- Historic Sites
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
But being real is not good enough. We want to know who was the best. Wasn’t Pollock America’s greatest artist? Wasn’t Hofmann just a teacher? In 1963, when Gloriamundi was painted, weren’t Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg the most famous artists in the world? The answer to these three questions is yes. But the yes doesn’t in any way diminish the splendor of Gloriamundi ; it actually enhances it. Yes, Pollock, at this moment riding deservedly high after his recent retrospective, may be hailed as America’s greatest painter. However, this could be mostly the enthusiasm of the moment. Remember, this recent show was nearly identical to the 1967 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, and at that time the museum was willing to risk only one color reproduction, Lucifer (1947), in the otherwise completely black-and-white catalogue on an artist who was not so incidentally described in a contemporaneous New York Times review as actually “a third-rate painter.” Anyway, in the world of abstract painting there is plenty of room for greatness. Hofmann could remain the greatest abstract easel painter, leaving Pollock to be the greatest abstract mural painter.
Again, yes, Hofmann was the greatest art teacher of the twentieth century. Being the greatest art teacher of the century did not, however, stop him from painting some of the century’s greatest paintings. And yes, when Leo Castelli was king and Bob and Jasper were the most famous artists in the world, Hans Hofmann was showing the best painting painted in the world that year. He was in his eighties, well known, well loved, just not famous outside of the art world; but in that year, with that painting, he was far and away the best.
He was typically at his best in your face, in color in another great painting, again aptly titled, Magnum Opus (1962). When the efforts at war reporting are updated, upgraded to color, the monitors will try to replicate on our TV screens the force of the uplifted cadmium red monadnock that fills the surface of Hofmann’s Magnum Opus . With Goliath behind us and Gloriamundi still pulsating in our ocular memory as it was at the beginning of the strike against Yugoslavia, it will not be as difficult for us to pick up the barium yellow flare on the right and the cobalt blue bomb on the left. We won’t need the briefing experts to guide our eyes to the big red explosion.