Hans Hofmann, deeply influential for decades as a teacher and theorist, achieved late-career greatness as an Abstract Expressionist painter.
Hans Hofmann, a German-American abstract painter and teacher who worked with many of the mid-20th century’s leading artists, devised the term “push and pull” to describe the dynamic relationship between flatness and depth in a painting or drawing. At times, Hofmann used the term in concert with others—“movement and countermovement,” “force and counterforce,” and “plasticity”—the latter synonymous not only with the malleability of space but also with the sense that there is a fusion to all elements in a picture. In Hofmann’s work, the term comes to life through a sense of movement through several planes, a flux between positive and negative visual energies, and the fight between forms for frontality. “Push and pull” also gave vibrant language to the elements of Abstract Expressionism, of which Hofmann was at the forefront.
In The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art, critic and painter Lance Esplund delves deeper into “push and pull,” writing that the forms in Hofmann’s The Gate, (1959–60) are “interacting and struggling within the universe of the picture, just as we interact and struggle within our own universe.” Esplund posits that every great work of art explores Hofmann’s “push and pull” to some extent through the dynamic tension at the core of human existence: that there is physical life and then death.
Hofmann taught that, even in abstraction, painters should work from life. In 1944 he wrote, “Nature stimulates in me the imaginative faculty to feel the potentialities of expression which serve to create pictorial life…a ‘pictorial reality.’” In practice, the result of this theory isn’t figuration but rather—as with The Gate and its prominent yellow rectangle, which can seem to swing open and shut—the quivering presence of three-dimensionality in two-dimensional space, a grasping at life itself.
Hofmann’s accomplishments as a painter were extraordinary, both in his lifetime and thereafter, but so much of his legacy, for better or for worse, is as a teacher. He taught from the 1910s to 1957, after which he finally devoted himself to his own work, until his death in 1966. He opened a school in Munich in 1915 and was eventually asked to teach at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1930. Switching coasts, he taught at the Art Students League in New York before establishing his own schools there and in Provincetown, Mass., in the mid-’30s. Over the course of some 25 years, Hofmann counted such celebrated artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Wolfgang Paalen, Allan Kaprow, Ken Jacobs, Ray Eames, Red Grooms, and Wolf Kahn among his students. For Hofmann, teaching had far-reaching implications. “Providing leadership by teachers and support of developing artists is a national duty, and insurance of spiritual solidarity,” he wrote in 1931. “What we do for art, we do for ourselves and for our children and future.”
Embodying this sense of duty, in 1963, he donated 47 of his paintings and a substantial cash gift to UC Berkeley. The donation, he wrote, was meant to recognize the role the university played in his career; it was there he had his start as an artist in the United States. His contribution created the impetus for the University’s first purpose-built art museum, the Bancroft Way building, designed by Mario Ciampi and erected in 1970.
Hofmann’s gift furnished another important foundation at UC Berkeley, the most extensive collection of his work in the world. That collection is the basis of “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,” an exhibition that runs at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) through July 21. Important loans from private collections that have never before been exhibited in a museum setting round out the exhibition of nearly 70 paintings. These additions help shed new light on BAMPFA’s holdings and Hofmann’s career as a whole.
The publication in 2014 of the catalogue raisonné of Hofmann’s paintings roused new interest in his career. At the same time, BAMPFA was developing a major Hofmann exhibition as part of its initial programming for a new space to replace Bancroft Way, which had become structurally unsound, and the publication greatly affected what the exhibition would become. Joining the signature works of Hofmann’s late career are dozens of works from the 1930s and ’40s, which are not only exciting and sophisticated but also harbingers of what was to come. Many of these have not been exhibited in decades.
“In the middle of conceptualizing the exhibition, I saw the catalogue raisonné and thought to myself ‘Oh my god, we have a new show,’” says Lucinda Barnes, BAMPFA’s curator emeritus and curator of the “The Nature of Abstraction.” “It brought to light so many works that I hadn’t seen and that hadn’t been shown in years, and what became apparent to me was the level of experimentation, energy, and investigation there was in Hofmann’s early paintings.”
Barnes begins the chronologically organized exhibition in the 1930s, with Hofmann in the United States. At this time, he was a middle-aged man who had been painting since 1898. To his new home he brought a deep knowledge and appreciation for the many avant-garde movements that had captivated early 20th-century Europe: Expressionism, Symbolism, Cubism, Fauvism, and De Stijl, among others. Works in the exhibition from this period, such as the still life Apples (circa 1934), showcase the enduring influence of Cézanne and his friend Matisse. Apples features a spread of fruit arranged on a board placed atop a three-legged stool. The painting’s surface is textural, punctuated by regions of thick color. The rich Fauvist palette evokes Matisse’s early still lifes, as well as works by Cézanne like Still life with Apples (1895–98) and Still life with Apples and A Pot of Primroses (1890s), which were on view at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s while Hofmann was in New York.
Studio scenes were a vital part of Hofmann’s repertoire in the 1930s and take pride of place in the exhibition. Through the addition, subtraction, and rearrangement of objects within this familiar setting, Hofmann wrestled with varying spatial paradigms, color sequences, and styles. Two paintings in the exhibition, Studio Unfinished, a 1936 oil on panel, and Still Life, an oil on panel from the same year, show vastly different stylistic approaches—the former more akin to Apples, the latter a fairly literal interpretation of Cubism.
One highlight of the show, Atelier (Still Life, Table with White Vase), from 1938, of a series of studio interiors featuring a round table that Hofmann painted in 1936–38, has passages of loose, thick strokes that bring de Kooning’s to mind. For Barnes, the painting, which is in a private collection, was one worth fighting for: “I can’t tell you how much begging I had to do to get it in the show.”
Around the same time that Hofmann was painting his studio scenes, he was also creating a largely untitled series of landscapes painted in Provincetown. Featuring what appears to be the hillside view from his studio, the works also show the artist playing with different moods and styles—Fauvist, Expressionist, Cubist. “There’s an indication that this similar scene is one that’s personal to him, like the studio interiors, and from here he is able to explore different things, iterate and reiterate,” says Barnes. “That continual iteration is a way of moving to greater essence and refinement.”
Several of these landscapes came to be featured at Hofmann’s first solo exhibition, at Peggy Guggenheim’s revolutionary gallery Art of This Century in 1944. However, Barnes notes that it’s unlikely that they were made expressly for the show, but rather in “an explosion of ideas.” She says, “It’s almost as though he were completely cut free. Of course, I don’t know what the exact circumstances were, but I find these works so expressive, that it’s almost as if, after decades of only having the energy really to teach, here he is becoming a painter again.”
During the 1940s, Hofmann continued to sample from a stylistic tasting menu, while also developing exciting new additions to his work. He played with Surrealist automatism and, inspired by his former student Wolfgang Paalen’s use of candle drippings in his paintings, experimented with drip techniques. The Wind (1942) finds Hofmann dripping white paint and lines of black ink dancing atop a cacophonous blue foundation, and the whole composition seems to erupt in an instantaneous event. Due to the experimental and expressionist nature of the two bodies of work, Barnes installed these drip works right after Hofmann’s “loosest” landscapes of this period.
The notion of explosion in The Wind is pushed even further in Cataclysm (Homage to Howard Putzel), from 1945. Hofmann began working on it shortly after Putzel, a dealer who had championed his work, died suddenly. Its palette of blues, bright orangey reds, greens, and yellow, as well as its spangled, incidental lines, bring to mind Miró, an artist Hofmann greatly admired. The painting’s thin, central splat of blue seems to send forms of varying thickness and size careening about the composition.
As the ’40s gave way to the ’50s, larger, more forceful geometric forms dominated Hofmann’s work, commingling to create volumetric, architectonic structures. As a complement to his 1948 retrospective at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass., Hofmann published “A Search for the Real in the Visual Arts,” a summation of his teachings and his beliefs as an artist overall. It was also in He publication that Hofmann’s phrase “push and pull” first appeared in print. Hofmann wrote that push and pull “are expanding and contracting forces which are activated by carriers in visual motion. Planes are the most important carriers, lines and points less so.” Hofmann brings in Cézanne to further explain his concept. “At the end of his life and the height of his capacity Cézanne understood color as a force of push and pull. In his pictures he created an enormous sense of volume, breathing, pulsating, expanding, contracting through his use of colors.”
What Hofmann says of Cézanne is, essentially, a prediction of the culmination of his own career. In 1957, a star in the firmament of Ab-Ex, Hofmann was the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Writing about the show, critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, “No American artist can mount a show of greater coherent variety than Hans Hofmann. Fed by his tireless consciousness, constantly growing more concrete and inwardly responsive, his originality suggests no limits.”
From the late 1950s, when he retired from teaching, through the end of his life, Hofmann was working at the height of his capacity and enacting the principles of “push and pull” with incredible clarity on canvas. His years of experimentation resulted in an incredibly vivid and refined voice. In Morning Mist (1958) rectangles seem to float in mid-air, popping forward and receding backward, playfully mingling yet remaining independent. In The Vanquished (1959) on top of thick, sharply defined rectangles of color is a large spill of black pigment, textured and glossy, like an oil spill or hot lava. Always fluid, Hofmann seems to prove that he could even merge himself with himself.
“When he was teaching, he pursued various experiments and avenues in his work, as if he was pushing and coaching himself like one of his own students. Then, when he stops teaching, he emerges as is own artist,” says Barnes. “I think his late paintings suggest that he believed art was a transformative process.”
By Sarah E. Fensom