Monday, January 31, 2011

AARP Painter Supreme: A Note on Late Style in the Art of Our Time

Hans Hofmann painting on the dunes, 1943,  Photograph by Herbert Matter
 By Carl Belz

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)
The fact of Hofmann’s legendary teaching of push/pull was in fact the first fact I learned about him and it was so clearly evident in his pictures that they at first seemed academic, as if his push/pull theory had been employed as a formula for their making. How off the mark that impression was hit me with the force of an epiphany when I encountered firsthand the full Hofmann experience at his 1963 MoMA retrospective. For towering before me was a painter whose work blew away one after another of the critical theories I’d been absorbing in the classroom and decisively gave the lie to any thought that his pictures were formulaic. There were paintings clearly structured as landscapes that also included crisply edged rectangular slabs of color, thus challenging the abstract versus representational divide insisted upon during the 50s in the name of modernist autonomy. There were paintings combining troweled pigment with thin washes of color, thus questioning the then-current call for singularly unified surfaces. There were recent paintings in which impulsively dripped lines suggested human figures or animals, thus recalling a Surrealist practice that had presumably been buried since the 1940s. And there were paintings, one after another after another, in which color eclipsed all of the above, casting aside the dictates and debates and theories of the day—including even the master’s own push/pull—color whose sheer and exuberant radiance left no doubt about its primacy as a vehicle for meaning.

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.


Rona Conti said...

The last line is a beautiful summary for all, AARP or not. One cannot help but be re-juvenated and land squarely in the optimist camp while so much disintegrates around us or is rejected without much hesitation. Carl Belz envisions, enlivens, enriches and enlightens.

Kyle Gallup said...

Very nice Carl. Enjoyable read.
Luck for an artist is living into old age with the vitality and the ability to carry on as if they are still 20 yrs. old. Hofmann shows us it can be done. Thank you.

michael cross said...

I think the artmaking itself keeps artists young, but what it takes to BE an artist wears you down before your time. A paradox, really.

Olga Kitt said...

Hans Hofmann had a natural buoyant spirit, a joie de vivre. He enjoyed teaching and he was a magnificent teacher but teaching required a great deal of attention and energy. It diverted his attention from what he was doing in his studio. It wasn't until after he stopped teaching and devoted his undivided attention to painting that all his energies were free to explode on canvas, focused and fully directed. He was a creative explorer. As a former student of his, I wonder what paintings he might have made had he not been a teacher.

Carl Belz said...

Olga: Your comment, very much to the point, reminds me of what Frank Stella wrote, namely: "Hofmann was a great teacher but that didn't prevent him from making great paintings." As you point out, however, Hofmann painted the bulk of his great paintings AFTER he stopped teaching in 1958. And thus did he become the exception that indeed PROVED the rule that great teachers don't often produce great paintings. Thanks for your comment.

Kyle Gallup said...

I read an interview with Lee Krasner where she spoke about her experience studying with Hofmann. She said that he was very difficult to understand because of his accent and every time he came around to crit her work she would listen intently and then ask the person next to her to interpret what he said. I can imagine that his energy, enthusiasm and being European must have been an experience for his students that stayed with them throughout their lives. Thank you Olga.