Hans Hofmann, Fear, 1946, oil on canvas, 42 × 58".

Hans Hofmann, Fear, 1946, oil on canvas, 42 × 58".

Hans Hofmann

Shown in the United Kingdom for the first time, the nine works collected in “Fury: Painting after The War” serve as a dark corrective to Hans Hofmann’s perceived image: the colorist whose Tetris-like blocks of melting intensity heralded him as a key figure of Abstract Expressionism. (His drip paintings prefigured Jackson Pollock’s.)

Here, Hofmann emerges as an artist of unreconciled energies. Born in Germany in 1880, he studied art in Munich before moving in 1904 to Paris, where he lived for the next decade. In the 1930s, Hofmann landed in New York, via the vitamin-infused climes of California. His work married an austere European avant-garde technique (he had befriended Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, and Pablo Picasso, and was highly influenced by Orphism) with a brash American optimism. A forbidding teacher, famed and feared for his exacting standards (he was known to rip up students’ work), he tutored a younger generation of influential female artists, including Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell (“I couldn’t understand a word he said, so I left, terrified”). He was an authoritarian patriarch rearing reckless, genius daughters.

Created between 1942 and 1954, the paintings on display here—turbulent, fragmented, dredged up from some nightmarish mental zone in which it seems that at any moment the lights may go out for good—offer a vivid impression of conflict. Hofmann managed to dodge conscription in 1915 due to a lung condition, yet the carnage of the twentieth century’s two world wars absorbed the artist’s imagination for long afterward, as if a fever dream.

The show’s title work, Fury No. 1, 1945, was painted the year the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The angular, pointed form at the painting’s center looms like an emissary from the end of the world, or perhaps some ancient Greek deity about to wreak mortal vengeance. It’s a high-wire act: Taut and feverish, Hofmann’s line looks like it could collapse at any moment, while the unremitting flatness of the panel’s surface suggests a kind of terminus. The figure itself looks both human and not—a cyclops in a military helmet, baring insectoid mandibles—and the palette of pale albumen yellow and wincing purple appears bleached into lifelessness. (The numeration in the title is also telling. There were no succeeding Furies, suggesting a form accomplishing its own exhaustion.)

A nod to the myth of Zeus impregnating Danaë, Goldregen (Golden Rain), 1944, is a work of cruel, stuttering beauty. Drifting upward from total blackness, archipelago-like forms move in a wash of black paint, forming a welter of confusion. Bloodlike drips spatter the surface. Both alarming and fragile, the painting summons an eerily familiar Europe—and humanity—in pieces. Fear, 1946, appears to reckon with war’s aftermath. A clawed appendage, shaped like a wishbone gone wrong, dominates the center of the canvas. Its bloodshot hue references both America’s then bogeyman—Communism’s Red Scare—and the reality of collateral damage. Set against black and white elements locked in an antagonistic impasse, the composition recalls Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, in its convulsive framing of war and in its surface, at once torpid and febrile.

Despite his turn toward abstraction, Hofmann could never fully relinquish figuration or the pulse of the human. The Virgin, a painting from the same year as Fear, portrays an orange shape ballooning like blown glass, contrasted against a jaundiced yellow background. The blocky, tubular forms suggest a deformed female body and hint at a larger ambivalence: Is this hope regained or a mangled kind of innocence? Meanwhile, The Blande Interior (Blande Interior with Table—White Lines and Squares), 1949, suggests a synthesis. Here, the pieces finally fit together again, comprising a bold mosaic of expressive color. The oil-on-canvas reads like a stained-glass window, a chromatic monument to the hope found on the other side of despair.