Hans Hartung, T1986–H45, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 38 1/4 x 57 1/2".

Hans Hartung, T1986–H45, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 38 1/4 x 57 1/2".

Hans Hartung

Timothy Taylor Gallery

Hans Hartung, T1986–H45, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 38 1/4 x 57 1/2".

I never thought I’d have either the desire or the occasion to write about the paintings of Hans Hartung. No desire, because the few paintings I’d seen from his heyday in the 1950s, either on the walls of European museums or in the pages of art-history books, always struck me as brittle and overagitated in their choppily repetitive linear gestures. No occasion, because it hardly seemed likely that I would ever cross paths with a significant show of work by the Leipzig-born School of Paris abstractionist, he having become little more than a faint whisper in the historical memory.

Well, that’s all changed. Not that I’m ready to recant my opinions about Hartung’s paintings of the ’50s—though now I’d welcome the opportunity for a closer look. Instead, it’s his very late work that has recently come to my attention for the first time—initially in an exhibition last fall at Cheim & Read in New York, “The Last Paintings 1989,” and now in this show, “Hans Hartung: The Final Years 1980–1989.” Joe Fyfe, in a catalogue essay for the New York show, speaks approvingly of “an eccentrically mechanical gesture” rather than a “going with the flow” as typical of Hartung’s work in the immediate postwar period. I suppose that’s what bugged me about his early style. What’s amazing is that by the ’80s he had learned how to synthesize those two seemingly incompatible aesthetic modalities, the mediated and the spontaneous, in ways that still seem fresh and challenging. Perhaps we are now prepared to realize this thanks to the surprising kinship his late paintings seem to share with the work of a number of contemporary painters, such as Christopher Wool (who contributed a visual essay to a recent book on Hartung) or Katharina Grosse.

Part of what’s fascinating about these paintings is that all sorts of indirect, impersonal methods of paint application have been used (including, apparently, a deployment of auto-body spraying equipment), and yet the placement of marks and colors seems anything but rigid or formulaic. Some of the paintings are highly restrained, such as T1982–H27, 1982, which seems to be nothing more than a chromatic shadow à la Warhol; others verge on the excessive, like T1988–R23, 1988, with its rococo showers of paint. There are paintings whose inner temporality is slow, for instance T1980–R20, 1980, whose overt content is nothing more than the gradual darkening of a beige-brown field as the eye moves from left to right, with an effect as of atmospheric perspective, so that the space seems to curve away into a distance; elsewhere, effects of suddenness or transience are evoked, as color events traverse a nebulous field, appearing to flare up out of nowhere or flash like fireworks—possibly dark fireworks, as in T1986–H45, 1986.

There is a distinctive look to these paintings, often based on fields of subtly graduated mixtures of color and flurries of small marks, but no formula, no typical way of putting the basic elements together. The works are wonderfully exploratory. And their emphasis on surface and technique nonetheless allows for a real sense of depth and atmosphere. Another paradox: Although nearly every mark has apparently been produced in a rigorously hands-off manner, rarely does one see painting that suggests such a sure and delicate sense of touch.

Barry Schwabsky