BAMPFA, the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, is hosting a wonderful, expansive exhibition on Hans Hoffman, “The Nature of Abstraction” (until July 21st).
It is one of those important shows with almost seventy pieces that span the artist’s career, so that one can follow the evolution of the work and the way the artist develops as a person. For me, it was instructive because I have only seen Hans Hoffman’s work here and there, a painting or two at a time, and have never had a sense of the arc of his career.
In today’s world, wars, terrible as they are, are not the all-encompassing cataclysms of World War I and World War II. Hoffman, a German born in Munich in 1880, went through the First World War in Munich as he was no longer able to live in Paris as he had been doing the previous decade. There he had turned from his training in mathematics and sciences to pursue his passion for art; he found himself in the midst of the ferment marking the transition from Impressionism to Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism and all sorts of other “isms”. Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Sonia and Robert Delaunay became his friends and all of them were still absorbing the heritage of Cézanne who had recently died but whose influence was great. As it was noted in this exhibition, Cézanne’s “persistent investigation of vision as a state of continual presentness” was a lesson Hoffman carried through his life.
When Hoffman was forced to return home to Munich during the War, where he taught and did some art since TB-damaged lungs excluded him from military service, he was also friends with members of Der Blaue Reiter, such as Kandinsky and Gabrielle Münter. Noted as a passionate, gifted instructor with links to new ways of thinking in art, he was invited to Berkeley, California, in 1930 to teach summer classes by one of his erstwhile students, Worth Ryder.
This was his passage to America, a new life, a fresh start as a painter and not just an instructor.And he was thus spared directly during World War II, even though his wife, Miz, was caught in Munich for the duration of the War. For the first time for many years, Hoffman could set up his own studios, in New York and in Provincetown, Mass., and work there. Thus began, in reality, his wonderfully energetic, creative twisting, turning and experimenting as an artist. His knowledge of science and mathematics underpinned a lot of his work, with his fascinatingly sophisticated play of the perception of space, vision and perception in his early mid-1930s vividly colourful still life studio paintings.
Nature too came to the fore as he would go outdoors in Provincetown and again apply the methods of constant experiment in approach as to how to create records of his vision/interpretation of the natural world. Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism – critic Clement Greenberg later talked of him working very hard to “sweat out” Cubism and the other “isms”.
By the 1940s, however, as this exhibition showed clearly, Hoffman was evolving towards his own voice, mostly abstract, hugely bold and energetic in terms of colour use, questing in terms of paint application and composition. Both in his own work and in his teaching, Hoffman emphasized the importance of pictorial vitality, advocating his famous “push pull” approach and turning also to calligraphic and spontaneous techniques of Surrealist automatism to animate the painting. By this time, too, he was friends with many of the younger Abstract Expressionists (some of whom he had also taught) - Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and many others. He met Peggy Guggenheim who was his passport to eventual shows in New York galleries and his ascent as a noted “force to be reckoned with in the practice as well as in the interpretation of modern art.” (Clement Greenberg). Success came to Hoffman, but he still pushed out artistic frontiers.
Indeed, as gallery after gallery showed at BAMPFA, Hoffman did not settle into a predictable form of painting. The questing continued. The power and increased majestic serenity in use of form and colour continued to grow, particularly after he gave up teaching in 1958 and devoted himself full time, for the first time in forty years, to his studio work. In the eight years that remained, Hoffman refined and expanded his pictorial vocabulary, strengthening, seeking the essence of painting. He turned frequently to nature, saying that, “Whether the artist works directly from nature, from memory or from fantasy, nature is always the source of his creative impulses”.
By the 1960s, Hoffman was flooding canvases with light through the use of stained colour. He explained in a 1962 interview that his aim in painting was “to create pulsating, luminous and open surfaces that emanate a mystic light, determined exclusively through painterly development, and in accordance with my deepest insight into the experience of life and nature”. I would add that what comes through to me is also a deep joie de vie.
The last gallery, full of the 1960s work, is a song of colour, power and almost the triumph of a long-distance runner achieving his goal. It is a room full of paintings that could have been painted yesterday as art historian Ellen G. Landau remarked during an interesting symposium I attended yesterday at BAMPFA on “Hans Hoffman in a New Light”.
This painting and the next one, The Castle, were exhibited together in Hoffman’s last show in January 1966 just weeks before he died. Apparently poet and art critic Bill Berkson wrote of the show that he found the diversity of Hoffman’s approaches to painting during the previous decade to be astounding, adding “his work seemed like that of a ‘natural’, a learned young painter who, finding his self-control, discovers that painting is infinitely available to him. He had a faith in painting as the ideal activity for reasonable men…”
Personally I found in this exhibition on Hans Hoffman renewed my faith in the importance of experimenting, challenging oneself, daring to grow and expand as an artist. As Hoffman’s last canvases show, he was still ready, aged 85-86, to evolve and grow as an artist. What a lesson to all of us as artists!