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Summing Up

The Artist Of The Century

June 2024
7min read

The power of his vision fused a bond between American and European art, and between the first and second halves of the century

Now on the left and then coming from right you’ll see the bombs. …” Of course, at first we couldn’t lift our eyes off the cross hairs on the middle of our TV screens quickly enough to see anything but the explosion billowing up at us. But given the patience to watch repeated NATO briefings, eventually we began to catch the blurs that ignited charcoal puffs of smoke. Perhaps in the next war we can hope to see the speeding bombs and consequent matter-of-fact black-andwhite explosions presented in full color. This advance would fulfill the end-ofthe-century global truism that political, military, and financial success guarantees the victor not spoils but better, more colorful media entertainment.

These widely anticipated bursts of color have been around the art world since the 1940s although the precedents for colored gesture occupying the whole pictorial surface—and hence the whole TV monitor—were set with impressionism in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In this century Hans Hofmann has produced more successful colored explosions on canvas than any other artist. Although not as familiar as they should be, many of his paintings are overwhelmingly beautiful, and most of them are obvious sources of the best painting of the second half of this century. The path of Jackson Pollock’s headlong return to the womb seen in his 1953 painting The Deep had been traced out early on in Hofmann’s pursuit of nature in such examples as The Wind (c. 1942). Similarly, Robert Rauschenberg’s incredible send-up of abstract expressionism, Monogram (1955-59), with its stuffed ram savagely defaced by oil paint, had its antecedents embedded in the equally ferocious paint smears of Hofmann’s 1946 Bacchanale .

We revere Hofmann, as Pollock did and Rauschenberg does, for proving that the straightforward manipulation of pigment can create exalted art. To put it simply, Hofmann’s ability to handle paint, to fuse the action of painting and drawing into a single, immediate gesture, carried colored pigment into the viewer’s presence with the force of a bomb. The power of this visual explosion catalyzed the bond of European and American art, cementing the first half of twentieth-century art inseparably to the second half.

Born in Bavaria in 1880, Hans Hofmann studied art in Munich and shortly after the turn of the century went to Paris, where he was in contact with Matisse, Picasso, and Braque. In 1915 he returned to Munich to open an art school, and for the next twentyfive years he was primarily a teacher, explaining the principles of cubism even as he himself began to conceive of moving bevond it. In 1930 he began doing some summer teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1932, with the German political climate darkening, he came to America for good, setting up art schools in New York and Provincetown. He would become the most influential proselytizer of abstract expressionism, but now he was painting again, too, and would continue to do so with unabating energy until his death in 1966.

The trajectory of Hofmann’s career was beautifully described at a recent exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, entitled “Hans Hofmann: Continuing the Search for the Real.” The exhibition checklist divided the twentytwo works into three groups: “The ‘30’s and ‘40’s: Moving Beyond Realism,” “The ‘40’s: Fluid Abstraction,” and “The ‘50’s and ‘60’s: Compositional Explorations.” The last grouping—“Compositional Explorations” —provided a title of mind-blowing modesty: All five paintings in this group were magnificent. They were without precedent except in Hofmann’s own work. More amazingly, they were without equal when they were painted and are without equal in quality since they were painted.

David Hockney used to get a rise out of collectors who were trying to pump him for information about the artists of the sixties with a very clever answer. Going in the face of the boom for colorfield painting, pop art, and minimalism, which dominated the decade, Hockney replied that the best was “Picasso, of course.” Now, late Picassos range from O.K. to great. They certainly spawned a lot of late-Picasso shows and considerable market activity (here Hockney was on the mark). Still, Hofmann is more legitimately the best artist of the 1960s and at least as surprising a choice as Hockney’s. The titles of two paintings from the art museum at the University of California at Berkeley, Goliath (1960) and Gloriamundi (1963), effectively tell the story of Hofmann’s relation to the art of his time—which is to say, all of the twentieth century.

The Goliath so convincingly slain in the 1960 painting of that name is cubism, and with its demise the armies following Picasso and Matisse were put to rout. Color defeats planar structure. The rectangles of red, yellow, blue, and green are knifed and brushed onto the pictorial surface in such a way that the viewer clearly experiences the color as a volume, even though the colored rectangles are delineated as twodimensional figures. Although the color has depth, we do not see its shape as an outlined three-dimensional solid but rather as a resonance and vibration of color that creates a feeling of inexact dimensionality, a thickness or substance that is less than an added dimension but more than the two existing delineated dimensions. So for the sake of convenience we could say that the volumetric sense of a Hofmann color slab is experienced as something like a fractional dimansion that lies somewhere between two and three dimensions.

The Goliath is cubism, and with its demise the armies following Picasso and Matisse were put to rout.

Following this line of thought a bit further reveals that Hofmann’s genius lay in his ability to expand our dimensional experience of the pictorial surface, in this case brilliantly enlarging the clean, liberated, and open planar surface made available to abstraction after the abandonment of the conventional recessional space that perspective offered. He believed that color alone could activate a flat shape on a flat surface, making it appear as if the colored shape had enough substance to both create its own space within that surface and occupy a space in front of it. Moreover, he seems to have grasped almost immediately that this could also work in the opposite direction: that color in fact could give the impression of receding and dissolving into the space behind the surface plane. In this sense the colored washes that appear behind Hofmann’s rectangles might also be seen as acting in a fractional dimension, that the washes and diluted splashes recede from a twodimensional surface toward a onedimensional point, making spirited color activity in a pictorial space of one and a half dimensions. This creation with properly inflected color of a vital, vibrant pictorial space for real, abstract gesture in an area bounded by fractional measures between one and three dimensions is really a nice way to appreciate how special Hofmann’s touch was and to understand how, by fleshing out the rephrasing of pictorial space begun by the modernists, he helped make it possible to go beyond cubism.

So much for Goliath ; on to Gloriamundi . “Glory of the World” this painting surely is, and glory of the world his painting surely was and is. This straightforward personification of painting as the glory of the world and himself as the glory of painting is an antidote to the modesty of the Addison’s characterization of his late work as mere “Compositional Explorations,” although it may be that I missed the grandeur hidden in the notion of “explorations.” Great discoveries, the offspring of most successful explorations, are well valued, and anybody in the presence of Gloriamundi will feel that sense of discovery. He will discover how to be at one with painting. He will see Hofmann reach back to the painting of the past with the act of painting, watch as Hofmann pushes his painting to engage with all the painting of his time, and, finally, recognize how, by example, Hofmann thrusts painting into the future. Gloriamundi opens up a cyclorama of past painting that winds back to Hofmann’s birth. It can hardly be a coincidence that van Gogh’s presence is so strongly felt in this painting, and from van Gogh it’s easy to engage the early Pollock and the mid-career de Kooning. As well as celebrating the achievement of his abstract expressionist compatriots and linking his and their accomplishment to the cadmium yellow splendor of van Gogh, Hofmann somehow recognized the advanced processdriven art of the early sixties. There is plenty of Hofmann to be seen in the likes of Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, and Michael Heizer. Their bulldozed topologies, splattered surfaces, and defining minimalist geometries are well represented in Hofmann’s spectacular pictorial surfaces. It’s no surprise that his successors should try so hard to emulate his pictorial success with their own literalist efforts. His painting, backed up by his explicit titling, seemed to lay it on the line: gloriamundi for him, perhaps gloriamundi for his successors.

Hofmann created abstract paintings to match the achievements of the best representational paintings of the past.

Goliath and Gloriamundi show how Hofmann helped make the greatest change in twentieth-century art both possible and successful. He just stepped up and painted abstract paintings to match the achievements of the best representational paintings of the past. His essay “The Search for the Real” explains how his pictorial thought process evolved; the trick that made the transition from realism to abstraction possible turned on the notion of making abstraction real. It’s really very simple: To understand art is to be able to grasp in some meaningful way its vitality. The vitality, what Hofmann calls its “spirit,” is always there and apprehensible in great paintings. We just have to give a little, we have to admit that we can feel the vitality and experience the reality. Abstract art is just as real as representational art, or any other kind of art, for that matter.

But being real is not good enough. We want to know who was the best. Wasn’t Pollock America’s greatest artist? Wasn’t Hofmann just a teacher? In 1963, when Gloriamundi was painted, weren’t Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg the most famous artists in the world? The answer to these three questions is yes. But the yes doesn’t in any way diminish the splendor of Gloriamundi ; it actually enhances it. Yes, Pollock, at this moment riding deservedly high after his recent retrospective, may be hailed as America’s greatest painter. However, this could be mostly the enthusiasm of the moment. Remember, this recent show was nearly identical to the 1967 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, and at that time the museum was willing to risk only one color reproduction, Lucifer (1947), in the otherwise completely black-and-white catalogue on an artist who was not so incidentally described in a contemporaneous New York Times review as actually “a third-rate painter.” Anyway, in the world of abstract painting there is plenty of room for greatness. Hofmann could remain the greatest abstract easel painter, leaving Pollock to be the greatest abstract mural painter.

Again, yes, Hofmann was the greatest art teacher of the twentieth century. Being the greatest art teacher of the century did not, however, stop him from painting some of the century’s greatest paintings. And yes, when Leo Castelli was king and Bob and Jasper were the most famous artists in the world, Hans Hofmann was showing the best painting painted in the world that year. He was in his eighties, well known, well loved, just not famous outside of the art world; but in that year, with that painting, he was far and away the best.

He was typically at his best in your face, in color in another great painting, again aptly titled, Magnum Opus (1962). When the efforts at war reporting are updated, upgraded to color, the monitors will try to replicate on our TV screens the force of the uplifted cadmium red monadnock that fills the surface of Hofmann’s Magnum Opus . With Goliath behind us and Gloriamundi still pulsating in our ocular memory as it was at the beginning of the strike against Yugoslavia, it will not be as difficult for us to pick up the barium yellow flare on the right and the cobalt blue bomb on the left. We won’t need the briefing experts to guide our eyes to the big red explosion.

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