Currently Hanging

How could anyone not love Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)? Given the pluralist fog we’re currently muddling through, perhaps the question should be rephrased: How could anyone who loves the art of painting not love Hofmann? The retrospective of his works on paper, now on display at Ameringer/Howard, isn’t much more than a patchwork introduction to the oeuvre, but it does give a remarkable measure of the man. Whether drawing from the driver’s seat, wrangling with Cubism or recycling paintings for collages, Hofmann was incapable of making a mark that didn’t pulse with his galumphing over-the-top esprit. But “esprit” seems too polite a word for this most rambunctious of painters.

There’s a solidity and a fulsomeness to Hofmann’s art that imbues even his throwaways with a monumentality of feeling. The finest piece here is an almost errant smattering of stains, blots and smears from 1965 that somehow-magically!-coalesces into a composition of supernal elegance. Hofmann’s particular élan, a kind of sunny, boundless generosity, propels the work even when it doesn’t come up to pictorial snuff-which is a lot of the time. There wasn’t an iota of pause to his artistic attack, so the work is often as exuberantly slapdash as it is exuberantly headlong.

Still, if there are few cut-and-dried masterworks in Hofmann’s output, his near-misses and also-rans operate on a level that few other artists come close to. It’s impossible not to leave the Ameringer/Howard show without an increase of lilt in one’s step. It’s also impossible not to leave without feeling somewhat despondent, and wondering whether we’re likely to see a painter of similar stature-of similar optimism, ambition, and authority-in our own time. Hans Hofmann: Retrospective on Paper is at Ameringer/Howard, 41 East 57th Street, until June 9.

A Self-Portraitist At Arm’s Length

The painter Susanna Coffey, whose canvases are on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, is a puzzle. She paints small, blocky and witheringly focused pictures of herself. Not self-portraits, mind you-or, at least, not what we might consider traditional self-portraits. However many times we see her face-usually presented close up, eyes to the viewer, and boxed within the parameters of the canvas-we never get a sense of who she is. Ms. Coffey may depict herself as blissfully dowdy, eerily benevolent or blandly intimate, but she always remains a cipher. Reading the exhibition catalog, we learn of her fascination with the “ambiguity of gender representation,” but ambiguity isn’t her forte. Evasion is. The work is adamant in its refusal to commit and is defined by what it is not: not portraiture, not psychological, not feminine, not masculine-and yet, not nothing.

An adroit paint handler, Ms. Coffey builds form through edgy, itchy patches of color, and her surfaces have a nicely underplayed “push.” The pictures, as feats of painting, are worthy of putting our noses to, yet the closer we get to them, the more they rebuff us. In her recalcitrance, Ms. Coffey is reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt, another painter who divined an unyielding nugget of meaning by scouring his own meager patch of skepticism. Her goal isn’t to placate us; it’s to earn our grudging respect. She succeeds more than we might like to admit. Susanna Coffey: New Work is at Tibor de Nagy, 724 Fifth Avenue, until June 8.

Art About Artifact -And Trains

There’s much to admire in Eric Holzman’s paintings, also on display at Tibor de Nagy, but something to distrust, too. Mr. Holzman is a student of the museum, and his landscapes, still lifes and stray figures uphold, solemnly and silently, the verities of high culture. Tradition is, for this artist, a Herculean burden, and his canvases have a dour, rooted force. Yet the inspiration Mr. Holzman derives from, say, Roman wall paintings or Renaissance art is also constricting and curiously secondhand. Humbled by history, he transforms it into a matter of surface and patina. His is an art about artifact-of objects weathered by time and circumstance. Mr. Holzman is so dutiful in his pursuit that he all but renders himself oblivious to art’s capacity for standing outside of time, of sparking its own independent life.

The series of paintings titled Tree at Station (1998-2001) are something else, and do something more. While they’re just as weathered and ghostly as the other work, their rough-hewn facture-a fine, crusty nubble-is more a matter of hard-won consummation than pictorial affect. In these scrabbled pictures, we see Mr. Holzman nail down a particular-and, one intuits, somewhat vexing-sense of light and place and mood. The results are simultaneously vague and incisive, haunting and terse, not enough and just right. With Tree at Station # I, in particular, Mr. Holzman locates a not so much happy as tensely accommodating medium between the glories of the museum, the mutability of nature and the plain-as-day tedium of waiting for the train. Eric Holzman: Paintings and Drawings is at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, until June 9.

Where Have You Gone, John Duff?

“John Duff deserves recognition as one of the finest abstract sculptors of his generation,” writes David Cateforis in the catalog that accompanied a 1995 exhibition of Mr. Duff’s art at the Johnson County Community College Gallery of Art in Overland Park, Kan. This is pretty much the conclusion I have reached upon seeing Mr. Duff’s work over the years here in the city, most notably at David McKee Gallery in the early 1990’s. Yet the current exhibitions devoted to his art-early sculptures at Knoedler & Company and recent pieces at Baumgartner Gallery in Chelsea-left me so stymied and deflated that I briefly wondered if this could be the same artist. It is, of course, and it’s at this point that one begins to ponder the reliability of not only memory, but artistic talent as well.

Talented Mr. Duff most assuredly is. His sculptures-thorough investigations of space as volume and object as container-evince an artist with a keen, if not particularly effusive, eye for surface, interval and direction. The work also evinces an artist with a keen appreciation for his own expertise. Self-aggrandizing Mr. Duff isn’t, but every time he makes a sculptural decision he heralds, albeit with the tightest of lips, its utter fineness. One sees in his work the influence of Brancusi, Eva Hesse, perhaps Ellsworth Kelly and Minimalism-definitely Minimalism. Like the art of that autocratic and (I insist) pernicious school, Mr. Duff’s work states its credo so bluntly-not to say arrogantly-that it’s a question as to why any self-respecting gallery-goer should pay it a moment’s notice. Not all of Mr. Duff’s pieces suffer from such august inertia. A couple of recent sculptures, Cosa Mentale I & II (both 2000), generate a concise analytical friction-and that’s a good sign. But even they can’t touch the homely, homemade pathos of Mr. Duff’s plywood constructions from the mid-1970’s. Some artists are better off raiding the woodshed than readying another masterwork for inclusion in the history books. John Duff: Elements, Increments, Intervals; A Two-Part Exhibition of Early and Recent Sculpture is at Baumgartner Gallery, 418 West 15th Street, until June 6, and at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, until June 29.