About theglazelondon banner image / Hans Hofmann’s 1958 mural for the New York School of Printing, 439 West 49th Street, New York.

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Mosaic mural for the New York School of Printing, 439 West 49th Street, New York, Hans Hofmann, 1958. Image: Robbie O’Halloran, 1999.

The banner image for theglazelondon might not be the most arresting one to use to brand a website devoted to visual art, but I chose it because it is a photograph of one of the few public art projects by the great Abstract Expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, and for the fact that so many people walk past it every day without realizing the significance of the artist behind it.

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I took the photograph in April 1999 – the same month that I first saw Hofmann’s paintings in the flesh at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two visits – first to the Met to see the paintings, then to West 49th Street to see the mural – constituted, as much as I am comfortable calling it such, a kind of pilgrimage. Hofmann’s position in 20th century American art, and the story of Abstract Expressionism specifically, has always seemed to me to be more peripheral than it ought to be. At about the same time that I was looking at his work in New York, I had been reading a lot of what has been written about Hofmann, and of course the artist’s own writings on art. Hofmann was one of the most respected and vocal teachers of the time; a fact which may have contributed to the diminution of his reputation as a serious force in the community of his painter peers.

Hofmann’s thoughts on painting were quite well formed even before he moved permanently to America from Germany in 1932. And it is not so much his having such a direct connection to European Modernism that made his work difficult to incorporate smoothly into the emergent critical space of Ab Ex, so much as the fact that Hofmann attached to his work, so vocally and with such conviction, unfashionable interpretations of what he was doing. The story of American Painting in the 1950s is very much owned by the critics who made the work visible and not by the artists.

At its heart, Hans Hofmann’s art was about pure visual sensation, the way color and form operate, interact, and the effect this has on the viewer, at first optically, but ultimately on a more subjective level. I like the fact that Hofmann has never been a household name, even in certain houses whose walls are lined with art books. For painters however, every square inch of his canvases is an object lesson in getting on with the job, and enjoying it in the process.

Further links:

Walls of Color; The Murals of Hans Hofmann at Bruce Museum

New York Times article on Walls of Color – Roberta Smith

200 words #12 / Bradley Walker Tomlin

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Bradley Walker Tomlin (1899 – 1953), Number 12, 1952, Oil on canvas, 66 x 48 inches, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, General Purchase Funds 1963

Regardless of how many convenient artistic groupings have been contrived by critics and commentators, the activity of painting has always been a personal one.  Working on the fringes of a tendency in art, and being passed over by the first wave of public recognition can be a blessing, allowing an artist to be re-evaluated without the background noise which attends the appearance of a new movement or style. In his final years, Jackson Pollock was paralysed by the weight of expectation about where he would go next with his work.

Other more peripheral figures in the Abstract Expressionist movement such as Hans Hofmann and Bradley Walker Tomlin produced what were arguably their strongest paintings later in their careers. From the late 1940s up to his death in 1953, Tomlin made an unprecedented series of canvases typified by a trademark calligraphic mark distributed with remarkable assurance across the canvas creating a complex balance. His exposure to the less imagistic strand of Surrealism helped inform the artist’s late style. Tomlin’s attachment to the mark of the brush may have looked retrograde at the time next to Pollock’s innovations, but the intelligence and poise of these late paintings place them beyond lazy categorization.

Abstract Expressionism @ Royal Academy of Arts /September 24, 2016 – January 2, 2017

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Jackson Pollock, Blue poles, 1952 , Enamel and aluminium paint with glass on canvas, 212.1 x 488.9 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

“At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act…”

Harold Rosenberg – The Great American Action Painters / 1952

A lot is made of the theatricality of the act in the term action painters. And indeed Harold Rosenberg’s reading of what was happening to post-war American painting, as typified by the statement above, emphasises the existential encounter of the artist with the modern world, and the individual as a protagonist within a dramatic event. It is an interpretation which might seem to encourage a one-way reading of the Abstract Expressionism movement, starting with a moment of schism and considering only what came after to be of relevance. Abstract Expressionist artists, alternately referred to as Action Painters, are sometimes portrayed as fugitives from the past, as though they had performed a jail break and were now desperate to erase their past. Whilst American painting from the 1950s on did perform radical reappraisals of traditions and produce breathless innovations in artists’ media, in the scale and delivery of the painted mark, and in content, it did so with profound awareness of what had come before.

There are several characteristics of some Abstract Expressionist painting that have become synonymous with the movement as a whole. Some of these characteristics, in no particular order, are: large scale of both the canvas and the painted mark, an all-overness to the distribution of the marks on the canvas, and -in part due to the tendency of an ‘all-over’ treatment of the surface to preclude the accumulation of marks in one area of the canvas- the absolute absence of anything which could be thought of as representational. The fact is that these characteristics are not to be found systematically throughout Abstract Expressionism, and in many cases they are nowhere to be seen. Continue reading “Abstract Expressionism @ Royal Academy of Arts /September 24, 2016 – January 2, 2017”

200 words #10 / Hans Hofmann

Song of the Nightingale, 1964, Oil on canvas, 84 x 72 in. (213.4 x 182.9 cm), Collection of Barbara and Eugene Schwartz, Photography courtesy of Josh Nefsky

“Art is always spiritual”. It was with such unequivocal statements as this that Hans Hofmann (1880 – 1966) established his reputation as a highly effective pedagogue, a motivator of artistic talent, and a convincing champion of European modernism. From the moment he relocated to the United States from Munich in 1932, he set about the task of instructing a new generation of American artists. His teaching was characterised by a generous self-confidence, and supported by a comprehensive set of clear principles centred on the act of painting, colour theory, and the purpose and limits of the painted form.

Throughout the 1940s and 50s Hofmann’s methodology would continue to inspire his students and emerging artists. His message however, representing as it did a Euro-centric devotion to the figure and the picture plane, would ultimately provide some of his students, such as Lee Krasner, with something against which to rebel.

Looking at Hofmanns’ paintings today, it is impossible to feel the same investment in the battles of theory which were fought across the lines of European Modernism and the emergent force of Abstract Expressionism. Nevertheless, Hofmann’s late work in particular, looks fresh and complex today, and continues to provide invaluable lessons to artists.

200 words #6 / Lee Krasner

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Lee Krasner The Eye is the First Circle, 1960, Oil on canvas, 235.6 x 487.4 cm, Private collection, courtesy Robert Miller Gallery, New York

© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2016

Lee Krasner would try to forestall criticism when, looking back on an early painting trip to Provincetown with Jackson Pollock, in which the two artists hardly put brush to canvas, she insisted that “…to the people who think paintings are made only at the moment paint goes on canvas!” the trip “…was productive”.

For Krasner painting was always the central activity of her life. Even when out walking the flats of Provincetown she was reflecting on her work. It was her period of study under the painter Hans Hofmann in the late 30s which would force Krasner’s work into maturity and help her find her own voice. She had easily assimilated the lessons of Cubism as they had been interpreted and developed by Hofmann. But Hofmann would always have one foot in Europe and so would never consider, and perhaps never want to take the dramatic leap into complete, all-over abstraction.

Krasner felt no such allegiance to the practice of pushing shapes around the canvas. From her mid-career work on there were no ‘gaping holes’ the likes of which Clement Greenberg deplored. There were no objects for the eye to rest on and the painting itself had become the subject.

Lee Krasner’s work will be on display from September 24th 2016 as part of the exhibition Abstract Expressionism at The Royal Academy.

Abstract Expressionism at The Royal Academy