Happy Birthday Hans Hoffman
Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) is one of the most important figures of postwar American art. Celebrated for his exuberant, color-filled canvases, and renowned as an influential teacher for generations of artists—first in his native Germany, then in New York and Provincetown—Hofmann played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism.
As a teacher he brought to America direct knowledge of the work of a celebrated group of European modernists (prior to World War I he had lived and studied in Paris) and developed his own philosophy of art, which he expressed in essays which are among the most engaging discussions of painting in the twentieth century, including “The Color Problem in Pure Painting—Its Creative Origin.” Hofmann taught art for over four decades; his impressive list of students includes Helen Frankenthaler, Red Grooms, Alfred Jensen, Wolf Kahn, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson and Frank Stella. As an artist Hofmann tirelessly explored pictorial structure, spatial tensions and color relationships. In his earliest portraits done just years into the twentieth century, his interior scenes of the 1940s and his signature canvases of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Hofmann brought to his paintings what art historian Karen Wilkin has described as a “range from loose accumulations of brushy strokes…to crisply tailored arrangements of rectangles…but that somehow seems less significant than their uniform intensity, their common pounding energy and their consistent physicality.”
Hofmann was born Johann Georg Hofmann in Weissenberg, in the Bavarian state of Germany in 1880 and raised and educated in Munich. After initial studies in science and mathematics, he began studying art in 1898. With the support of Berlin art patron Phillip Freudenberg, Hofmann was able to move to Paris in 1904, taking classes at both the Académie de la Grande Chaumière (with fellow student Henri Matisse) and the Académie Colarossi. In Paris Hofmann observed and absorbed the innovations of the most adventurous artists of the day including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Fernand Léger and Henri Matisse, many of whom he met and became friendly with. Hofmann would remain in Paris until 1914 when the advent of World War I required him to return to Germany. In 1915, unable to enroll in the military due to a respiratory ailment, Hofmann opened an innovative school for art in Munich, where he transmitted what he had learned from the avant-garde in Paris. The school’s reputation spread internationally, especially after the war, attracting students from Europe and the United States, thus beginning what was to be almost a lifetime of teaching for Hofmann.
Hofmann was close to 70 years old when, in a dazzling burst of energy he painted most of the large, highly recognizable canvases of the late 1950s and 1960s that assured his reputation. With their stacked, overlapping and floating rectangles and clear, saturated hues, these extraordinary paintings continued up until the end of his remarkable long career what Hofmann had first explored as an artist over six decades earlier.