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Hofmann, Hans

The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists

Ann Lee Morgan

Hofmann, Hans (1880–1966). Painter. 

A renowned teacher who influenced the development of many mid-twentieth-century abstract artists, he produced stylistically varied paintings, typically emphasizing brilliant color, painterly technique, and vigorous composition. His example contributed substantially to the genesis and reputation of abstract expressionism. As the most important Paris-trained European to live and work in the United States at length during the modern era, he represented to Americans the aesthetic sophistication of Continental culture. Dating mostly to the 1950s, his most distinctive paintings feature monochrome rectangles floating amid gestural brushwork. Born Johann Georg Albert Hofmann in the Bavarian town of Weissenberg, he moved with his family to Munich in 1886. At sixteen he was employed by the Bavarian public works director. During the following two years he contributed inventions to engineering and architectural projects, but in 1898 he abandoned science to begin art studies in Munich. While working with several teachers, he adopted impressionist and then postimpressionist styles for his early work. From 1904 until 1914 he studied and worked in Paris, where he made the acquaintance of leading artists, including Picasso, Matisse, and most importantly, Robert Delaunay. During this period he maintained contact with progressive artists in Germany, as he continued to visit and exhibit in his native country. Although he never met Kandinsky, Hofmann held his work and theories in high regard. The exact nature of Hofmann’s achievement during his decade of immersion in fauvism, cubism, and expressionism remains obscure because nearly all of his work from this time disappeared during World War I. When the conflict broke out, he happened to be in Germany and was prevented from returning to Paris; health problems allowed him to avoid military service. Instead, in Munich he opened a school, which became well-known internationally in the 1920s, even attracting Americans such as Carl Holty, Alfred Jensen, and Louise Nevelson. The demands of teaching prevented much painting during these years, although he continued to draw. Through visits to Paris, he also remained informed about continuing developments there.

Hofmann first visited the United States during the summer of 1930, when he taught at the University of California at Berkeley. After another visit to California the following year, in 1932 he accepted a position at the Art Students League and moved permanently to New York, becoming an American citizen in 1941. In 1933 he opened the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts and two years later began regularly conducting summer classes in Provincetown, on Cape Cod. He counted among his students numerous prominent artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Larry Rivers, as well as many members of American Abstract Artists, such as Burgoyne Diller. Hofmann’s teaching stressed the interaction of nature, theory, and paint on a two-dimensional surface, their relationships determined by intuitive rather than logical means. He believed in the spiritual content of painting but also insisted on drawing from observation. With time, he assigned an increasing role to color as the primary element of structure. His formulation of “push-pull” as the means of realizing plasticity on a flat surface became the most widely known aspect of his teaching. This approach to a painting’s internal dynamic, independent of representation, gave direction to students who grappled with the problem of creating modern art that maintained the optical authority invested in traditional painting, as passed down through Cézanne and his successors.

During the 1930s, despite continued immersion in teaching, Hofmann also returned actively to painting. At first, he favored stylized representation in portraits, still lifes, and landscapes indebted to Matisse. By the early 1940s the abstracting impulse predominated, as he was drawn toward the automatism associated with surrealism. In some works he employed a drip technique that prefigured a method associated with Jackson Pollock’s breakthrough all-over compositions. Through Krasner, the two became acquainted, and during the early 1940s mutual influences can be traced in their approaches to form and interests in mythic subjects. By the end of the 1940s Hofmann had begun to formulate his characteristic variation on abstract expressionist practice. Marked by rigorous concern for structure and lyric feeling for color, these works contrast the severity of geometric shape with magisterial, emotionally resonant hues and sensuous materiality. During the final few years of his career, the paintings tended toward looser organization. Never formulaic, his work of every period demonstrated stylistic variety born of the artist’s desire to achieve visual equivalents of the intuitive inner life. After relinquishing teaching in 1958, as he neared eighty, Hofmann painted prolifically nearly until his death. In Creation in Form and Color, begun in 1904 but not completed (and translated into English by Glenn Wessels) until 1931, Hofmann set forth basic principles. The Search for the Real, and Other Essays appeared in 1948.