Hans Hofmann was over forty in 1931 when he settled in the United States. He was sixty before he began working in an abstract style, or diversity of styles, and seventy-five when, by virtue of this style, he became famous. This book is an homage to this extraordinary late flowering: all of the plates are from after 1935, seventy from 1959, 1960, and 1961. The selection assumes not only that “at eightythree Hofmann is at the height of his powers,” but that the work of all the preceding years, Paris from 1904 to 1914, then Munich, when his art was at least partially representational, is somehow negligible, because he was then still “learning to see” with a truly modern vision. Usually the “old age style” of the artist (e.g., Rembrandt, whom Hofmann admires, or Renoir) is a synthesis of all his mature styles, which he achieves independently of outside influences. Mr. Hunter shares the general view that Hofmann’s recent paintings are different—less the culmination of a life-long development than a kind of rebirth, an entirely new, youthful phase.
Acording to Mr. Hunter, Hofmann’s break with his past was due to the New York School and the abstract expressionists of the post-war period. But his response to the New York School for many years seemed tentative and exploratory. This is what makes any estimate of his work so difficult. Many members of the New York School were late in finding the abstract styles they are now known by, but Hofmann was the latest of all. He continued to work in many styles, though he had been a modernist decades before his younger colleagues, many of whom had been his pupils. In a group dedicated both to the idea of progress in the arts and to highly personal forms of expression, Hofmann’s position seemed indecisive. His reluctance to exhibit his work, his use of so many manners, raised the question of what his style was, and the more disturbing question of what abstract-expressionism itself was all about.
In this book Mr. Hunter addresses himself to both these questions. He is a sympathetic and knowledgeable guide to this hardworking, cheerful, altogether “healthy” man, and to his painting. Indeed he brings some of Hofmann’s own enthusiasm to his account, and his descriptions are often as vivid as Hofmann’s canvases.
According to Hunter, Hofmann is entirely dedicated to making excellent pictures; he has no other concerns. Unlike Kandinsky and Mondrian, Hofmann does not make his paintings vehicles for social change. He is detached from the “seminal ideas of the great moderns, which in the early years of the century identified ‘abstraction’ with a revolution of the human spirit.” Nor has Hofmann used his art as a medium for psychological revelation; he “has not created a cult of either crisis or personality,” and is above all a sensitive painter supremely aware of the modern tradition.
Mr. Hunter’s descriptions of the paintings are felicitous and eloquent. His analysis enables …