Hans Hofmann (1976)
Catalog text for Hirshhorn Museum exhibition, travelling to Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, October 1976.
This is the first large survey of the oil paintings of Hans Hofmann since his death in February, 1966. It is a retrospective, a "looking back," but it is not wholly representative because it does not show all of his many manners of working. As I chose for the exhibit, my only criteria was quality, as it came to my eye, picture by picture, and the selected pictures began clustering temporally, leaving certain styles and periods thinly represented, or not at all. So this show and catalogue do not fully serve the didactic needs of art history. But they will confirm (a confirmation still much needed at the time of this writing) that Hans Hofmann was one of the great geniuses of painting in our time.
Hofmann's life as a painter and his reputation are exceptional in the original sense of the word: special, unusual, not of the ordinary or expected course of things. Born in 1880, at about the same time as Picasso, he began his career in art with that generation of painters around the turn of the century. He was in Paris in the feverish years between 1903 and 1914, saw the work of Cézanne and the Fauves, of Picasso and Braque and the Cubists, of Matisse, Delaunay, Kandinsky, and was personally close to several of them. But some quality of temperament kept Hofmann from taking on - in his work - the inspired painting bursting out all around him. He was showing (in Berlin in 1909 and 1910; the paintings are lost) and my guess is that he was a good painter, aware of and sympathetic to the surging creation of the time but not engaging it.
In 1915 Hofmann founded an art school in Munich. It was successful and continued for fifteen years. During this time we see him as a painter of modest accomplishment; there remain a few respectable, small Cubist oils. In 1930 he was asked by a former student to teach at the summer session of the University of California at Berkeley. He did, then returned to Munich and then back to California in 1931, where he had a one-man show of drawings at the California Legion of Honor in San Francisco. In 1932 he closed his school in Munich and settled in this country, teaching in Massachusetts and New York, and in 1934 established the Hans Hofmann School of Art in New York City, which persisted with great success and renown until 1958. In 1935, at the age of 55, an age when most artists have exhausted their inspiration, Hans Hofmann began his career as a painter.
This is an exaggeration, of course, but dynamically it is quite true. Hofmann had painted, off and on, all his life, and the hundreds of drawings he did during the '20s and early '30s testify to his continuing energy and seriousness. Also, I have seen a few rather good paintings done in the early '30s - still lifes reminiscent of Cézanne and Arthur B. Carles - and I understand there are more of them. But Hofmann got in gear in the mid-'30s; it was then that he made his move and put his art on the line, just as might one of his 20-year-old students. But, unlike that student, Hofmann began with a gift which cannot be conferred, taught or inherited: experience, the accumulated wisdom of decades of making and teaching art. If he was a fledgling, he was not callow. He began as a master. And this mastery, which I can feel but not trace in words, is there in the perceivable weight and authority of everything he painted, good and bad - undeniably in the good pictures, and in the "bad" pictures in as much as they fail and even in failure lay bare the commanding hand of the master.
Also, incidentally, Hofmann gives us an extreme example of a general and puzzling condition: contemporary artists mature late, in their late '30s and '40s. There are few prodigies, prodigies that turn out as well finally as they do initially. There is something about this art which demands time, a long apprenticeship. The very few exceptions only prove the rule. I can testify to it as a painter. My maturing, in making and seeing art, is coincidental with my maturing as a person, engaging in the life around me. I look back on myself ten or fifteen years ago with a fond condescension, as if I were another person, a younger brother who had a lot of growing up to do. I suppose ten years from now I'll do the same. At least I hope so. We dread age, in our culture. But consider being 25, full of the anxious rawness of the young artist. And consider Hofmann, in his eighties, at the height of his powers, knocking out one masterpiece after another! There is something peculiar and exaggerated in the very modernness of Hofmann's late-blooming, in our time of mature conception, of working out past mere talent.
Hofmann came in with the Abstract Expressionists but did not follow their timing. Most of them went through a rapid, high-pressure evolution in the early and middle 1940s, matured in the late 1940s and early 1950s and declined thereafter. That they declined artistically is not orthodox opinion; most of my colleagues might agree that it happened to Pollock, but not to, say, de Kooning, Rothko, Newman and Still. But that is the way I see it, and that is the way I think history will see it. Hofmann's habit, albeit a subconscious one, was to maneuver himself away, to keep apart. In the '30s the predominant style shared by American abstract painters was a loose Cubism derived from the Picasso of the '20s and '30s. But Hofmann's best pictures of the time are small painterly semi-abstract landscapes which hearken back to early Kandinsky, Soutine and the Fauves. He also painted a number of expressionist interiors influenced by Matisse. In the early and mid '40s he clustered extreme lights and darks before Still, poured and spattered before Pollock and painted classic Abstract Expressionist pictures in primary colors before de Kooning. Then in the late '40s, just when the others were hitting their stride, Hofmann turned away from the teeming invention of his earlier work and relapsed into a "draw and fill" style, which reduced the billowing, glutted surfaces to scrawled line enclosing flat, highly colored areas.
Then, in the early '50s, just when many of his colleagues were beginning to go into decline, Hofmann began to take hold and move up. Line again became painterly1 and the filled shapes, so inert in the late '40s, got rid of outline, loaded up with paint and took on new life. Painterliness, always Hofmann's strong suit, would henceforth come up in many forms but would never again leave. Through the '50s Hofmann's art solidified; the pictures get bigger and more consistently better, and in the late '50s more stylistically uniform. In 1958 the rectangles, which had been hovering about since 1955 and 1956, settle in and take hold. For the next seven years, until his death in 1966, Hans Hofmann was one of the greatest producing artists in the world. When Abstract Expressionism collapsed under the weight of ten thousand de Koonings, when Pop Art reared its silly head, when the best of our younger artists abandoned painterliness in desperate reaction against the turbid excess of latter-day Abstract Expressionism, when we sent out a large group show of American Painting (without Hofmann) which bowled over the Europeans and demonstrated our absolute superiority in painting, Hofmann went on living quietly, showing regularly, painting unstylish masterpieces. The public acceptance of Hans Hofmann as a great painter has been slow in coming. As Clement Greenberg has pointed out, it is as much his fault as the public's - and I use the word "fault" gingerly, because though it may have been tough for his ego it may also have been all the better for him and for his art. Two factors conspired to cause this: first, his use of many apparently disparate styles and manners, as if renouncing artistic evolution in favor of simultaneous stylistic "periods," and, second, the "non-art" look of his work. These were ironically abetted by his great (and deserved) esteem as a teacher, which allowed the art public, forever finding starch for flaccid thinking, to give him his due as a teacher to ease dismissing him as an artist.
Some idea of the simultaneous variety of Hofmann's constructive means can be gotten by comparing dates with pictures in this show and catalogue. This variety was distracting and confusing, certainly more then than now, with the perspective of time, and added to, or seemed to confirm, the relatively low estimate of his work held by the art public. If Hofmann worried about the public effect of this variety it is not evident from the work. He seems to have been at once innocent and wise, naive and masterful - a child's spirit with a master's hand. He had a traditional, even old fashioned, respect for the norms of picture-making of his chronological generation, a learned facility so ingrained it was unconscious, always there as an inner guide, so secure it allowed him all the "errors" of taste and "inconsistencies" of style which trouble us so. While the younger artists around him plunged and strained at the barriers of a final style, Hofmann squandered his invention, striking sparks at random, but always with a master's firm plenitude.
Although there may be no sense of measured evolution in the work, it becomes clear, on looking over his career, that Hofmann was evolving, an evolution more interior than that of any artist of our time. The fits and starts and restless roving kept him growing and learning, always moving up, like an athlete training for the decathlon. He tended to paint in stylistic batches, groups of six or ten pictures, as if he were building a charge to be released into the one or two masterpieces of the group. And then in the last years of his life he could not only paint masterpieces but an astonishing high proportion of masterpieces. This is when he really hit his stride, and it may be fair to say that it was all the shots in the dark which got him there.
Stylistic disparity hindered Hofmann's public acceptance and may not have helped his art, but I think it kept him clean, kept his work from ever becoming pat, and may even have been the vehicle for an instinctive, unconscious self-protection. Hofmann had no final style to deteriorate into mannerism, no public apotheosis to corrupt his spirit. These twin evils befall many of our best artists, but they just were not available to Hofmann. We must wonder, ironic and irrational as it may seem, whether that which seems adverse and negative in his work and in the relationship between that work and the art public actually became a shield of integrity.
We can point to the inconsistencies, picture to picture, in Hofmann's work; it is more difficult to bring into words another barrier he set against public acceptance - one which has much more to do with the quality of his work. Like Pollock and Still, Hofmann was willing to accept the gratuitous and "ugly" as it came down on the canvas to keep his inspiration intact. He overloaded and overworked his paintings at times, obscuring and muddling his original impulses, but he never succumbed to the fatal disease of the failed artist: modifying the picture to bring it "within" art, into the appearance of art as we think it should be, as it has been accepted. But unlike Pollock and Still, Hofmann made it all the harder for himself by letting himself paint "pretty" as well as "ugly," often on the same picture. It was a deadly combination, and it made him a victim of the "advanced" taste of his time. Many of Hofmann's pictures look like certain kinds of bad art, the soft, painterly bad art of the later School of Paris, puffy, crusty colorful pictures, lazily dependent on Cubism, held in such high regard by the failed taste of the late '40s, and now utterly, and deservedly, despised. To assemble this show I visited hundreds of museums, galleries and collections, and I looked at everything, not just Hofmann. This exercise honed my eye to a fine sharpness. Countless times, in these places, surrounded by all kinds of art, or looking at magazines and art books, this art quickly caught my eye, and I noted the likeness to much of Hofmann's work before reflection could come in. And no sooner did I look again than I saw the failure and badness of these pictures, and wondered all the more at the goodness of so much of Hofmann's work which employed similar ingredients and methods. It brought to an exquisite point of consciousness the miracle of good art, and persuaded me once again how ineffable it is, and how little description has to do with quality. And, just as I have had this experience, I have also seen how Hofmann's art can expose us when we blind ourselves with received opinion. "I just don't like those Mexican colors," a collector told me. Or, from a curator: "He was an inspired teacher, but his paintings belong with the minor art of his generation of European painters." Again: "History will show Hofmann to be a minor artist, a footnote. His paintings were pretty enough, but he never engaged the great issues of the time." Well, he certainly "engaged the issue" of making great art, as if there is any other issue for art.
Taste has not been applied rigorously to Hofmann's painting and the body of work has not sorted publicly into good and not so good. This is particularly true of the landscapes he did from about 1935 to about 1943, which were not shown in any regular way until recently and have quite naturally been overshadowed by the later masterpieces. This show will not do a lot to correct this; given a limited space, the great number of wonderful late pictures and the fact that most of them have not been seen for at least ten years, I have concentrated on them at the expense of the landscapes and the other paintings of the '40s and '50s. But one could make a dazzling show of the landscapes alone; their quality, variety, and numbers would certainly justify one.
The study of Hofmann's painting could not be complete without consideration of these small landscapes. Not only are they very good but also what was to come is fully contained within them: a force which I call, with some hesitation, "spiritual violence." The best are abstract, compressed and robust, with nervous, electric strokes and often severe clustering of darks and lights. They are Fauvist in feeling, with overtones of Soutine and early Kandinsky, but absorb and ingest these influences by their furious, unruly energy, the same energy we find throughout Hofmann's work, in the best and the worst. They are more modest and less risky than the later work; the mediocre landscapes are sparkling and pleasant, whereas later, when he was pushing harder and taking more chances, success and failure are at once more spectacular. Just how much of the later work is there in the landscapes can be seen by comparison: Landscape, 1942 (fig. 3), tipped up on its right edge almost looks like a model for the great Summer Nights Bliss of 1961 (fig. 56). And compare the pale, agitated landscape, 1940 (fig. 2), with the painterly masterpiece Lava, 1960 (fig. 49), or Landscape, 1942 (pg. 46), with Fiat Lux, 1963 (fig. 62).
The landscapes are small, usually 24 x 30 or 30 x 35 inches. Hofmann always held back from very large scale. Even after the late '40s, when large size had become an explicit ingredient of advanced painting, he handled size with care, and never let a painting get out of hand and fail specifically from an overblown format, as did so many of his colleagues. Hofmann's manner of paint application and his slapdash invention seem anything but cautious. But there is always a conservative vein, an inherent, felt restraint conditioned by years of teaching and painting. Modest size was one of the symptoms of this caution.
But Hofmann could ruin a picture by putting in too much, by worrying it to death. It is not overloading as such which will defeat a picture - many of his best paintings are jammed to the edges with thick, bright pigment - it is the overloading of detail, particularly drawn detail. Painterly treatment of the surface more naturally (though not necessarily) confers unity because dark and light areas, or color areas, tend to cohere in terms of value or color. Drawing, on the other hand, line, is slim and light, covers very little area and is inherently divisive. Line does not work well with Hofmann's loaded surface, though line and loading can work together; Pollock showed us that. And when thin, drawn line is kept away from its usual function of outlining and enclosing, Hofmann used it well. Yellow Sun, 1943 (fig. 5) is a case in point; the fulgent yellow streams through the linear mesh, breaking it down with the pressure of light. It's like looking at the sun through a forest canopy. And Hofmann always used colored line well, in pictures like Immolation, 1946 (fig. 13), Bouquet, 1951 (fig. 17), and the strange savagely painted masterpiece Undulating Expanse, 1955 (fig. 27). But this is not line in the usual sense of drawn outline, it is line which stands on its own, and does not bring in the same problems.
Drawing and complexity of detail also brings down many of the larger studio interiors Hofmann did in the '30s. Although in fact painterly they become in effect linear; he had not yet brought himself to a fully painterly treatment of any but very small size. The narrow stroke used - the width of the ordinary artist's brush - could not stuff the larger surface, and began to repeat as it sketched out the depicted objects, going off into fussiness and excess. There are brilliant pictures among these interiors, but they do not keep as consistently a high level as the landscapes, and never are as good as the best of them. And the character of this failure, flailing the painting with bits and pieces of unneeded detail, will plague Hofmann's art just as the bold painterliness of the best landscapes will sustain it.
With varying effect on his art, line and drawing continue to play a part in Hofmann's painting until the middle '50s, and, in a reduced and sporadic way, through the rest of his career. It is as if he had a rooted nostalgia for drawing and could not let go of it, as if he dreamed of putting everything together, neglecting none of the traditional elements of painting, as if the goodness of a painting consisted of how much it assumed to itself. It is the same additive compulsion which made him distrust his first impulses and go at the picture until he squeezed the life out of it. Drawing was a part of him not easily exorcised. He had drawn incessantly in the years before he began to bear down on his painting, and did so for years thereafter. And there was the example of Cubism, which always informs Hofmann's paintings and which counts so much on line, and that of Miro, hints of whose drawing can be found gracing (unnecessarily) many of the masterpieces of the '40s, and of the great master of drawn line: Matisse. In pictures like Cataclysm, 1945 (fig. 9), line exists, it seems, only for Hofmann's satisfaction, to "secure" a picture which must have seemed to him to have gotten out of hand. The line is applied after the painting was essentially finished, and only diminishes its effect (very little, fortunately). On the other hand, Hofmann can use Miroesque drawing to bring a picture into being, as he did when making the brilliant but atypical (even for him) Palimpsest, 1946 (pg. 55), and Elegy, 1950 (pg. 58), which seem to have been studio backdrops, gathering random bits of paint as Hofmann worked, until he made paintings of them. And he did a number of startling paintings in the linear drip-and-spatter technique later used so well by Pollock - interesting pictures, but, as so often happened, the method was not brought to artistic fruition, and they are not among his best works
Around 1943 the landscape and still life convention is displaced by more explicit abstraction. These pictures carry the lessons of the landscapes and keep line painterly, but they are more difficult and less even than the earlier pictures, usually larger, and the best of them are among the masterpieces of a decade which saw American painting take its place as the best in the world. Many of them have a lumpy awkward composition, like a molten portrait (Effervescence, 1944 [pg. 49), and Fairy Tale, 1944 (fig. 6) and employ the compressed swinging swirl (Bacchanale, 1946 [fig. 12), and Immolation, 1946 [fig. 13]) which Pollock was also using at the time. They have a blunt and artless look which still obscures their brilliance to the modern eye. We want art to look like we think it should; the fact that these paintings do not, after all these years, only testifies to Hofmann's outright freedom from "taste," his willingness to try anything, and, more important, to accept it. It can be argued that this apparent lack of discrimination led him, later in the '40s, to paint a lot of failed pictures, but it never let him make paintings which were merely tasty. It was worth the price. And I always hold back some judgment on the pictures which seem not to work. They tend to sneak up on me. And, again and again, I have seen a "mediocre" Hofmann dominate a group show.
There are paintings of the middle '40s which are more acceptable to us, probably because they share the look of the abstract painting which came in such profusion in the '50s. I think in particular of the beautiful Summer Glory of 1944 (fig. 8). It is painted in the same liquid manner as others of the period, but is more "classically" composed and "easily" colored - what later became classic and easy, I should say, in the hands of de Kooning and his imitators. Note the barely sketched animal forms the "owl" on the upper right, the "duck" on the bottom. Like his gratuitous line, these forms occupy many of Hofmann's pictures of the time (Amphibious Life, 1943 [pg. 47], The Circus, 1945 [fig. 10]), derive from Miro and Masson, and seem to have been more important for Hofmann than for his art.
Unfortunately, the linear impulse proved too strong for Hofmann to resist in the later '40s. As his colleagues turned out the masterpieces which were to bring American art to world prominence, Hofmann knotted up his painterly genius in miles of Cubist line, opening areas on the canvas filled with more-or-less flatly brushed, often very bright colored paint. Line was always there, even in the early '40s, in the small watercolors and drawings. It began to come up to the full-sized paintings around 1944 and stayed on to dominate his art from 1947 through 1951. It was a long crisis, analogous to but more exaggerated than the painterly-linear bifurcation of the earlier landscape-still life period, and yet another sample of Hofmann's peculiar habit of turning away when he found himself in the center of a "hot"period of art-making. In fairness, it can be said that these pictures are distinct, they are Hofmann's own and look like nothing else. But this is a dubious virtue. Also, and again, I have seen certain of these pictures (for example, The Window, 1950 [pg. 59], in the Metropolitan Museum) when they are taut and spare, put "better" paintings by other artists to shame. But in light of what he had done, and would do, it seems that Hofmann was denying his genius.
But all along painterliness persisted even as it was subjugated. A strain of smaller, densely painted "all surface" paintings, usually of low value differentiation and almost always of high quality, continued through the late '40s and the '50s as a kind of volcanic substratum, a fertile reversion, working-out grounds for the larger paintings. They are more stylistically consistent, over the years, than the larger pictures, and reach back to the early landscapes, to which they are organically related. And, like the landscapes, they would make a marvelous show in themselves. I could not include enough of them in the show and had to be content with a few examples: Bouquet, 1951, (fig. 17), Autumn Fury, 1954 (fig. 20 ), Durbilant Equillibrium, 1954 (fig. 21), Color Study I, 1955 (fig. 25), Color Study II, 1955 (fig. 26), and some others. In later years he did dozens, perhaps hundreds, of small pictures and there's hardly a mediocre one in the bunch. There are none in the show, partly because of the requirements of space, and partly because those years saw the promise of the small painterly picture blossom out in the full-scale work.
The linear and the painterly reconverge in the early '50s. In such pictures as Magenta, Yellow and Black, 1950 (fig. 15) and Blue Enchantment #2, 1951 (fig. 16), the lines dissolve into edge, and painted area, usually enclosed and recessive in the late '40s, asserts itself as painted shape. Though typically awkward and ungainly (which takes nothing away from their quality), we see for the first time what was to come in the great pictures of the late '50s and '60s: the substantial, singular formal element harmoniously in concert with painterly surface in full color. And the color, though always beautifully handled by Hofmann, now becomes pungent and radiant. Other paintings of the early and middle '50s put more complex specific shapes on the painterly ground (Flight, 1952 [pg. 63]), become cubist-expressionist (Phoenix, 1951 [fig. 18], Fortissimo, 1956 [fig. 28]) or are given over to full painterliness (Spiral Nebulae, 1951 [pg. 62], Le Gilotin, 1953 [fig. 19], Liebesbaum, 1954 [fig. 23]). The various formal means surge and fade from picture to picture, leaving the memory of impulsive, driving genius at full pressure, forcing its way up and through by any path. The mid-'50s show great variety, more than at any time since the late '40s. As if he were himself a half-dozen masters, Hofmann painted such stylistically divergent pictures as the lush painterly Fragrance, 1956 (pg. 72), the violent, splattered The Prey, 1956 (fig. 30), and the partly-filled, semilinear Undulating Expanse, 1955 (fig. 27). And that's just a sample. The range is amazing, all the more so because so many of these pictures are so very good. And together with all these painterly pyrotechnics we see the rudiments of the only method which Hofmann would ever evolve fully. The specific shapes which came up in the early '50s start squaring off, and the smeared and random painterly ground begins to resolve into small spread dabs of similar size, which align in patterns relative to the larger shapes, as if they are magnetized; in evidence here is the problematic but truly scintillating Scintillating Space, 1954 (fig. 24), Fantasia in Blue, 1954 (fig. 22), and The Garden, 1956 (fig. 29). By 1956 the elements become more clear-cut and less restless (Towering Spaciousness, 1956 [fig. 31]) and the specific shape becomes a square or rectangle (Blue on Grey, 1956 [pg. 70]), and, it is important to note, the rectangle often appears superimposed.
Stylistically, 1957 may have been Hofmann's most consistent year. The rectangles are there in some pictures (Flowering Swamp, 1957 [fig. 34]) and are taking on the character, if not the size and weight, they will assume later. But most of the paintings of this year take the small, sparkling dabs of the previous painting, greatly enlarge them and set them in a rough alignment with the edge (Autumn Gold, 1957 [fig. 32], and Swamp Series III, 1957 [pg. 77]). It was an important time for Hofmann; at last he took sure footing. The rampant paint finally came in and settled down. For better or worse we never again see the oddball masterpiece like Undulating Expanse, 1955 (fig. 27). The roiling stew is now a blend, not homogeneous but harmonious, an interlaced system in which each part affects and informs the others.
In his lifetime Hofmann never got his due from the art world and the marketplace. But he had a good dealer solidly behind him; regular shows and a slowly gathering reputation got him enough sales so that he could give up teaching in 1958 and settle down to paint full time. The last seven or eight years of his life, until his death early in 1966, might be called the "classic" period, when Hofmann finally brought everything together. I should emphasize that the paintings from this period are not better as such than the earlier ones, although they are presently being appraised that way by the art world, with its usual herd instinct, but they may be more consistently better, and on a higher level of ambition. (The notion of progress in art, as distinct from evolution, must be used very carefully, if at all.) The rectangle pictures are painterly, and the painterly pictures without rectangles (Golden Blaze, 1958 [fig. 36], In the Wake of the Hurricane, 1960 [fig. 47], Lava, 1960 [fig. 49), to name a few) reflect their discipline. From 1957 on Hofmann, will be at his best with the densely painted, tightly controlled picture, and when he betrays his hard-won style with too much linearity or openness, or eccentric composition, the paintings are usually less good or fail altogether.
Although I would argue that some of his all-painterly late pictures are his very best, the large, floating rectangle was Hofmann's most singular and useful structural invention and the one he kept to for the longest time and with the greatest success. Consideration of the pictorial utility of the rectangle goes back to the basic problem of painting on the visually flat plane of the abstract picture, which I analyzed in an essay in the Summer 1969 issue of Artforum, entitled "Hofmann's Rectangles." The fundamental mechanical problem facing the abstract painter is the creation of means sufficient to relate the elements of a picture which tend naturally to lock into the visually flat surface. Hofmann made it all the more difficult by insisting on a (usually) thickly painted highly colored and differentiated painting in which each separable part contributes to the complexity and hence to difficulty of resolution. Hofmann's ability to maintain the complex all-surface picture in relatively large scale before the rectangles came in is as dumfounding as his ability to conjoin masses of primary color without ill effect. Both were beyond the reach of his colleagues, who organized their pictures in other ways. These earlier paintings succeed, and brilliantly, not because of any specifiable pictorial device but by a subtle kind of directional patterning, the colors forming vague areas of hue in a simple swirl (Le Gilotin, 1953 [fig. 19]) centralization (Fragrance, 1956 [pg. 72]) or horizontal-vertical (most of the 1957 pictures).
The first pictures (to my knowledge) in which the rectangles carry the picture, rather than merely predominate it, are Equipoise (pg. 78) and Pastorale of 1958 (fig. 37), which I reckon were done after the all-painterly pictures which relate stylistically to the previous years (Blue Spell, 1958 [fig. 35], Golden Blaze, 1958 [fig. 36]) and the atavistic but marvelous Rising Sun,1958 (fig. 38). Certain others, such as Kalidos, 1958 (pg. 79), with its uncanny blend of oranges and blue-greens, rely heavily on the rectangle form but show it relatively less evolved; this may indicate that they are transitional. And Blue on Grey, 1956 (pg. 70), though it clearly portends the later rectangle pictures, is well within the all-painterly vein of 1957. Equipoise could be taken as a type-specimen; it has all the classic attributes of the rectangle picture, and it is one of Hofmann's principle masterpieces.
The rectangles seem to have been squeezed out of the densely packed Hofmann surface like squared-off bubbles rising to the top of a thick stew. When they came to that surface, to position themselves visually before the picture plane, the picture left off being visually flat and sliced into two distinct systems: the "background," usually smudged, variegated and complex, and the "foreground" of regular rectilinear forms. The back-and-forth positioning is not always readable; even in some of the later pictures in which the rectangles really "float" (Goliath, 1960 [fig. 46], Land of Bliss and Wonder, California, 1960 [fig. 48], In Sober Ecstasy, 1965 [fig. 72], and others) there is little illusion of depth to be estimated by the eye, as there is in realist painting. Hofmann, by the conserving force of his mastery, never took a technique any further than needed to fashion good art, and seems never to have been tempted to push it to its "logical" ends, for its own sake, as do the legions of conceptualists presently afflicting us. All there is, as it comes to the eye, is a sense of slight recession here and there, just enough, always just enough, to let the rectangles bind the picture.
The quality of these paintings is not available in words, of course, but many true things may be said about the way the rectangle system helped solve the problems of relatabillty of the abstract picture. By the subtle enforcement of two sets of areas at slightly different apparent depth, Hofmann crumbled the resistant flatness of the surface just as one might crumble a cracker, or tear and stack pieces of paper. The large rectangles in Equipoise and the pictures like it need not get at each other through the dense mass of paint between them; instead, they relate across it, as if painted on a sheet of glass which could slide right off the painted surface, as if they had their own surface, visually integrated with the other but separated by a thin layer of air. Cohesion is thus induced which confers any number of pictorial benefits. For example, the integration of the large, explicit rectangles relieves the more painterly and varied recessive elements, leaving them "free" to dispose at random; In Sober Ecstasy, 1965 (fig. 72) is a fine example of this. And color relationship is enhanced as the strict edge of the colored rectangle cuts through and across the varicolored "background." It goes on and on; again, I refer the interested reader to my article on Hofmann's rectangle pictures in Artforum.
I must caution those who pay more heed to words than to the art that words must humbly serve that the rectangle system was not a formula for good painting. As always, the quality of good art will not give up to analysis, no matter how extensive and accurate, not because art is too complex to yield to words but because art and literal description work in different directions. Words account characteristics; art submits experience. Many of the rectangle pictures do not conform to my description; they needn't to be good pictures. Some of the best of them stay very close to one plane: the great Cathedral 1959 (fig. 40), and String Quartet, 1960 (fig. 51), Leise Zeiht, 1961 (fig. 54), and Ignotium Per Ignotius, 1963 (fig. 63). Some are virtually monoplanar: Pastorale, 1958 (fig. 37), with the utterly magical placement of the two black rectangles, Lumen Natural, 1962 (fig. 57), Elysium II, 1963 (fig. 61), and the cool and perfect Proprie Moto, 1965 (fig. 74), which comes over like a deep tone struck from a large bell. And there are many pictures which fit my description quite nicely but fall as pictures. I can't say why they fail, but I can see it and feel it, and recount some of their characteristics: the rectangles are too many, too few, too small, too scattered or too eccentrically dispersed. I don't disguise the subjectivity of my value term "too"; I perceive, and all too awkwardly report, Hofmann's failure, in the late years, when he composed in bold, unusual configurations. It didn't work as it had in the early years, as if the wild impulsive invention which produced so many masterpieces early on, and served to bring him to his final style, was rendered impotent in the face of the high mastery he finally got to, a mastery which took over, and made Hofmann settle in and submit to the very thing he had spent so long creating.
Although the rectangles characterize the late style, and although the method pervades and informs many of the best of the later pictures, there are any number of superb paintings after 1957 which only suggest their regularity and discipline. Hofmann never forsook his habit of simultaneous series, of "bunching" styles, of running off a half dozen similar paintings only to abandon one type in favor of another. But in the later pictures the style would come up over a longer period and sustain a higher level rather than lead up to one or two exemplary masterpieces. There is the thick, all-painterly technique of Oracle, 1959 (fig. 42), In the Wake of the Hurricane, 1960 (fig. 47), Lava, 1960 (fig. 49), and the amazing Summer Night's Bliss, 1961 (fig. 56), and the related Fiat Lux, 1963 (fig. 62), and View from the Balcony, 1964 (fig. 68). There is another strain of more thinly painted somewhat naturalistic pictures: the eccentric, difficult Chimera, 1959 (fig. 41), Phantasmagoria, 1960 (fig. 50), and Sic Itur Ad Astra, 1962 (fig. 59), Donnerwolken Zieben, 1961, and And Out of the Caves, 1964 (fig. 65). Other such series can be seen in the show; even more can be seen in all of the late work. Some were consistently successful, others (such as the very open but clustered technique of which Scattered Sunset, 1961 [fig. 55] may be the finest example) all too often fail.
Writing well about art is not easy, and Hofmann is not an easy artist to write about. Very good art comes across through experience and feeling, and spreads within us as a fine refreshing pleasure. This pleasure can be referred to and described, but its equivalent cannot be given in words, and its source will not admit description: thus the frustration of the art writer. We can't transmit the experience any more than a recipe can satisfy hunger.
But I have learned - looking at art and reading and writing about it - that certain things can be said about art which will lead into it, help grasp it and make it more familiar, and help clear a path for experience. We cannot justify the quality of art in words, or specify criteria for that quality, however covert that justification may be. But we can assume the quality of the art, just as I am assuming the quality of Hofmann's, and go on to describe the mechanics of style, how it "works." This is what I have tried to do in the various essays I have written in the past, many of them beating down very closely, very analytically, on certain aspects of Hofmann's painting.
But in recent years I've come to a different kind of comprehension of Hofmann's art, an understanding which seems to foil, or perhaps belittle, close analysis. I find myself needing to say things which may betray my principles, things about the artists intentions and attitudes, things which seem to go into the quality of his art, things which can't be taken right from the picture, first hand. There is a spirit behind Hofmann's painting which has more to do with the character of his art than anything I can point to by way of mechanics. That spirit generated the quality of the pictures and provided their modernness. Perceiving it came slowly and with difficulty; setting it out verbally may be impossible. Perhaps it will come across in the words that follow.
If you have seen this show, or have seen many of Hofmann's paintings, you will have seen certain attributes persisting: bright color, painterly surface, impulsive, quick application of pigment, relatively modest size, and so forth. You will also have seen many puzzling things: the stylistic variety, abutting complimentary colors which never become garish or "optical," surfaces jam-packed with agitated pigment which somehow turn serene, icy greens exuding warmth. My attention, as I looked at picture after picture, was directed to estimating quality; that was my job. But all along, somewhere in the back of my mind, the various characteristics of the Hofmann picture were gathering and sorting. Eventually they pressed up at me, and I began to feel as if there was something profoundly unresolved, something which must be said to account for all the strange factors of Hofmann's art, particularly the disquieting sense of modernness, of present urgency I felt in an art which had no outward signs of being very up-to-date or "with it." It was like being a detective with lots of clues and no answer.
Consider speed, for instance. I had never thought of speed as a specific quality of Hofmann's art until I showed a friend and fellow painter some of the slides I had. (Incidentally, it is interesting how many of our best painters are more "on" to Hofmann than the rest of the art public.) We went on about how good Hofmann was - painters talk about painting - when he suddenly got onto the "speediness" of the paintings, not how fast they were finished (which is not in evidence) but how fast and how unobstructed the process of painting seemed and how much quickness of application and revision was part of the picture and made up its character. My colleague is a fast painter, and a very good one, and for him this quality of Hofmann's art was good in itself. With that, on reflection, I realized how much speed is a natural consequence of abstraction (though not a necessary one). Realist painting is relatively slower because the detailed depiction of objects and scenes requires deliberate application of paint. This deliberation can be, and has been, carried forth in certain species of abstraction, such as that having "hard" edges, and in the painting of Clyfford Still, and others.
Abstraction does not compel speed as much as it allows it; the naturalness of speed is not within the method but within the human brain and hand. This, very broadly, is the "modernness" of speed in painting. It led, also along natural lines, to large size.
Realist painting never evolved naturally to large size because it was not inherent in the form. The effects of the realist painting are complete small. There is no pressure from within to expand. Of course, large realist paintings have been made, but the reason for the size was usually outside of the process: for dramatic effect, to satisfy commissions or a taste or fashion, to add grandeur and importance. Abstraction took materials away from the service of depiction and set them out on their own. Without the framework of external reality materials were free to take on any conformation applied by the artist. (Hence the primacy of invention and conception in the best new art.) As abstraction evolved in this century, the methods of realist painting slowly eroded, giving way to the scale of the person, and the small, careful stroke, exercised in the service of miniaturized depiction, has given way to the broad swing of the human arm - with the body, at a distance, not with the fingers, up close. The expansion of "detail" expanded the picture. Painting became "life size," natural size, and the long tradition of miniaturization fell away.
Another visual fact comes in company with abstraction as a matter of course: flatness. Again, it is not a necessary condition but one which has as its imperative a natural fulfillment, just as water flows into a depression. The flat surface is the first property of painting. Space in depth can only be effected by some kind of depiction, even if it is as slight as that of Cubism, or Pollock's evolved Cubist skeins, or Olitski's powdery clouds. Much has been made of flatness in the literature, and it is seen as a prescribed condition by the illiterates of the art public, who can't (or won't) ever get things straight. It is a mechanical condition of abstract painting, and abstract painting adapts to it just as certainly as natural forms adapt to the environment. This evolution goes on and on, despite the regular cries that it's finished, from those who ought to know better.
The primary problem of abstract painting, as I have said above, is relating form, of elements of the picture. It is a problem of pictorial quality only negatively; adequately related pictures can easily be bad, but good abstract painting, or so it seems to me, has been my experience, cannot do without strong means for relating pictorial parts. If there is a certain determinism in the evolution of abstract painting toward speed and size and flatness, there is a concomitant drift away from easy relationship. This, in turn, makes visual coherence the first task of inspiration. The elements of the realist painting relate automatically because they are placed in an illusion of real space, a "box" of open air. Realist painters are not relieved of the problems of composition, but they are not made to invent a means to do so. The visually flat picture, on the other hand, has in place of this "air" the resistance of the flat surface. To get together, to make a visual whole, to "hang together," there must be strong visual evidence of interaction.
Each of the best of the post-war artists found their way: Still by the forced compression of creeping, intermingling fields, Pollock by the quite opposite method of opening the Cubist system into a tangled network, Newman, Rothko and Noland by simplifying, enlarging and stratifying, Louis (in the Unfurleds) by throwing the painted parts out against the lateral edge so that the edge binds the picture. The failure of coherence can be seen in de Kooning's pictures of the early and middle '50s - to name only one notable example, and one not yet recognized by the art public. This has all been discussed much more thoroughly in the several articles I have written for Artforum magazine.
But Hofmann has always given me trouble in this respect. With the exception of some of the late rectangle pictures, as discussed above, he never evolved a set style, a conceived scheme, which overcame the obstacle of relatability. But the evidence of the paintings is there, and we must give in to it. Picture after picture succeeds despite this "deficiency." I had to back off and rethink. And I found that the answer, if it is an answer, must be framed less in terms of mechanics than of certain characteristics of Hofmann himself as they came down on the picture, and that the clues are found in color and the condition of surface.
I have said that it is a good rule of thumb for art writers to keep away from generalizing about artists' motives, because by doing so we move away from the evidence and come up with propositions which are not demonstrable. But the variety of Hofmann's work frustrates an overall consideration of particulars, and, conversely, there seems to arise from the welter of styles a consistency of spirit (and here I am reporting on my experience with Hofmann's pictures, not on the pictures themselves) which is registered less in structure, from which we perceive style, than in color and surface. The character of a painting is determined by the artist's attitude toward his art-making, just as the nature of our lives is determined by our attitudes toward life. The Hofmann picture emanates, bounces out, projects; it is more radiation than arrangement. Hofmann may one day be seen as the most innovative of our modern masters; not just inventive, as he surely was, but innovative in the classic sense of gathering up all that was implicit in his time, less by solving the problem of lateral structure in relation to visual flatness (which is what Louis did in the Unfurleds) than by the ingestion of flatness itself.
His unremitting impulse to load and propel subsumed flatness and the problems of lateral composition. He took them down into his inventory of materials and threw it right out at us. It is as if the edges of the canvas are the walls of a gun barrel, and the canvas is loaded with the maximum charge of heavily textured, brightly colored paint. It's a symptom of Hofmann's modernness that we have no words for it, but I heard it well expressed by a collector who hung a Hofmann across from a Rothko in her library. The Hofmann kept "coming out," she said, and the Rothko kept "sinking in." Finally, for the sake of her peace of mind, she interrupted the unequal dialogue by moving the Rothko to another room. This understanding, if it is that, can only be taken in through feeling, from the art itself, as the flower gives us a sense of the root. I can't say I have it firmly; certainly my words won't do it justice. And although I say I am getting at Hofmann's spirit, it is not altogether clear how it helps in seeing his art. Perhaps it makes me more comfortable in the face of the more intransigent masterpieces, but it comes to me less as a tool for understanding Hofmann's painting than as a pleasant consequence of a prior understanding gotten through experience. It is not a rule or prescription. The logical extreme of the "forward" as against the "lateral" picture would be a painting of one color, or something like it: something "all surface." But Hofmann, like all good artists, was interested not in logical but in artistic extremes, the extremes of good art. The "forwardness" of his paintings comes across not as such, spelled out, made plain, but through pervasive feeling. And if what I have said seems to slight arrangement and composition I should hasten to affirm that this feeling can only be expressed if the composition is "tight." It may come up off color and surface, just as a perfume rises from the skin, but color and surface must be supported by the disposition of the elements.
On the other hand, if we can bring ourselves to see Hofmann's pictures in the spirit in which they were painted many of the troublesome questions find answers, and we find that the troublesomeness came not from Hofmann's art but from the opposition of the spirit of that art to the way we have been trained to see pictures. Our eyes are accustomed to painting done in terms of lateral relationship, which holds over from realist painting, and we tend to measure the success of a picture on these terms. In fact, since Cubism (which can be said to have "rescued" lateral organization from the dissolution threatened by Impressionism), this has become thoroughly academic; books are written on composition, "dynamic balance," and these things are taught in the art schools. Perhaps we will be less disturbed by variety of structural means if we recognize that consistency of structure is a characteristic of the tradition of lateral composition, and that Hofmann's consistency might be measured more in the degree of pungency and charge. It may be only a matter of what we choose to construe, through cultural conditioning, as constituting differentiation.
We may also have a reciprocal clue to Hofmann's late blooming, particularly in the years after 1957. That's when the time was ripe for the full-fledged expression of the attitude he had harbored for so long. Though nominally a Cubist, Hofmann did badly in the late '40s, when Cubism found exalted release in the painting of Jackson Pollock. That's when he gave in to Cubism and denied his painterly and expressionist gift. Pollock could blow Cubism up; Hofmann was stifled by it. But the '50s saw the life go out of the expanded Cubism of the '40s, and the '50s saw Hofmann moving up. He was catching what was in the air in the late '50s and early '60s, when advanced painting left the Cubist-Abstract-Expressionist swamp and went to "presentation" rather than "composition" - Noland's Targets could be the type specimens: symmetrical, centralized, brightly colored. Hofmann could not paint well in the thin, stained "clean" manner of Noland, Louis, Frankenthaler and others; he tried, in a number of pictures in the '60s, but these paintings don't measure up. The best of his late pictures express the new attitude with "old-fashioned" equipment; they are thick, dense, asymmetric and caked. The rectangle pictures, with their coagulated paint, condensed light and shining, forward-facing rectangles exemplify his success, and, in an odd and subtle way, symbolize it.
Hofmann's late pictures are charged with color and suffused with light. Effulgence renders the splendid color, letting him lay complementaries next to each other and wring warmth and subtlety from stark primaries, particularly (and most puzzlingly) from green. Light spreads through Oracle, 1959 (fig. 42), radiates like sunlight from the rectangles of Silent Night, 1964 (fig. 66) and like phosphor from the green rectangle of Golden it Glows into a New Day, 1965 (fig. 71). It enlivens the whole ground of ln Sober Ecstasy, 1965 (fig. 72), as if an invisible lamp, off to the right, drenches the surface. It glows out of the darkness of Summer Night's Bliss, 1961 (fig. 56), and both comes from behind and highlights the surface of Cathedral, 1959 (fig. 40) and Elysium II, 1963 (fig. 61). Color, pigment and surface all conspire to turn the picture on, as if its making was solely in the service of a grand luminescence.
Hans Hofmann died at the height of his powers. He wasn't finished. He had hardly begun to mine the rich vein of his invention, particularly the painterly, smudged and highlighted manner seen in such clarity in the strange, small horizontal pictures Color Study I and Color Study II, both 1955 (figs. 25 and 26), and a few others like them. Though the quality of glowingness and the consequent apotheosis of color can be seen as early as the 1930s, in some of the landscapes, here it is pure, almost unconstructed. These pictures, and some others like them, are related to the large Undulating Expanse (fig. 27) of the same year. Because they were all "studies" for an architectural commission, Hofmann (and I am presuming here), felt they need not be "finished," and this in turn accounts for their freshness, not only because they were saved from overfinishing, but (probably) also because the prior knowledge that they needn't be "finished" let him easily and playfully throw in his first impulses, which, as Greenberg has noted, were usually his best. Hofmann's notion of finishing a picture often seems more connected to the 19th-century academy than his chosen generation. The rectangle paintings enabled him to accommodate this habit, because a too-busy surface could be partially cancelled out and improved with the singular authority of the colored slab. But it is the quick, even violent, swipe, smear and splotch which mark his best work: Lava, 1960 (fig. 49), Summer Night's Bliss, 1961 (fig. 56), Fiat Lux, 1963 (fig. 6a), and View From the Balcony, 1964 (fig. 68), to name a few. Though I mean to take away nothing from the best of the early work or from the rectangle pictures, and though I know it is a precarious indulgence to judge between masterpieces, my eye tells me that it is these paintings, and others like them, which we will measure as Hofmann's supreme achievement, and make it all the more poignant that he had not another twenty years to live and paint. Hofmann's best pictures stand up to anything his colleagues put out; to any of the art of this century, for that matter. If these words seem partisan and too enthusiastic, if it seems to the reader (and it will, to many) that Hofmann is not the painter I say he is, then don't decide; just wait. History has away of sorting these things out, and history is on Hofmann's side.
1. I don't think the word "painterly" is in the dictionary, but it is current in the vernacular of art criticism, and is indispensable for this essay. It indicates the degree to which the paint on the picture looks like paint as such. A painting is less painterly according to how much the qualities of paint are subordinated to something else, such as depiction, or uniform coloring of surface. Thus Ingres and Mondrian are "unpainterly"; Monet and Clyfford Still are "painterly." Many of Hofmann's small paintings, and some of the large ones after 1958, are painterly to an extreme, and there is a degree of correlation between painterliness and quality in his art.