Superheated Hans Hofmann in Small Met Exhibition

Among admirers of the late Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), whose work is currently the subject of a small-scale exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there has long been a feeling that as an artist-as distinct from his fame as a teacher-Hofmann has rarely been given his due. This is certainly the view of some of the artists who studied with Hofmann and for whom their experience in his classes proved to be crucial to their own artistic development. I think they are probably right about a reluctance to grant Hofmann some ultimate accolade. Yet I also think that the reasons for that reluctance are more complicated-and have more to do with fundamental artistic issues-than the master’s acolytes have generally thought them to be.

In one respect-his age and background-Hofmann’s life did undoubtedly work against his admission to the top rank of the Abstract Expressionist movement. He had, after all, produced his early work in Europe before most of the other Abstract Expressionist painters were born. He was in Paris, meeting Picasso, Léger, Braque and other luminaries of the early 20th-century avant-garde, when Gorky, de Kooning and Rothko were still in diapers. The New York School of the 1940’s and early 50’s wasn’t, to be sure, exactly a youth movement. In 1948, both Rothko and de Kooning were in their mid-40’s. Pollock and Motherwell were in their 30’s. But Hofmann was 68! Such differences in age meant even more then than they do now-and they are not unimportant today. Besides which, the fact that Hofmann was better known in the 1940’s as a teacher than as a painter made it all the more difficult for the younger painters to consider him a contender.

Still, what was most important in separating Hofmann from his fellow Abstract Expressionists was his painting. No matter how advanced Hofmann’s work may have been in other respects, it remained steadfastly loyal to the scale and conventions of the easel picture. If its energy seems at times to burst the very boundaries of that form, it is nonetheless painting that remains comfortably placed within the easel mode. Yet this was precisely what the younger Abstract Expressionist painters were in the process of abandoning in favor of mural-scale wall painting. This decisive break with easel practice was not, apparently, a direction which Hofmann ever felt inclined to pursue. I think it was alien to his painterly sensibility.

Be that as it may, Hofmann’s one attempt to create an actual mural-the only one I know of, anyway-wasn’t a painting but a large-scale outdoor mosaic mural decoration commissioned in the 1950’s for a public school on West 49th Street in Manhattan. It happens to be located just down the block from my apartment, so I probably have a closer acquaintance with it than any other critic of his work. Suffice it to say that it has never made me yearn to see another like it. Compared to the rubbish that nowadays passes for public art in New York, it does at least have the merit of being inoffensive. But while it doesn’t offend, it doesn’t enhance, either. The mosaic medium, which by its very nature is static, was totally at odds with Hofmann’s pictorial impulses, which were fundamentally Expressionist and thrived on exuberance and what might also be described as a well-rehearsed mode of improvisation.

Hofmann’s kind of improvisation was closer in spirit to Kandinsky’s, however, than to the automatism of the Surrealists that exerted so great an influence on the younger Abstract Expressionists. (Is it a mere coincidence that Hofmann established his first art school in Munich, where Kandinsky had some years earlier created his first Improvisations ?) Hofmann’s own improvisatory impulses relied, in any case, more on intellectual intention than on an exploitation of the unconscious. This, too, set his painting apart from an important aspect of the Abstract Expressionist esthetic-its kinship with the culture of psychoanalysis. Hofmann seems never to have been a candidate for the psychoanalytical couch. His was an Abstract Expressionism devoid of angst, and that may also have counted against him.

It has to be remembered, especially in regard to the current exhibition, which is called Hans Hofmann at the Metropolitan Museum of Art , that his best paintings tend to be his late paintings. There are two paintings in the show from the early 1950’s, and nine paintings from the so-called Renate Series, named for the artist’s second wife, which all date from 1962-65-in other words, from the twilight of the Abstract Expressionist movement. They are the bold, highly charged paintings of a talent which seems to have enjoyed a rebirth of vitality in old age. Karen Wilkin got it exactly right when, on the occasion of the Hofmann exhibition at the Whitney in 1990, she wrote: “Those exuberant, superheated, mature paintings are, in some ways, the work of a young artist in full command of his powers who happened to be an old man.” That is certainly the impression we are left with from the Renate Series paintings in this show.

It is doubtful, however, that this show will do much to alter Hofmann’s somewhat equivocal standing as a member of the New York School. He seems destined to remain in the second rank of the movement with which he came to be identified. Yet it may also be true that we still do Hofmann an injustice by assigning him a place in a movement that was in so many respects alien to his esthetic sensibilities. At the Met, where there are now so many fine examples of Abstract Expressionist painting, Hofmann looks more and more European, more like what in fact he was-an heir to the tradition of Northern European Expressionism who had the good fortune to come of age in the heyday of the School of Paris. It was only in America, however, and after long service in the training of a great many American talents, that he was fully able to realize his European destiny. This is at once the paradox and the glory of the late artistic flowering that is the focus of Hans Hofmann at the Metropolitan Museum of Art , which remains on view through Oct. 17.