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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
The Goliath is cubism, and with its demise the armies following Picasso and Matisse were put to rout.
Following this line of thought a bit further reveals that Hofmann’s genius lay in his ability to expand our dimensional experience of the pictorial surface, in this case brilliantly enlarging the clean, liberated, and open planar surface made available to abstraction after the abandonment of the conventional recessional space that perspective offered. He believed that color alone could activate a flat shape on a flat surface, making it appear as if the colored shape had enough substance to both create its own space within that surface and occupy a space in front of it. Moreover, he seems to have grasped almost immediately that this could also work in the opposite direction: that color in fact could give the impression of receding and dissolving into the space behind the surface plane. In this sense the colored washes that appear behind Hofmann’s rectangles might also be seen as acting in a fractional dimension, that the washes and diluted splashes recede from a twodimensional surface toward a onedimensional point, making spirited color activity in a pictorial space of one and a half dimensions. This creation with properly inflected color of a vital, vibrant pictorial space for real, abstract gesture in an area bounded by fractional measures between one and three dimensions is really a nice way to appreciate how special Hofmann’s touch was and to understand how, by fleshing out the rephrasing of pictorial space begun by the modernists, he helped make it possible to go beyond cubism.
So much for Goliath ; on to Gloriamundi . “Glory of the World” this painting surely is, and glory of the world his painting surely was and is. This straightforward personification of painting as the glory of the world and himself as the glory of painting is an antidote to the modesty of the Addison’s characterization of his late work as mere “Compositional Explorations,” although it may be that I missed the grandeur hidden in the notion of “explorations.” Great discoveries, the offspring of most successful explorations, are well valued, and anybody in the presence of Gloriamundi will feel that sense of discovery. He will discover how to be at one with painting. He will see Hofmann reach back to the painting of the past with the act of painting, watch as Hofmann pushes his painting to engage with all the painting of his time, and, finally, recognize how, by example, Hofmann thrusts painting into the future. Gloriamundi opens up a cyclorama of past painting that winds back to Hofmann’s birth. It can hardly be a coincidence that van Gogh’s presence is so strongly felt in this painting, and from van Gogh it’s easy to engage the early Pollock and the mid-career de Kooning. As well as celebrating the achievement of his abstract expressionist compatriots and linking his and their accomplishment to the cadmium yellow splendor of van Gogh, Hofmann somehow recognized the advanced processdriven art of the early sixties. There is plenty of Hofmann to be seen in the likes of Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, and Michael Heizer. Their bulldozed topologies, splattered surfaces, and defining minimalist geometries are well represented in Hofmann’s spectacular pictorial surfaces. It’s no surprise that his successors should try so hard to emulate his pictorial success with their own literalist efforts. His painting, backed up by his explicit titling, seemed to lay it on the line: gloriamundi for him, perhaps gloriamundi for his successors.
Hofmann created abstract paintings to match the achievements of the best representational paintings of the past.
Goliath and Gloriamundi show how Hofmann helped make the greatest change in twentieth-century art both possible and successful. He just stepped up and painted abstract paintings to match the achievements of the best representational paintings of the past. His essay “The Search for the Real” explains how his pictorial thought process evolved; the trick that made the transition from realism to abstraction possible turned on the notion of making abstraction real. It’s really very simple: To understand art is to be able to grasp in some meaningful way its vitality. The vitality, what Hofmann calls its “spirit,” is always there and apprehensible in great paintings. We just have to give a little, we have to admit that we can feel the vitality and experience the reality. Abstract art is just as real as representational art, or any other kind of art, for that matter.