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The Artist Of The Century
The power of his vision fused a bond between American and European art, and between the first and second halves of the century
November 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 7
Now on the left and then coming from right you’ll see the bombs. …” Of course, at first we couldn’t lift our eyes off the cross hairs on the middle of our TV screens quickly enough to see anything but the explosion billowing up at us. But given the patience to watch repeated NATO briefings, eventually we began to catch the blurs that ignited charcoal puffs of smoke. Perhaps in the next war we can hope to see the speeding bombs and consequent matter-of-fact black-andwhite explosions presented in full color. This advance would fulfill the end-ofthe-century global truism that political, military, and financial success guarantees the victor not spoils but better, more colorful media entertainment.
These widely anticipated bursts of color have been around the art world since the 1940s although the precedents for colored gesture occupying the whole pictorial surface—and hence the whole TV monitor—were set with impressionism in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In this century Hans Hofmann has produced more successful colored explosions on canvas than any other artist. Although not as familiar as they should be, many of his paintings are overwhelmingly beautiful, and most of them are obvious sources of the best painting of the second half of this century. The path of Jackson Pollock’s headlong return to the womb seen in his 1953 painting The Deep had been traced out early on in Hofmann’s pursuit of nature in such examples as The Wind (c. 1942). Similarly, Robert Rauschenberg’s incredible send-up of abstract expressionism, Monogram (1955-59), with its stuffed ram savagely defaced by oil paint, had its antecedents embedded in the equally ferocious paint smears of Hofmann’s 1946 Bacchanale .
We revere Hofmann, as Pollock did and Rauschenberg does, for proving that the straightforward manipulation of pigment can create exalted art. To put it simply, Hofmann’s ability to handle paint, to fuse the action of painting and drawing into a single, immediate gesture, carried colored pigment into the viewer’s presence with the force of a bomb. The power of this visual explosion catalyzed the bond of European and American art, cementing the first half of twentieth-century art inseparably to the second half.
Born in Bavaria in 1880, Hans Hofmann studied art in Munich and shortly after the turn of the century went to Paris, where he was in contact with Matisse, Picasso, and Braque. In 1915 he returned to Munich to open an art school, and for the next twentyfive years he was primarily a teacher, explaining the principles of cubism even as he himself began to conceive of moving bevond it. In 1930 he began doing some summer teaching at the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1932, with the German political climate darkening, he came to America for good, setting up art schools in New York and Provincetown. He would become the most influential proselytizer of abstract expressionism, but now he was painting again, too, and would continue to do so with unabating energy until his death in 1966.
The trajectory of Hofmann’s career was beautifully described at a recent exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, entitled “Hans Hofmann: Continuing the Search for the Real.” The exhibition checklist divided the twentytwo works into three groups: “The ‘30’s and ‘40’s: Moving Beyond Realism,” “The ‘40’s: Fluid Abstraction,” and “The ‘50’s and ‘60’s: Compositional Explorations.” The last grouping—“Compositional Explorations” —provided a title of mind-blowing modesty: All five paintings in this group were magnificent. They were without precedent except in Hofmann’s own work. More amazingly, they were without equal when they were painted and are without equal in quality since they were painted.
David Hockney used to get a rise out of collectors who were trying to pump him for information about the artists of the sixties with a very clever answer. Going in the face of the boom for colorfield painting, pop art, and minimalism, which dominated the decade, Hockney replied that the best was “Picasso, of course.” Now, late Picassos range from O.K. to great. They certainly spawned a lot of late-Picasso shows and considerable market activity (here Hockney was on the mark). Still, Hofmann is more legitimately the best artist of the 1960s and at least as surprising a choice as Hockney’s. The titles of two paintings from the art museum at the University of California at Berkeley, Goliath (1960) and Gloriamundi (1963), effectively tell the story of Hofmann’s relation to the art of his time—which is to say, all of the twentieth century.
The Goliath so convincingly slain in the 1960 painting of that name is cubism, and with its demise the armies following Picasso and Matisse were put to rout. Color defeats planar structure. The rectangles of red, yellow, blue, and green are knifed and brushed onto the pictorial surface in such a way that the viewer clearly experiences the color as a volume, even though the colored rectangles are delineated as twodimensional figures. Although the color has depth, we do not see its shape as an outlined three-dimensional solid but rather as a resonance and vibration of color that creates a feeling of inexact dimensionality, a thickness or substance that is less than an added dimension but more than the two existing delineated dimensions. So for the sake of convenience we could say that the volumetric sense of a Hofmann color slab is experienced as something like a fractional dimansion that lies somewhere between two and three dimensions.