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Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann

Introductory Essay by Sam Hunter, Five Essays by Hans Hoffmann
268, 168 plates (50 in color) pp., $25.00

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 us to appreciate the care and evaluation that have gone into canvases which seem at first so spontaneous. He quite rightly points out the continuing influence of Hofmann’s long study of cubism and its method of close-knit spatial relations. But Mr. Hunter also accepts the current “existentialist” mode of praising the New York School by attempting to see beyond the work of art to the psychology of the artist himself. He seems to feel that Hofmann’s dedication to painting, to making subtle, surprising works, each with its own rhythm and coherence, is not motive enough, must somehow be explained away. Although Hofmann’s paintings are concerned with form and structure, they nonetheless, he says, “manage to be subjective”: Hofmann’s inspiration is “dual in origin, equally responsive to his own internal creative impulses, and to the logic of depth relation.” He sees the more fluid paintings as “the instantaneous registration of transient self-generating form, but describes Hofmann’s art as largely maintaining “a precarious balance between the need to build definite form in an objective world and his faithfulness to the findings of his own consciousness and its ultimate indistinctness.” What justifies this easy shift from painting to painter, from the qualities of the work to the character of the artist? How correct is Mr. Hunter’s assumption that we can find the one in the other?

In its early years, one of the tenets of the New York School—or, more precisely, its supporters—was that each man’s style of painting was a compulsive expression of his personality; the less interference between impulse and result, the more successful the painting. Artistic control consisted in allowing energies to flow freely to the surface, where they were at once recorded. It followed that the process of painting was at least as important as the painting itself, since it was the immediate, unfiltered revelation of an innermost being: it was what the artist “had to say.” This was surrealism’s communication through the subconscious, but with the difference that surrealism’s presentational symbols were now replaced by abstract signs, the gestures of a state of being.

At the time, abstract expressionism no doubt needed such a mystique to cast off certain conventions that it had no use for, and to sustain its intensity—though its first successful works were created without benefit of theory. At this late romantic date no one will deny that the style is the man, but that is something very different from the sort of oversimplification that sees the work as the direct, uncomplicated image of the artist’s personality, and turns the critic into an amateur psychologist. It is clear today that there is, for example, no obvious relation between Pollock’s lyric, flowing pictures and the struggle he felt when he painted them. De Kooning’s deliberate contemplation has little to do with the “instantaneous decisions” usually associated with abstract expressionism. The paintings of Tomlin or Rothko tell us little or nothing about the personalities of these painters. This is not to say that these artists (or any others, for that matter) are concerned solely with solving problems of form and construction. It is obvious that their works convey a feeling or emotion—the “content” of abstract art. But what we know is the work, and to read back from what we see in it to the inner nature of its creator is a complicated and round-about business. Now that we can be somewhat detached from the New York School, it is time that its paintings and the psychological process of their creation, each a legitimate field of inquiry, were given separate attention.

The interconnection of Hofmann’s style and personality has been difficult to establish. It is a question that has troubled other commentators who accept the old theories of the New York School, and it still troubles Mr. Hunter. It has no doubt delayed the appreciation of Hofmann’s paintings. Hofmann works in many styles, some of them uncomfortably like those of his contemporaries: clearly his inspiration is not only from within. But does this suggest a conflict, or that he is not entirely true to himself? Must one suppose that Hofmann has had to reject the “cult of personality” or that he has been “unwilling to settle into a single obvious style”? Is Hofmann trying to “conciliate [between] immediate sensation and…exacting canons of structural composition?” Is it not equally possible that this is his personality and that he has a continuing, analytical relation to the evolution of painting itself? Despite William James, whom Mr. Hunter quotes, it is doubtful that turmoil on a canvas is a register of how a painter looks at or feels about the world. There is probably a constant in Hofmann’s painting, but it is not to my mind expressionist. Hofmann’s most successful pictures seem to me those which are most cubist in style—Land of Bliss and Wonder, PreDawn, or Indian Summer. They are cubist not merely because of the importance of flat color areas and the minimal use of fluid gestures of the brush, but because their space is a restricted cubist space without any suggestion of that infinite depth behind the picture plane found, despite their differences, in both Pollock and Rothko. Because I judge them his finest works, they also appear to me to be his most characteristic. Whatever else they reveal about him is another question.

Hofmann has long been an influential teacher: Worth Ryder, one of his American pupils in Munich, first brought him to this country. He re-established his own school in New York in the Thirties, and there and in Provincetown his ideas and personality had a great influence upon many younger abstract artists. Included in this volume are Hofmann’s own writings on art which help to explain the two sides of his artistic doctrine. He has certain principles of design whose purpose is to preserve the unity of the picture plane while transposing the deep three-dimensional canvas, where relations in depth are suggested by color and not rendered by perspective line, and where, finally, there are no “holes” in the surface of the picture. Color thus becomes paramount—color establishes both plane and interval, and is as well an expressive agent. But Hofmann also believes in expressing his impulses freely (“At the time of making a picture I want not to know what I’m doing”) because they represent the forms of nature. He describes this as a vitalistic mysticism, perhaps influenced by Bergson, but also by surrealism. “My own work is initiated through inner vision. I sense the mysteries in nature and reveal them through the act of creation. There is no end in nature and none to inner vision.” (What mysteries, what visions?) “Art starts where construction ends, only visionary experience transformed into visionary pictorial expression will produce a masterwork.”

There is very little connection between these two aspects of Hofmann’s doctrine. As Mr. Hunter says, the first is essentially “technical and formalistic”; its intention is to rationalize, codify and reduce to explicit design formulas” for pedagogical purposes. It cannot even be said to be very personal. André Lhote’s teaching in Paris, for example, though somewhat more calculated, was founded on the same post-Cubist respect of the picture plane, and the “tensions” created between receding and advancing areas. Even Hofmann’s term “higher third” is but a happy way of saying that the structural relations of the parts of a painting, and not the parts themselves, constitute its unity and character. This book includes many of the dramatic metaphors Hofmann uses to describe the process of painting—the resistance of the canvas to the painter’s invasion—which express the freedom of gesture of his own works and those of the New York School.

The picture surface answers every plastic animation “automatically” with an aesthetic equivalent in the opposite direction. Push answers with the corresponding equivalent of pull, and pull correspondingly with push.

But such graphic condensations of aesthetic attitudes common to the twentieth century explain Hofmann’s success as a teacher as little as they explain the characteristics of his own art. In both cases they are only the merest beginnings and by themselves would result in barren doctrine and academic canvases. One can only conclude (perhaps lamely) that his faith in art as “a glorification of the human spirit,” the obvious pleasure he has in being himself a painter, his engagement in painting, was vividly communicated to his pupils. It is no news that aesthetic formulations are only tangentially related to artistic results.

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