PRINT January 1971

A Conversation with Hans Hofmann

Kandinsky speaks of the nightmare of materialism in which man has been living and still lives, and he speaks of the crude emotions, like 1 fear, joy and grief, that belong to this materialist environment. The artist of the future, on a higher spiritual plane, according to Kandinsky, will not be concerned with these crudities, but will attempt to arouse more refined emotions. Do you agree with this evaluation of emotion? Are fear, joy and grief spiritual crudities? Do you, too, believe in the possibility, in some future time, of human beings having souls so spiritually refined that they will experience emotions we’ve never been aware of?1

Well, I will tell you, I have quite a different standpoint. in relationship to the whole thing. I believe in spirituality, yes, but I have to explain it in a very, very different way. First of all, what is spirituality? Geistigkeit—this a German Word; in, English, spirituality. It is the result of a sixth sense, the sense of sensibility, the ability to or see look into things in depth, to discover the inner life, We see only the surface of things, but our sensibility explores the inner life’ of every, thing and has the capacity to feel every, relationship within this inner life. This is naturally an extremely complicated process. And that is the reason that it is extremely difficult to explain and bring out. You have to have certain experiences before you can understand what I speak about here.

If it is fear—whatever it might be—if it is something rough or smooth or beautiful—everything must in the end come to expression through spirituality. It is not merely the surface that counts. An artist never can be an imitator. He must be a creator, and as a creator he can be nothing else but a spiritual personality. Lacking this his art will be only academic and have no interest whatsoever.

You have to reorder things—what you have experienced—into the sense of the material through which you express yourself.

This material has inner laws, and that is my greatest discovery. On the basis of these inner laws, you create. You need not know these laws, but you must—every artist when he has temperament—he senses and feels these inner laws.

It’s not really what you say, see; it’s always how you say what you have to say. If you write, if you just write poetry, if you dance, if you paint, it is all the same thing. It’s not merely what you show. It’s the process which is inherited in the created work that makes it a work of art. In other words, it reflects the artist in his full capacity of sensing, of feeling, in his capacity of thinking, of ordering, of feeling, and sensing things which only he senses.

William Seitz wrote about your work that sometimes it might suggest soft winds, the feel of soft winds, or the sound of a storm . . .

When I paint, I paint under the dictate of feeling or sensing, and the outcome all the time is supposed to say something. And that is most often my sense of nature . . . especially in relation to it might suggest landscape and might only suggest certain moods, and so on but this must be expressed in pictorial means, according to . . . the inner laws of these means. Only this is acceptable as art.

Then, it would be fair, as regards your intentions, for a viewer looking at your abstract picture to respond as if it were quite specific imagery . . .?

Sure. Let him take his own pleasure [laughter]. Maybe he has an analytical mind, he wants to understand, he wants to make sense. He wants actually to understand it. But this understanding of what is really creation cannot be philosophical. This is an inner process, and how I say, is based on a sixth sense. We have not only five senses. And this sixth sense is sensibility, sensing and feeling. Either we have it or we have it not. When we have it not, well, then we are just a little closer to the animal. When we have it, then, we are above the horizon.

You would feel, then, that an artist is born—you can’t learn to be an artist.

Never. See, I as a teacher . . . It’s a tremendous experience, teaching . . . I think there is not another man in this world who has the experience as a teacher that I have. So as a result of my long, long period of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that you cannot actually teach art; you cannot. You can let everyone paint, let him have his enjoyment, but you cannot teach him the sixth sense. You cannot. Everyone, more or less, has talent, a little bit. It then depends on the teacher how the talent is developed. It must develop through work, not through a teacher, not through influences from the outside. You cannot help it, you belong to a certain time. You are yourself the result of this time. You are also the creator of this time. That all goes hand in hand to make your work significant.

The child is really an artist, and the artist should be like a child, but he should not stay a child. He must become an artist. That means he cannot permit himself to become sentimental or something like that. He must know what he is doing. A child knows nothing. A child has tried color. He tasted art. He spits on it. [Laughter.] And so he goes, through a thousand and then ten thousand steps until the artist in his full maturity has developed, until his . . . Titian took 99 years to paint the greatest picture in the world, The Flagellation of Christ.

Would you discuss your ideas about the role of accident in art?

The accident, it’s very important. There is absolutely no objection against it because through accident you discover. You discover not through calculations. You discover through destructions. When you want to build a house you must tear something down so the house can be built.

You have seen this every day—a slum is destroyed, and half an hour later you see a new city, see. That is only possible on the basis of the machine that had the capacity to destroy a hundred times more than it could do in earlier times . . . In every gesture there is an accident.

What is the relationship between the titles of your paintings and the paintings themselves?

I start out with no preconception from the very start. I let things develop according to my sensing and feeling, to my moods, especially those in which I find myself when I get up in the morning.

Sometimes I’m in extremely gay moods, sometimes I’m not so gay. When that’s already come to expression on the first spot I see on my canvas, from then on, it goes on and on and the painting—my paintings—I say it once more—my paintings go through tens of thousands of developments, tens of thousands of developments in which the different values have been brought up to the creation of an immense volume with the expression of universality, with space, and so on.

That is not accident. That is all created. That is also the control from a certain momentum, see? But at the same time there develops in me a relationship to my own paintings, and this is mostly a poetic relationship, because my painting itself is poetry. I consider this poetry expressed in color, and according to the outcome, I give my title.

I see. The meaning grows out of your relationship to the painting.

That’s what I wanted, see. This was all the time just what I wanted.

The titles are often extremely difficult to give because the title is very significant. It is not only significant but it often expresses itself as . . . the signature in a painting which is part of the painting, too, you see. The signature can destroy a whole painting.

(Mrs. H: It can make and break it.)

It can destroy the whole meaning of a painting. In a good painting every point counts, even when it is only a millimeter point. I very often send pictures to framers, and accidental things on which I have counted through the whole development of the picture that this should not be destroyed, they think it is dirt and . . . [Laughter].

Do you work on a painting over a period of days or weeks or months or hours?

I work very different. I work spontaneously and very rapidly, and I take extreme pains until I bring my picture to full—to full expression, how I want to have it. I mean, it must have the richness, let’s say, of music of an organ, like an organ. You can use color in a thousand different ways, see, and I know color in all its possibilities.

Is it possible to see op art in terms of your push-pull theory?

Push and pull is not so simple as people think it is. It is actually the secret of three dimensionality, of a flat surface . . . creating space, deep, deep space without destroying the surface, without drilling a hole in the surface. That’s my great discovery, which I discovered through my very rich teachings here.

It is all wrong with Italian perspective—it has only one direction in the depth, but nothing comes back. But in my pictures it goes back and comes—it goes in and it comes back, but comes not this back what I have done. Something’s added to the surface. But I have not touched. This comes back.

You mention the Renaissance, and mathematical perspective. I believe it’s fair to say the Renaissance artists were also aware of these abstract qualities in painting.

Yes, this has nothing to do. That is what hinders . . . it is not abstract quality—just the opposite. You see, on the basis of this comes the great simplification. What we all want now in art is to say the most with the least, not the least with the most.

Irma B. Jaffe is Chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at Fordham University.



1. Hofmann died one month after this interview, on February 17, 1966. Mrs. Renata Hofmann was present, designated here as Mrs. H. Our conversation took place in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hoenigsberg, Hofmann’s Germanic locutions have been given more English phrasing, but in technical areas, such as the discussion of “push and pull,” and in other places in which it seemed appropriate, his exact wording has been retained despite minor awkwardnesses.