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November 26, 2005 - January 8, 2006 at Imago Galleries, Palm Desert

by Roberta Carasso

“Landscape," 1935, casein
on board, 25 x 30".

“Provocation," 1946, oil
on panel, 42 30 3/4".

“Fear," 1946, oil on
canvas, 42 1/8 x 58 1/8".

Frolocking," 1965, oil on
canvas, 73 1/2 x 61 1/4".
When an era is viewed in retrospect, some artists seem to get better. Such is the work of Hans Hofmann. Known as both a master artist and a master teacher, Hofmann devoted himself to creating some of Modernism’s most thoughtful and colorfully lyrical abstract paintings, while mentoring art students to maturity. Hofmann established and operated, first in Munich and then New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, an accredited art school. In 1958, Hofmann, at 78, gave up teaching and became the fulltime artist he always dreamed of being. His work, which as sustained throughout his teaching career was consistently masterful, in his later years became superb, and established his place in the canon of Modernism.

This exhibition is not only valuable for its historical perspective, but it allows us to see the grandeur of Hofmann’s vision. The works here range over the last three decades of the artist’s life, 1936 to 1965 (he died in 1966 at age 86), from the symbolism of his early years in America, when he and many other artists were influenced by Surrealism’s automatic gestures, to the more geometric rectangular compositions for which he is best known. “Landscape” (1935, casein on board) is an early semi-realistic work with hints, in open areas of farm acreage, of the future abstraction of planes. “Provocation” (1946, oil on panel) is an exuberant, colorful piece, with only a suggestion of realism, but with a strong sense of space accented by white outlines against a blue ground. In contrast to this ebullience, “Fear” (1946, a black and white oil on canvas) harbors an ominous red body/hand in the foreground. As you move into the later, entirely abstract works, formal tension and color placement becomes tighter yet more poetic.

His last works revert to a greater elasticity of form and color. “Frolicking” (1965, oil on canvas) is minimal in nature, with dabs of three floating geometric shapes against a sparse ground of fluid organic shapes. For all of their formal merits, Hofmann’s work is finally deeply personal.

It is important to observe the way Hofmann uses movement, tension, and rhythms, and how each formal dynamic influences a total work--just as nature is the sum total of all the forces acting in it. Hofmann’s famous push pull theory, a culmination of many of his ideas, describes the plasticity of three-dimensionality translated to two-dimensionality. Shapes, colors, lines, calligraphic squiggles, and use of space always echo the reality found in nature, but its structure rather than its appearance. In his search for the real (as he titled his book, “The Search for the Real and Other Essays” [1948]) Hofmann produced a new type of landscape, one that is composed, not of trees and land, but of the tension between its space, form, color and planes.

The key to Hofmann’s paintings is his passion for nature, whether perceived on location, from memory, or imagination. He incessantly probed natural elements, focusing on volume, and geometric forms in positive and negative spaces. It was the object, he said, that creates the negative or positive space, not, as traditionally conceived, that an object is placed in a space. If an object creates space, then it is light that creates form. Similarly, light makes color in nature, but color creates light in painting.

Hofmann’s life, physically and aesthetically, spanned from Post-Impressionism to the New York School. He hobnobbed as an equal with the likes of Picasso and Matisse, and numerous other major artists in each generation, including the Abstract Expressionists, while exhibiting in prestigious and avant-garde venues. His work was generally well received, but he was never a leader of a particular movement. Hofmann was known as a synthesist because he brought together traditional methods and avant-garde concepts concerning the nature of painting, largely based on Cezanne, Kandinsky, and Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism. Because teaching dominated much of his creative life, his art was often critically measured against his theories. With his European sensibilities and his newly adopted American spirit, this exhibition provides an ample reminder that Hofmann’s work exemplifies a fusion of multiple aspects of 20th century art.