Hans Hofmannby Cynthia Goodman
As a young man in Paris, Hofmann participated in the artistic revolutions before World War I, than ran an influential art school in Germany between the wars. He came to America in 1930 and established schools in New York and Provincetown that has had a profound impact on the development of American art. By presenting his life's work, from the rare landscapes and
As a young man in Paris, Hofmann participated in the artistic revolutions before World War I, than ran an influential art school in Germany between the wars. He came to America in 1930 and established schools in New York and Provincetown that has had a profound impact on the development of American art. By presenting his life's work, from the rare landscapes and portraits of his early years to the majestic late abstractions, this vibrantly colorful book establishes Hofmann's major contribution to the art of this century.
About the Modern Masters series:
With informative, enjoyable texts and over 100 illustrations approximately 48 in full color this innovative series offers a fresh look at the most creative and influential artists of the postwar era. The authors are highly respected art historians and critics chosen for their ability to think clearly and write well. Each handsomely designed volume presents a thorough survey of the artist's life and work, as well as statements by the artist, an illustrated chapter on technique, a chronology, lists of exhibitions and public collections, an annotated bibliography, and an index. Every art lover, from the casual museumgoer to the serious student, teacher, critic, or curator, will be eager to collect these Modern Masters. And with such a low price, they can afford to collect them all.
Read an Excerpt
Hans Hofmann was the only artist of the New York School to participate directly in the artistic revolution that took place in Europe during the first two decades of the twentieth century. While in his mid-twenties and thirties, he studied in Paris during that exhilarating period from 1904 to 1914 when Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, and German Expressionism originated and flourished. The importance of what he learned there cannot be overestimated in its impact both on his own development and on the development of modern art in America, where he lived from 1932 to his death in 1966. Most of the artists in New York who yearned to know about contemporary innovations in Europe had to rely on illustrated magazines as their sole source of information. Hofmann’s personal encounters with the avant-garde in Paris and Germany made him a much more direct and vivid source than the printed page, and it was his original synthesis of this richly complex heritage that made his contributions as both teacher and painter so significant. For many years Hofmann’s skills as a first-rate artist were overshadowed by the great success of his schools, first in Munich, then in New York and Provincetown. As Hofmann once explained, “When I came to America, I presented myself not as a painter of a certain style but through the fame of my Munich school.”
Hofmann opened his own school in New York in 1933, in the midst of the Depression. Although he was enormously popular as an instructor, the school was to flounder financially for many years until the G.I. Bill, instituted after World War II to give veterans financial assistance with their education, brought an influx of new students. Virtually no New York artist in the 1930s was able to be self-supporting through the sale of paintings. While Hofmann chose to teach, many of his colleagues, including Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko, sought employment with the Federal Art Projects of the Works Progress Administration after its establishment in 1935. The WPA fostered a sense of community among those who participated in its programsa confraternity from which Hofmann was excluded.
Hofmann’s reluctance to exhibit his work compounded the problem of his artistic reputation. Although large exhibitions of his art had been organized in San Francisco in 1931 and ten years later in New Orleans, it was 1943 by the time one of Hofmann’s paintings was on public view in New York, and not until the following year did the sixty-four-year-old artist have his first solo New York exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery. Until this time he had allowed only a few close friends to visit his studio, a restriction he attributed to fear that his students might not develop independently if they saw his work. His hesitation was, in fact, justified: once Hofmann’s paintings were publicly available, so many of his students slavishly copied them that Leo Steinberg dubbed their readily identifiable style “Hofmannerism.”
Whether he acknowledged it or not, Hofmann’s uneasiness at being evaluated as a painter by those who already revered him as a teacher must have reinforced his reluctance to let his art be seen. As soon as he began exhibiting it, Hofmann’s work attracted widespread notice as well as somewhat qualified critical acclaim. That his teaching had previously seemed to take precedence over his painting was neither quickly forgotten nor forgive. One review of Hofmann’s age and renown was a noteworthy event, but also that “Hofmann’s staunch followers” had give rise to a “skeptical opposition” who had “been asking monotonously for some ten years ‘But can he paint?’” With his second exhibition, at the Gallery 67 in 1945, Hofmann gained the support of the powerful critic Clement Greenberg, who lauded Hofmann as “in all probability the most important art teacher of our time.” Greenberg also mentioned that he personally owed “more to the illumination received from Hofmann’s lectures than from any other source” and that he found “the same quality in Hofmann’s paintings [as] in his wordsboth are completely relevant.” This review, however positive, again demonstrates how inextricably Hofmann’s two careers were intertwined. Hofmann would struggle with the problems of his dual career for many more years, continuing to teach as well as to exhibit almost yearly until 1958, when at the age of seventy-eight he finally gave up teaching to devote himself to painting full-time.
It was not only his reputation as a teacher that impeded Hofmann’s acceptance as a major painter. Hofmann obdurately resisted being identified with any one movement or style. His career was distinguished by his unusual ability to explore simultaneously what might be considered irreconcilable forms of expression. Yet this stylistic range was intrinsic to his way of working. Hofmann confided to Sam Kootz, his friend and dealer of many years, “If I ever find a style, I’ll stop painting.” Unfortunately, many mistook this diversity, which was central to Hofmann’s creativity, as either indecision or artistic immaturity, a misunderstanding that obscured his artistic prowess. Although critics Thomas B. Hess and Harold Rosenberg became staunch Hofmann fans in the mid-1950s, it took Hofmann a long time to win their support and that of others such as painter and critic Walter Darby Bannard, who defended his stylistic plurality with the assertion that “it’s the picture that is obliged to be consistent, not the artist.” Greenberg partially blamed the art-viewing public for not accepting the work of any artist who went beyond one easily identifiable style, but he did concede that “the variety of manners and even of styles in which [Hofmann] works would conspire to deprive even the most sympathetic public of a clear idea of his achievement.”
Some were put off by Hofmann’s European mannerism and by the occasional pomposity of his philosophical discussions, which were comprehensible only to those already well versed in his ideas. Yet Hofmann’s theorizing was offset by his warm conviviality, expansiveness, and keen sense of humor. As a teacher, Hofmann fostered an infectious camaraderie, and he expressed a benign paternalism toward the dozens of students who became close to him. His magnanimous personality and unswerving conviction that art was essential to humanity inspired many of those who studied with him. Larry Rivers recalls that when Hofmann “came around to look at the work he was relaxed enough to beef up the timid hearts, and pompous, blustering, egocentric enough to make every fiber of the delusions of grandeur puff and puff and puff up until you saw your name in the long line from Michelangelo to Matisse to Hofmann himself.”
Hofmann had a profound impact on American art. Over half the charter members of the American Abstract Artists organization, founded in 1937, had been his students. Most major artists of the second-generation New York Schoolincluding Nell Blaine, Robert De Niro, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Michael Goldberg, Wolf Kahn, and Larry Riversattended Hofmann’s classes, and he influenced many of the first generation as well, although less directly. Yet Hofmann’s influence is far from being limited to New York. In art centers from coast to coast such as Provincetown, Minneapolis, and Berkeley, wherever his former students have settled, Hofmann’s teaching is continued. In Berkeley, the presence of forty-nine paintings in the University Art Museum collection has exerted a major force on many artists who never studied directly with him. Hofmann’s most important legacy resides in his remarkable ability to be provocative stylistically and philosophically decade after decade. During the 1950s Hofmann’s animated surfaces directed many artists to the exploration of texture. His longtime interest in using large areas of intensely saturated color proved seminal for color-field painting, a connection that may have contributed to the revival of Hofmann’s reputation throughout the 1960s. Today, with the current infatuation with expressionism and the consequent attraction to heavily encrusted surfaces, as well as the cultivation of pluralism and the idiosyncratic in art, Hofmann’s canvases have assumed a renewed relevance.
Meet the Author
Cynthia Goodman, a writer, curator, and expert on digital media, is organizing the exhibition of Unchained Memories for the Freedom Center.
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