New York

Hans Hofmann

Ameringer Yohe Fine Art

Hans Hofmann’s paintings on paper have a freshness, an energy, a presence that belies their age. They’re sixty years old, but they have a timeless immediacy. “Time flows like water does back in the ocean back into Eternity,” he wrote in the poem on paper that hung as an introduction to the paintings, which themselves flow like the water of eternal life—water with a strong, relentless current, a deep expressive undertow, a painterly Heraclitean water that is never the same but nonetheless flows with sure-footed fastness over the paper.

Clement Greenberg, critiquing the artist’s exclusion from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1958 “New American Painting” exhibition, remarked that Hofmann’s art was being “recognized increasingly as a major fountainhead of style and ideas for the ‘new’ American painting” and that he was “a virtuoso of invention—as only the Klee of the 1930s was.” Perhaps he wasn’t included because he was more inventive than the new American painters (otherwise known as the Abstract Expressionists), as these works show, or perhaps because his paintings “breathe as no others do” (certainly there’s more of a sense of open space in them, as Greenberg claimed). Or do their “open, pulsating surfaces” convey more “freedom” than any of the new American paintings, as Greenberg convincingly argued? Or was it simply that Hofmann was German and MoMA wanted an all-American show?

As Greenberg noted, Hofmann had lived in Paris on close terms with the Fauves and Cubists for a decade beginning in 1904, “during which both movements had their birth and efflorescence,” and also had seen and absorbed the art and ideas of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Arp, Masson, and Miró. He in fact integrated them into his own art and theories, a tendency that suggests he was indeed the consummate modernist, perhaps the grand climax of European modern painting. MoMA might not have wanted to acknowledge his heroic originality—and transnationalism—when new American art heroes were on the national horizon. Or perhaps they didn’t want to acknowledge their profound dependence on him, especially by way of his influential school, which many attended—it was founded in Munich in 1915 and refounded in New York soon after Hofmann emigrated to the United States in the early ’30s—and without which Abstract Expressionism is inconceivable. The new American painters were his epigoni, and they turned the open aesthetics of European modernism into a sort of dogmatically closed and exclusive system.

What is most striking about Hofmann’s paintings on paper—which combine gouache, crayon, India and ballpoint inks, and marker—is the amount of black in them. It seems Hofmann is trying to reconcile Matisse’s idea of black as a color with Kandinsky’s view of black as a symbol of death. There is a Matissean lyricism and a Kandinskyesque density to Hofmann’s black: It dances even as it oppresses. Many of the works are derivative of Kandinsky and Matisse, but more alive with instinct, even joie de vivre, despite their insistent blackness. Hofmann responds spontaneously to nature—sunrise and sunset especially, as he implies in various poems—suggesting that we might think of him as an “abstract naturalist,” by which I mean that, like Kandinsky and Mondrian, he thinks art can extract the spiritual from the natural.

Indeed, many of the poems treat “spiritual” experience and the experience of space as essentially the same, which is no doubt why his works on paper, however small, convey what Roger Fry called the “cosmic emotion” that abstract art alone can convey. As Hofmann wrote, it is only when using “all our senses” that we can sense the spirituality of space. Hofmann’s paintings, with their extraordinarily inclusive modern sensibility—the meaning and possibilities of which we seem to have forgotten in this time of trendy conceptualism—and tactility and musicality (they owe much to Kandinsky’s synesthetic paintings), suggest that aesthetic experience can put us in touch with “eternity,” to use his word. But then, who needs eternity in this age of short-lived art?

Donald Kuspit