A current exhibition shows the importance of works on paper in Hans Hofmann’s long and lauded career.
The German-born painter Hans Hofmann’s first exhibition in the U.S. was exclusively of drawings. The show was held in 1931 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco. Hofmann was in town for the second consecutive summer, teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, at the behest of former student and Berkeley art professor Worth Ryder.
At the time, Hofmann, who would become a towering figure of postwar 20th-century abstraction, hadn’t painted much of anything in over a decade. After leaving Paris right before the outbreak of World War I—a quick flight, which left much of his early work in France, never to be reclaimed—the artist established his school, the Hans Hofmann Schule für Bildende Kunst, in Munich in 1915. Teaching, a pursuit that would help define not only his work but also his legacy as an artist, consumed Hofmann, and painting took the back seat.
The introduction to the catalogue of the 1931 show was almost apologetic, according to Diana Greenwold, the associate curator of American art at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, the current host of “Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper” (through September 3). “Here they have Hofmann, a master colorist, but these are all black and white works on paper,” she says. Yet the group of drawings that were on view, a mix of portraits, interior figure studies, and landscapes from Saint-Tropez and other places, provided a clear window into Hofmann’s life and inspiration at the time. Roughly a quarter of the drawings had been made in California, where Hofmann was a fish—albeit a happy one—out of water. “In California,” says Greenwold, “he falls in love with the landscape. It’s so different than what he was used to in Europe.” Greenwold notes that in California Hofmann got his first car. “You see him exploring the landscape in a different way—he’s driving around and finding vistas in the Berkeley hills and then drawing them.”
Throughout his career, Hofmann’s works on paper, a less-known aspect of his oeuvre, serve as roadmaps to his location—be it geographical, ideological, or stylistic. At times, these works mirror his paintings; at others, they become the majority of his output, as they did during the 1920s. He uses a wide variety of media to create landscapes, figures, self-portraits, interiors, and full-blown abstractions that are not studies but completely realized works in their own right. “These aren’t preparatory sketches for him,” says Greenwold. “With works on paper, throughout his career Hofmann is working through the most important questions about abstraction and figuration, about color, and about space and line.”
As in his painting, when working on paper Hofmann declines to restrict himself to a signature style of image-making. Instead, he tastefully wades through the many movements bubbling to the surface of modern art, creating a body of work that is both experimental and unmistakably personal.
“Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper,” which is co-curated by Karen Wilkin and Marcelle Polednik, presents a chronological survey of Hofmann’s output on paper. The show was first mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville at the University of North Florida. There, with a bit more exhibition space, the museum mounted some 80 works. At its current incarnation at the Portland Museum of Art (PMA), the show narrows to around 60. “It was definitely tricky,” says Greenwold about decreasing the size of the show, “but we retained the chronological story, showing the various media Hofmann uses on paper and key works and key moments in his career.”
The earliest works in the show date to the 1910s, and though there are early watercolors, most are black and white pen and ink (it’s important to note, as mentioned above, that much of the artist’s work from this period was lost). “He’s using pen and ink because of its practicality,” says Greenwold. “He’s moving around a lot.”
Drawing seems to be a natural byproduct of Hofmann’s travels. Untitled (St. Tropez), an ink on paper landscape from 1929 that bears some of the lingering influence of the fledgling Fauvist and Cubist movements he discovered when in Paris from 1904–14, was created while teaching a course in Saint-Tropez. Pen and ink drawings from his time in California bear a similar sense of quick documentation. Several of these, such as Untitled (Windshield) (1930–32), are framed within the windshield or rearview mirror of his car.
Hofmann, who settled in New York in 1933, established his Eighth Street School (alumni include Lee Krasner, Wolf Kahn, Red Grooms, Robert de Niro Sr. and many more), adding a summer session in Provincetown, Mass., in 1935. In Hofmann’s works on paper from Provincetown, “super-saturated color,” as Greenwold puts it—be it crayon or watercolor—makes a big splash. There, as in California, Hofmann seems transfixed by the unique landscape and architectural elements of his locale. Dr. Brichta’s House, for instance, a cheerful mixed media on paper from 1943, represents a house and its yard as a modernist confection charged with energetic color.
Hofmann’s drawings from the ’40s reflect his pioneering experimentation with abstraction on canvas. Ambush, a richly colored 1944 oil on paper featuring dribbles and drips of red paint—a technique known later as the calling card of Pollock—heralds Abstract Expressionism. Untitled (1943), a tempera, transparent watercolor, crayon and ink on paper, makes use of the Matissean palette Hofmann so deeply admired, with creature-like figures bearing a playful jauntiness akin to those of Miró. Figure, a gouache on mat board from 1949 and Construction, a 1948 ink and oil on paper mounted on board, predate Hofmann’s famed “Slab paintings” by nearly a decade. Though certainly different from this series of paintings, with their bold, pulsating rectangles of vibrant colors, both drawings incorporate blocks of thick color, which exert themselves on the paper.
Self-portraiture is prevalent among Hofmann’s works on paper—much more so than in his painting practice. One piece in the show, a watercolor on paper, Untitled, Self-Portrait (circa 1941), portrays the artist from the chest up, abstracted with geometric passages and swaths of paint. A black scribble emerges atop his head, denoting an endearingly unruly tuft of hair. “He’s really free and playful in his works on paper,” says Greenwold. “With the self-portraits, for instance; to my knowledge he doesn’t have these in paint.”
The show features a beautiful selection of Hofmann’s later works on paper. Untitled (1965), a mixed media piece with sparse passages of color that appear pressed upon the paper, was made when Hofmann was in his mid-80s (he would die the following year). The work is elegantly pared down, the colors both soft in tone and softly applied. His forms are lightly creased as if from a rubbing or an impression taken from one of his paintings.
By Sarah E. Fensom