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Hans Hoffmann.

There is a photographic portrait, taken in 1960 by Arnold Newman, of Hans Hofmann in his studio. The artist, then in his eighty-first year, is leaning on a table (which holds seven tubes of oil paint, a coffee can and two large brushes) peering directly out at the viewer, while his left arm points over his right shoulder to the painting behind him, placed upright on his easel, as if to say, Behold! The painting, at first glance, is typical of Hofmann's work of the early 1960s, and indeed of the last phase of his life, in which he found himself as a painter. It is a composition of juxtaposed rectangles, in various proportions, but large in relationship to the canvas, and so far as I can tell it is not among the works assembled in the large retrospective exhibition devoted to Hofmann at the Whitney Museum of American Art, though there are a good many works from the same period that differ from it scarcely at all. The object on the easel is nevertheless extremely puzzling. Both the gesture of the artist, straight out of the repertoire of Baroque portraits in which some personage points to something to which the viewer is meant to respond, and the fact that the work is signed and dated (1959), imply that the painting is finished and the easel used merely for purposes of display. But if we look carefully at the photograph, we find that the painting seems still in progress, for Hofmann has fastened several rectangles of paper to the surface with pushpins, which was a standard part of his procedure in those years: moving rectangles of colored paper around on the surface until they looked right to an eye that had been looking at paintings this way all his life. And then, when they did look right, translating paper rectangles into painted ones by tracing the outline of the paper and filling it in with paint.

At a certain point in the life of the work, it would resemble a sort of abstract bulletin board, with odds and ends of blank colored paper pinned to the canvas, with, at the end, a painted record of the final disposition, the work itself, which the bits and pieces helped visualize. The work itself could, uncharitably, be said to look like a painted abstract bulletin board, but in fact the redemption of paper by paint was a transition from rectangles affixed to a surface to rectangles both on the surface and within a represented space, and this double locus of the painted rectangle was pretty much what Hofmann taught that painting was all about. Painting, he tirelessly maintained as both teacher and writer, was inherently representational, which meant that the picture plane must be preserved in its two-dimensionality and at the same time achieve a three-dimensional effect. The paintings through which he showed this were made of rectangles or had rectangles among their chief components. But whereas all paintings are representational, Hofmann's, in addition, are about pictorial representation. This concept of representation was more vernacularly, even iocularly, designated "Push and Pull" in Hofmann's schools of art, where it became a kind of affectionately repeated slogan, as if it were a school cheer, as it condensed the master's view of "the laws of painting."

They are indeed laws, and a such there is nothing an artist especially need do in order that they apply, though bringing them to consciousness doubtless spares a painter a certain degree of frustration, should she or he seek to work against their grain. Every painting is a two-dimensional surface, even the rather "fat, heavy, and eloquent surface[s]," as Clement Greenberg describes them, that Hofmann influentially effected. No doubt, in the interest of illusion, painters in the past at times sought to render their surfaces invisible, or absolutely transparent, putting the viewer in immediate contact with the scene depicted as if through air. No doubt again, in the interest of anti-illusion, painters sought to render pictorial space invisible by treating paint so opaquely that the question of seeing through it could not arise. But the most polished surface remains a surface, while the flattest surface implies depth, so the laws come into effect the moment one draws a line, makes a smudge, a dab, a stroke, or floats a wash or a glaze. What perhaps can be said is that Hofmann's rectangles make Push and Pull particularly perspicuous. If as an artist what you wish to teach is the truth of Push and Pull, then rectangles will serve admirably as a means, just as tiled floors or coffered ceilings are perfect means for demonstrating perspectival depth. As a general rule, artists did not make perspective thematic in their work, as it was what was taking place in space - crucifixions, adorations, martyrdoms, ascensions - that was the primary occasion of the work. Hofmann too was interested in matters other than Push and Pull, but as a painter he was mainly a teacher of painting, and if not Push and Pull, then various of the other Hofmannian categories would pretty much be the substance of his work. His teaching and his practice were very largely one.

Hans Hofmann was an inspiring teacher, and his schools were among the shaping institutions of American art in the 1940s and 1950s. That is what justifies an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art for an artist born in Weissenburg, Germany, who moved to this country only when he was in his 50s, when the institution otherwise cites American birth as an exclusionary principle of self-definition. Perhaps it would have been a fitter tribute to have had a show of his many students - Krasner, Frankenthaler, Rivers, Grooms, Diller, Vytlacil, Holty and many others perhaps less well known but as good or better artists than they. "I have students all over the world," Hofmann wrote in 1956, "many thousands of them who have become ambassadors for the spread of my basic ideas, and every one of them is doing it in his own individual way." It confirms the truth that Push and Pull is invariant to painting, that there is no "Hofmann" style among his students, as may easily be seen from the list just cited. (Diller, Grooms and Krasner hardly look as though they could have come out of the same curriculum.) But it could also be explained by the fact that Hofmann's own style, or really set of styles, was not particularly infectious. There is something about Hofmann's paintings that would lead me, were I a painter, to want not to paint like him. I am not one who supposes there to be an incompatibility between doing and teaching, any muting of creative powers - in the field I know best, that of professional philosophy, there has hardly been a thinker of the first magnitude since Kant who was not also a teacher. For some among these, teaching was also the substance of their thought, or part of it, as in the case of John Dewey, though the principles that animated Dewey's views on teaching bore on logic, epistemology, value theory, aesthetics and metaphysics.) I think Hofmann probably was as good a painter as he was a teacher, but that the principles of his teaching were also the substance of his painting. For him, more than any other artist I know of, the art school was his world, the horizons of the art school the horizons of his art, even when he decided at age 78 to close his schools and devote himself full-time to painting.

Consider, once again, the painting in Arnold Newman's photograph. I am not certain how to remove the contradiction between, on the one side, the date and signature and, on the other, the pinnedon rectangular swatches. Hofmann could have signed and dated a painting in 1959 on which he was still at work in 1960; or he could have decided in 1960 that the painting needed more work, despite the signature and date, and it was at some moment of revision that Newman captured him on film. But there is another explanation possible, namely that he was not so much working on the painting as he was showing someone, perhaps Newman, the truth of Push and Pull, and how one moves from cut-out to painted rectangles, in the timeless processes of pictorial transubstantiation. Hofmann had turned his school into his studio, but the spiritual truth is that he was the school, whose codes and motifs totally defined his estimable but limited vision.

The installation of the Whitney show is intelligent, even if dictated by certain architectural exigencies, as explained to me by guest curator Cynthia Goodman. What you first see are in effect Hofmann's last paintings, to your right as you exit the elevator. These are large but not immense canvases, still easel paintings, representational in Hofmann's sense, but abstract. Many contain his signature rectangles, which are large and somewhat awkwardly placed, and these share the spaces of the picture with some energetic brushing, some strokes of impasto, an occasional flurry of drips and drops, and sometimes a thread of paint that could have been squeezed out of the tube onto the canvas. Song of the Nightingale of 1964 has a large green rectangle and a cadmium yellow one that overlaps a white one, floating above it. These look sharp-edged, especially in contrast with the smoky-edged rectangles that are brushed into clouds of pigment, but they are not simply mechanical transfers of sheets of paper, and have nice painty edges that trespass their geometrical boundaries. I suppose the sharpish rectangles Pull and the smoky ones Push - the one comes forward and the other one goes back. To the right is a pink rectangle overbrushed with white dabs, which is partly Pull - it has two sharp upper corners - and partly Push - its bottom corners dissolve into something more fluid, less definite, less geometrical, more paint and less form. Song of the Nightingale is typical of Hofmann's late production, with its balanced combination of sharp and fluid, filled-in and brushed-on forms. It defines a sort of norm. There are other paintings, like Flaming Lava, which is almost all scraped- or brushed-on pigment, with a lovely passage in which some coral strokes play against an ocher form endeavoring to become a definite oblong; and still others, like Cathedral, where rectangles abut one another like tectonic plates and where there is very little of the swinging brushiness, everything seeming heavily regimented, vertical and horizontal. The titles suggest some reference beyond Push and Pull. Sun in the Foliage has a bright yellow rectangle (the sun) swagged with green scrubbed paint around one corner and reddish brushed paint around another (the foliage). Rising Moon has a yellow disk in the upper left corner. If they can be abstract and representational at once, they can be abstract and referential at once as well. With a lot of the abstract work of Hofmann's era, one could chase down references - to a tree, a bird, the sun, some flowers - so that the paintings could then be taken as abstract landscapes, still lifes, interiors. The point in Hofmann is less that these are references to real things than that they refer to genres of academic painting. Looked at this way, the painting that serves as cover to the catalogue, Cap Cod - Its Eboulliency of Sumer of 1961, resolves itself into a vase of red flowers with some green foliage, the upper right blue square becomes a window, the elongated yellow vertical below it a patch of sunlight.

I have always been lukewarm toward Hofmann's work, though I have wanted very much to like it. I have vivid recollections of walking through shows of his at Kootz's gallery, trying to respond to them when they left me cold, exercises in Push and Pull, in lime and magenta, crimson and orange, straight and brushy, desultorily referential. There was always the explanation that Hofmann was difficult. Greenberg wrote in an important essay in 1961, happily reprinted in the Whitney catalogue, that "Hofmann is perhaps the most difficult artist alive - difficult to grasp and to appreciate." But hardly more difficult, one would have thought, than work I found enthralling without the benefit of reading what critics and theorists had written about it: that of Rothko and De Kooning, Newman and Motherwell, Pollock and Kline. Besides, Hofmann's did not really feel difficult - it seemed sunny, and ingratiating, but without depth. It was like a wine that comes on with a certain rush but has nothing to follow it up, was without levels and allusions and depths. Greenberg said, "The only way to begin placing Hofmann's art" - and it is striking that for him difficulty meant difficulty of placement - "is by taking cognizance of the uniqueness of his life's course, which has cut across as many art movements as national boundaries, and put him in several different centers of art at the precise time of their most fruitful activity." Well, that is what this exhibition seeks to do, and in which its great value lies. We leave the last work and enter, so to speak, upon the life, and then, following Hofmann's career through six decades, we return to the beginning of the show and the flamboyant climax of his art. Let me stress that I found the last paintings no more rewarding than when I had seen them, or their peers, at Kootz's. But the exhibition helped me answer the question not so much of Hofmann's difficulty but of my difficulty with Hofmann.

The show begins with some figure drawings done in 1898, life studies of figures not as they are seen in life but as in art schools: nudes on platforms, kneeling, stretching, seen from the back and from the front. Hofmann was 18 when he did them, and his mature life accordingly overlapped the entire history of modern art - the Fauves, the Cubists, Kandinsky's first abstractions, German Expressionism, Surrealism, to mention the movements that seem to have impinged on his sensibilities most. He sketched alongside Matisse at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. He got to know Picasso and became friends with the Delaunays. But impingement remains the exact relationship in which Hofmann stood to the history through, which he was living. He was keeping up with current events but not contributing to them, and his subjects remain those of the atelier: the vase of flowers, the posed figure, the occasional portrait, the still life, the studio interior, the harbor view with sailboats; and this canon of suitable subjects became the basis for his abstractions, when he went abstract. The work over this long stretch of time is a geological record of styles and mannerisms as adapted to the studio canon. Consider just the Self-Portrait With Brushes of 1942. It is an exercise in assimilated Cubism, wherein loose areas of color are drawn through and given definition by black painted lines in which forms are in effect drawn with the brush. Hofmann was 62 and vigorous, but merely a master of academic modernism, and still doing what must be called student work, however advanced. Two years later he was doing dripped abstraction, learning the next lesson that the great correspondence school of history sent his way. Or, if you like, until the late style, the Hofmann corpus is like a Platonic cavern, on the walls of which the great historical happenings cast their shadows. It is still art-school abstraction when he becomes something more than a practitioner and adaptionist.

Abstractionism is not so much a liberation from the subject as a license to take on subjects that could not have been treated, except allegorically, within the framework of similitude that defined Western painting. Greenberg commends Hofmann for not expanding the scale of his work, but for the masters of the New York School, expansion of format was a metaphor for the expansion of themes. Pollock, De Kooning, Newman and Gottlieb were metaphysicians and shamans, and their themes were magic and mystery, force and flesh, spirit and suffering, energy and death, passion and self. The geometrical abstractionists of the 1920s were looking for doors into the fourth dimension, Platonic reality, mathematical beauty, intellectual absolutes. Hofmann's vision was severely limited, alongside these, bounded by the pedagogical motifs of the life class, the class in advanced composition, the outdoor painting class. In the academic tradition, before modernism, these motifs were stepping stones to the grand historical paintings and the large political and religious themes. By Hofmann's time they had become vestigial, ends in themselves, stepping stones to the depiction of reality so long as reality was supposed to consist of pots of flowers on gueridons, sailboats and bathers, girls in armchairs, the fisherman's shack of Rockport, the trees at Fontainbleau, barns against the Vermont hills, self-portraits with brushes. How little this reality was reality remained for the Pop artists to show.

Art criticism sometimes is little more than seeking reasons for responses. I have been seeking some explanation of what it is about Hofmann's work that stops me, but these reasons may count for nothing if your responses are different and in agreement with those of impressive critics who think him great. You will have to see for yourself. Whatever your reaction, the exhibition is very deep, raising questions about art through Hofmann's art that were never raised by it per se. It remains at the Whitney until September 16. From November through January 1991, it will be housed at the Center for the Fine Arts in Miami; and from February through April of 1991 it will be at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia.
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Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Sep 10, 1990
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