Hans Hofmann
Biography of Abstract Expressionist Painter.
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The Gate (1959-60)
Guggenheim Museum New York.
For other abstract expressionist
works like those by Hans Hofmann,
see: Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)

Contents

Biography
Training in Paris
Hofmann's Munich Art School
Emigrates to America
Peggy Guggenheim Gallery: Art of This Century
Abstraction
Full-time Artist
Legacy
Collections


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Biography

An influential teacher of modern art and a pioneer of Abstract Expressionist painting, the German-born artist Hans Hofmann studied painting in Paris for 10 years (1904-14), alongside artists such as Matisse (1869-1954), Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963). However, it was Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), whose preference for colour over form had the greatest impact on Hofmann. In 1915, Hofmann opened an art school in Munich, where he taught for almost 20 years - winning an international reputation in the process - until he emigrated to America in 1932. Settling in New York, he continued his career as both teacher and painter. He opened the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York, and a summer school at Provincetown, Massachusetts, while also exhibiting his abstract art in New York, San Francisco and Paris. During the 1940s, he explored what later became known as Abstract Expressionism, pioneering the technique of 'drip-painting' which later became associated with Jackson Pollock (1912-56). In 1958, aged 78, he finally quit teaching to concentrate on painting full-time. In 1960, he was one of four artists who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. In 1963, he was given a major retrospective at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York, which travelled across the USA and South America, before touring Europe. Despite his status as one of the great abstract painters, Hofmann is seen primarily as a teacher rather than an artist.

 

 

Training in Paris

Born in Weissenburg, Bavaria. When still a child he moved with his family to Munich, where at the age of 18 he attended art school, despite demonstrating a precocious ability in science and mathematics. Thereafter, the generosity of Philip Freudenberg, a Berlin art collector and philanthropist, enabled Hofmann to study fine art in Paris from 1904 to 1914. In Paris, he trained at the Academie Colarossi and the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. During this period he encountered many of the members of the Ecole de Paris, including the inventors of Cubism - Picasso whom he met at his studio at Bateau Lavoir on the slopes of Monmartre, and his collaborator Georges Braque. In addition, he met the colourist Henri Matisse, leader of Fauvism, as well as numerous other figures in the Parisian avant-garde art community. The artist who had the most profound effect on Hofmann, however, was Robert Delaunay, whose structural Cubism was giving way to Orphism, a style in which fragmented Cubist forms were painted in vibrant, expressive colours. This primacy of colour over line had a lasting impact on the young German. In 1909, he exhibited some of his early works with the Neue Sezession in Berlin, meeting members of Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter, such as Emil Nolde (1867-1956), and others involved in German Expressionism. Back in Paris, Hofmann was given his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Paul Cassirer in 1910, where he showed mainly Cubist style works.

 

 

Hofmann's Munich Art School

Returning to Munich prior to the outbreak of World War I, Hofmann tried to join up but was deemed unfit for military service due to a lung condition. Instead, in 1915 he opened an art school, which in time acquired an international reputation for the quality of its teaching. Hofmann taught students there successfully for some 17 years, and also published a number of written works dealing with colour in painting, composition theories, and pictorial structure. In 1932 - following visits in 1930 and 1931, when he taught at the University of California at Berkeley, and exhibited works at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco - he closed the Munich art school and emigrated to the United States. At this stage, as far as his own art was concerned he was into expressionism, notably landscape painting and still lifes.

Emigrates to America

Settling in New York, Hofmann taught for two years at the Art Students League. In 1934, he established the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Manhattan - which became one of the best art schools in the country - and in 1935 he set up a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Through these and other educational institutions, Hofmann exerted a huge influence on the development of American art over the following quarter of a century. Among his pupils were artists of the calibre of Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Lee Krasner (1908-84), Helen Frankenthaler (b.1928), Allan Kaprow (1927-2006), Burgoyne Diller (1906-65), Joan Mitchell (1925-92) and many others. Hofmann was also revered - both as an artist and a teacher - by the famous art critic Clement Greenberg (1909-94). His own art also thrived. After initially focusing on drawing, he re-focused on oil painting, producing Cubist-style compositions featuring vivid colours and pronounced surface texture. In 1941, he became a United States citizen.

Peggy Guggenheim Gallery: Art of This Century

During World War II, with many top French artists sheltering from the German Occupation of France, New York took on the mantle of the new world centre of art. It was helped along by certain key individuals like Peggy Guggenheim, who opened a new gallery-museum, called Art of This Century, that staged exhibitions highlighting abstract art movements like Cubism, Surrealism and Kinetic art. In addition, she organized a continuous series of social events, which brought European emigrant painters like Arshile Gorky and Hans Hofmann into contact with artists like Jackson Pollock and other young members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, several of whom were former students of Hofmann's. In 1944, Guggenheim's gallery was the venue for Hofmann's first one-man show in America.

Note: Other European expatriate artists who congregated in New York during WW II, included: Josef Albers (1888-1976), Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Andre Masson (1896-1987), Yves Tanguy (1900-55), Max Ernst (1891-1976), and Andre Breton (1896-1966). Interestingly, except for the writer Breton, all were exponents of concrete art.

Abstraction

Meantime, Hofmann was also developing his own painting. It was during the early 1940s that he began producing wholly non-objective art, at the same time as he was sharing ideas with the young members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. As he said, he was trying to "eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak". In his case, this meant using vigorous brushwork and saturated colours, together with both geometric and irregular forms. His 1940 work Spring (Private Collection, Connecticut) was one of the earliest canvases to feature the paint-dripping method, later called "action painting", which became closely identified with Pollock.

Hofmann also wrote a seminal book, or essay, called Search for the Real, in which he outlined his philosophy that art has spiritual value. It also explained his aesthetics of spatial tension, colour relationships and overall pictorial structure. For a different approach, still within the abstract expressionist umbrella, see: Mark Rothko's Paintings (1938-70).

Full-time Artist

In 1958, Hofmann disbanded his schools in order to devote himself full-time to his painting career. In 1963, New York's Museum of Modern Art held a major retrospective, curated by William Seitz. Among many other locations, it travelled to Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; University of California at Berkeley; Gallery of Modern Art Washington DC; Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Stedelijk Museum,Amsterdam; Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Turin; and Werttembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart. This was followed later in the year by the travelling show "Hans Hofmann and his students", also organized by MOMA, which showcased works by more than 50 of Hofmann's former students. (See for example, Jackson Pollock's paintings 1940-56.) Hofmann died three years later in New York.

Legacy

Hofmann's teaching, allied to his writings and his pioneering work on different painting techniques, helped to stimulate the emergence of America's first major art movement - Abstract Expressionism - particularly the style of gestural painting exemplified by the monumental canvases of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Franz Kline (1910-62) and Robert Motherwell (1915-91).

Collections

Abstract paintings by Hans Hofmann are represented in the permanent collections of many of the world's best art museums, including: (in New York) the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art; and (outside America) the Tate Gallery, London; the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; the Museu d'Art Contemporani, Barcelona.

• For biographies of other abstract artists of the New York School, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more about the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, see: Homepage.


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