New York

Hans Hofmann

Whitney Museum of American Art

Hans Hofmann is widely considered a central figure in the rise of American Modernism. Born in Germany, Hofmann came to America and for many years taught art and art theory to students who later gained reputations in their own rights. That Hofmann, like Josef Albers, was an important proselytizer who carried the torch from Europe and passed it on to younger artists eager to make advanced painting is undeniable; whether this is as central to the history of American art as historians and critics have argued is questionable.

This retrospective, the first since Hofmann’s death, attempts to prove he was a major artist, “the hedonist of Abstract Expressionism, robust and generous,” as Irving Sandler proposes in one of the three essays included in the catalogue accompanying the show (the other contributors are Cynthia Goodman and Clement Greenberg). The exhibition, however, falls dismally short of its intention. At best, Hans Hofmann comes off as a minor artist whose work leaves us hungry for something more vital, adventuresome, and challenging.

Hofmann never knew how to put a truly dynamic picture together. In the earliest paintings in the exhibition, Untitled (Portrait of Maria Wolfegg), ca. 1901, and Self-Portrait, 1902, Hofmann places the head just about where one would expect to find it, in the middle of the canvas. In the vertical Untitled, the head floats in the middle of the upper half of the painting, and provides the focal point of an otherwise static arrangement. In the almost square Self-Portrait, Hofmann uses modeling to distinguish the head—again placed in the middle of the composition—from the rest of the painting. This flat-footed compositional habit, which Hofmann seems to have acquired early on in his career, is present in Green Bottle, 1921, where a red wineglass is positioned against a ground of green (a bottle) and blue (the sky seen through a window). The yellowish rectangle to the lower right of the wineglass does nothing to activate the placid scene. The viewer’s sight always returns to the central red wineglass that functions like an anchor in the middle of a calm lake.

In the 1940s, Hofmann met the generation of young American artists that included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and William Baziotes, and, through the example of their work, reevaluated the Surrealist approach he had previously dismissed. During this period, he began works by laying down a colorful brushy ground and then used a poured or drawn line to interact with and unify the chaotic ground. In Intoxication, 1945, the multilegged shape (insect or eye?) floating in the lower-right corner suggests how much he took from the younger artists, who in turn were looking at Joan Miró. Reconstituting rather than transforming the separation of foreground from background, which is so evident in his earlier work, Hofmann simply grafts another technique onto his static compositional approach. He may have been a good teacher, but he wasn’t much of a student. He was able to add to his bag of painterly devices, but his fear of the entire picture plane is obvious. Afraid to move away from the center, Hofmann always opts for balance and predictable design. In his hands, Surrealist technique—the possibility of undermining one’s own habits of seeing—became a formulaic device, which he bequeathed to the Color Field painters.

Hofmann passed on a sense of design and balance to younger artists like Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler, which is one of the reasons the work of these artists has remained relatively formalistic. It also suggests that, contrary to what Hofmann’s champion’s propose, he seems never to have understood Cubism and its articulation of the entire picture plane; instead, he remained rooted in an essentially 19th-century academic attitude toward composition right up to the end of his life. In late paintings, such as Sun in the Foliage, 1964, a yellow rectangle floats a little bit above the middle of a messy, predominantly red and green ground. Used to unify the painting, the yellow becomes an all-too-obvious crutch—something to focus our attention, as if that is the only point of painting. Consistent with Hofmann’s overriding concern with design is his tendency to balance his colors, to make them all sidle up to each other in a way that undermines their potential lyricism. This is most obvious in the allover architectonic paintings composed of different colored squares and rectangles that he realized from the mid ’50s on. Hofmann may have been a link, but it wasn’t to Cubism or Fauvism; it was to an academic tradition that upheld well-mannered compositions and balanced color, which artists such as Picasso and Matisse had been struggling against for years before Hofmann ever showed up in America. Where Hofmann’s stature is at issue, perhaps the final proof of the pudding is the fact that the list of artists who didn’t study with Hofmann includes more substantial talent than the list of those who did.

John Yau