoke of Hofmann as being depressed because he hadn't been painting. She encouraged him to start painting again, and the landscape above is one that he produced around that time. It is juicy and improvisational, a direct response to air and light and color.

Magenta and Blue, 1950; oil on canvas, 48 x 58 in.

Magenta and Blue shows another way of approaching a painting, very Matisse-like with broad areas of color and simplified details. I could not find any other paintings like this by Hofmann so I don't know if he did a series like this or if it was a lone experiment.

The Golden Wall, 1961; oil on canvas, 60 x 72 1/4 in.

Lastly, here is a painting whose style I had thought made up the totality of his work. In the 60s he worked with pure abstraction with no visual references. He wrote "the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak". A famous idea of his is that color and form in their "push and pull" create depth and movement in a painting; representational perspective is not needed. PBS created the "Push and Pull Puzzle"so you can see how colors pop or recede. Of course this is basic color theory, but Hofmann built his late work around it. I'd always found these paintings a bit clunky and graceless, but now feel I have to look again.

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