|Hans Hofmann painting on the dunes, 1943, Photograph by Herbert Matter
Around the time I was first learning about art and art’s history, which was in the late 50s and the 60s, it seemed there’d be little or no chance to witness the late styles of the artists of the New York School who were then being celebrated in the world of contemporary art for “The Triumph of American Painting”. Little or nothing, that is, to compare with the haunting visions of the aging Donatello, Titian, Michelangelo, or Rembrandt, which we’d found so moving while being introduced to the Old Masters, because so few of our contemporary masters seemed to be surviving beyond their initial maturity. Gone by 1970 were Gorky, Pollock, Kline, Rothko, Newman, and David Smith, titans all, leaving in their wake the impression that the first generation of Abstract Expressionists had been born to a tragic destiny, their careers aborted by the forces of nature or their very own hands.
Against this bleak pattern of careers interrupted, Hans Hofmann stands as an earthbound and enlightening exception. A full generation older than the Abstract Expressionists among whom he circulated, and by whom he was highly respected, his firsthand experience of Matisse and Picasso in Paris at the start of the 20th century inured him to the cultural alienation that haunted many of his younger colleagues and too often propelled them toward lives of excess and self-destruction. In contrast, Hofmann was comfortable with the meaning of his enterprise; he had nothing to prove and was content to move his painting along at its own pace. He was content as well with being a teacher of art at private schools he operated for many years in New York and Provincetown, his name synonymous with the push/pull theory that grounded his pedagogy with the message that a painting’s surface be everywhere taut, with every part in dynamic tension with every other part, thus making the painting a vital and integrated whole.
|Hofmann, Hans (age 84), The Clash 1964 oil on canvas 52 x 60 inches (Berkeley Art Museum)
On top of all that, there remains the fact that Hofmann hit his stride only after 1950 when he turned 70 and that he worked with undiminished power until his death in 1966. In that stretch he painted with the energy and daring of a 30-something artist in possession of the experience and authority of a fully mature adult. With each decade that has passed since I first saw them, his pictures have for me just gotten better and better, feeling ever vital as they expand their embrace and deepen their understanding of painting’s richness and the pleasures it provides. In this, the example of his achievement has become inspirational; regarding modern culture at large, his achievement has broadened our understanding of late style expression generally by leavening the tragic vision of our human condition with a joyous and celebratory declaration of its boundless emotional and intellectual capacity.
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.