Chameleon With a Paint Brush

Influential teacher/painter Hans Hofmann mastered many styles without making any his trademark

FOR some artists, retrospectives are dangerous, for others, a form of vindication. Of no one is the latter more true than Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), the painter/teacher who exerted a powerful influence on American artists during the 1950s and early '60s but whose reputation dimmed considerably after his death.

For anyone still in doubt, I recommend the Hofmann restrospective at the Whitney Museum here. It includes over 100 paintings and drawings representing almost every phase of his career. No work from his Paris period (1904-14) has survived, and there are a few other minor gaps here and there that probably will never be filled. But overall this is as valuable a retrospective as anyone could wish.

Although Hofmann was born and educated in Germany, his greatest creative stimulation as a young man came from his association in Paris with Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and Delaunay. All had a significant and lasting impact on his work. In fact, according to Cynthia Goodman, the exhibition's curator, ``Hofmann absorbed Matisse's color lessons so successfully that Clement Greenberg later claimed `that in America in the 1930s one could learn Matisse's color lessons better from Hofmann than from Matisse himself.'''

Caught in Germany by the outbreak of World War I, Hofmann established an art school in Munich in 1915. Teaching agreed with him, and in the early 1930s he came to the United States to teach at the University of California at Berkeley and at the Art Students League in New York. In 1933, he opened his own art school in Manhattan, and within a few years he was generally regarded as the foremost art teacher in America.

His art, on the other hand, was not yet as widely recognized. According to Ms. Goodman, Hofmann painted in a wide range of styles that remain ``elusive to categorization.'' She goes on to say that his artistic vocabulary ``synthesized elements of Fauvism, Cubism, and Expressionism, all of which he had encountered firsthand in Europe....''

He was not, however, an imitator or a follower, only someone for whom the fashioning of a personal ``signature'' style required much time and thought.

During the late 1930s and early '40s, he concentrated on portraits, figure studies, landscapes, and other subjects drawn from life. While theoretically representational, these paintings were often expressionistically executed, with hot, saturated colors, bold gestural brushstrokes, and forms that often appeared more abstract than real.

By the end of the 1940s, the energy still partially ``bottled up'' in these paintings could no longer be contained. It burst forth in a series of canvases in which color, line, and passionately applied daubs of paint took precedence over everything else.

By the early 1950s, his surfaces became richer, denser, and more physically charged. By the mid-1950s, it was apparent that color, which had always been his pride and joy, was also now his most effective expressive tool.

It became so, because he had discovered how to bring color relationships to maximum pitch and, after several decades of hard work, he had solved the problem of using pure color to express three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional picture plane. He referred to this phenomenon as ``push and pull,'' a term which which he's been identified ever since.

By the mid 1950s, the rectangle appeared as a major compositional component. These blunt, primarily red, yellow, and blue slabs of thick pigment appear to emerge from and be superimposed upon dense or lightly washed beds of paint.

The relationships between these elements were crucial. Hofmann agonized over their spatial and compositional implications, and insisted that moving one of these rectangles even ``a millimeter'' would give a painting an entirely different meaning.

Many of his late canvases still bear the marks of thumbtacks used to affix hand-painted pieces of paper to canvas so he could experiment with a variety of sizes and colors before committing himself to paint.

But commit himself he did. From 1944, when he had his first one-man New York show (he was 64 at the time), until very shortly before his death, his bold, colorful canvases had a major impact on both the nature and the direction of mid-20th-century American art.

Probably just as important, his ideas were spread far and wide by his students, several of whom - Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Red Grooms, Lee Krasner, to name only four - went on to become influential creative figures in their own right.

I heartily recommend this retrospective. It not only vindicates a remarkable artist; it also comes across as one of the most positive and celebratory exhibitions of the season.

After its closing at the Whitney Sept. 16, ``Hans Hofmann'' travels to the Center for the Fine Arts, Miami (Nov. 22-Jan. 20, 1991) and the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Va. (Feb. 14-April 14, 1991).

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