There are currents of influence on the contemporary art scene so pervasive that, in retrospect, they seem to define an entire era. For a good many artists and critics who came of age in the heyday of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the principal influences were those of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, and the passage of time has done nothing to diminish their status as avant-garde classics. Yet it’s likely that an even greater number of young American artists in that period owed their initiation into the aesthetics of modernism to a very different figure-the German émigré painter and teacher Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), whose paintings from the 1940’s are the focus of a splendid exhibition, A Search for the Real, at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art.
Given the quality and audacity of these early abstract paintings, it’s a wonder that Hofmann is nowadays so seldom cited as one of the masters of the New York School. Yet the reason why Hofmann is sometimes marginalized or entirely overlooked in accounts of the New York School are not obscure: He belonged to a generation that was not only older but also European. In a period when the New York avant-garde was given to boasting about the degree of independence it had achieved from European precedent, Hofmann’s background-which included study in Munich and a close personal acquaintance with the masters of the School of Paris-was regarded in some quarters as a liability.
Opinion was divided. In the art schools he founded in New York in 1933 and Provincetown in 1935, young aspiring modernists regarded their studies with Hofmann as a crucial stage of their artistic development. Indeed, I can recall a time when virtuallyeveryyoung painter I met was a Hofmann student or aspiring to become one. The Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts (as it was called) had become a rite of passage into the New Yorkavant-garde. And yet the critics-with one exception-tended to withhold their accolades.
Theexception, Clement Greenberg, proved to be important both for Hofmann and for a public still somewhat bewildered by the variety and complexity of artists’ abstractions. In his classic essay, “‘American-Type’Painting” (1955), Greenberg, who was then mainly known to the public as the writer who had “discovered” Pollock, enthusiastically nominated Hofmann for a similar stardom. The key passage in this essay is worth quoting for the benefit of viewers not yet acquainted with Hofmann’s accomplishments as a painter:
“Hans Hofmann is the most remarkable phenomenon in the abstract expressionist ‘school’ (it is not really a school) and one of the few members who can already be referred to as a ‘master.’ Known as a teacher here and abroad, he did not begin showing until 1944, when he was in his early sixties, and only shortly after he had become definitely abstract. Since then he has developed as one of a group whose next oldest member is at least twenty years younger …. Hofmann’s pictures in many instances strain to pass beyond the easel convention even as they cling to it, doing many things which that convention resists. By tradition, convention, and habit we expect pictorial structure to be presented in contrasts of dark and light, or value. Hofmann, who started from Matisse, the Fauves, and Kandinsky as much as from Picasso, will juxtapose high, shrill colors whose uniform warmth and brightness do not so much obscure value contrasts as render them dissonant. Or when they are made more obvious, it will be by jarring color contrasts that are equally dissonant. It is much the same with his design and drawing: a sudden razor-edged line will upset all our notions of the permissible, or else thick gobs of paint, without support of edge or shape, will cry out against pictorial sense …. Many people are put off by the difficulty of his art-especially museum directors and curators-without realizing it is the difficulty of it that puts them off, not what they think is its bad taste …. Hofmann’s art is very much easel painting in the end, with the concentration and the relative abundance of incident and relation that belong classically to that genre.”
I think this passage from Greenberg’s essay, with its references to Matisse and the Fauves juxtaposed with an emphasis on Hofmann’s characteristic dissonance, tells us almost everything we need to know about the artist’s qualities. It reminds us both of Hofmann’s gifts as a colorist-he was, I believe, the greatest colorist of the Abstract Expressionist group-and of that distinctively dissonant impulse that separated his art from European convention and the School of Paris.
A Search for the Real can be seen at Ameringer Yohe Fine Art, 20 West 57th Street, through Feb. 12.