Inventory in Context: Hofmann's Students

Hollis Taggart Galleries
Dec 27, 2016 5:36PM

Hans Hofmann, On the Pier, 1936, Oil on plywood, 25 x 30 inches - SOLD

Many of the great artists of the mid-twentieth century have one in thing in common: Hans Hofmann. In 1945 Clement Greenberg called Hofmann "in all probability the most important art teacher of our time," an epithet that Hofmann earned heartily over more than four decades of art instruction. Hofmann was deeply engaged with the possibilities of the painted surface and, though he taught his students to work from nature, stressed the picture’s autonomy from the visible world. This pedagogy had an undeniable effect on the course of twentieth century art. The artists who passed through Hofmann’s studio are too numerous to list, but their ranks include many celebrated names, including Giorgio CavallonHelen FrankenthalerMichael GoldbergAlfred JensenLee KrasnerLouise NevelsonStephen Pace, Robert Rauschenberg, and Larry Rivers.

The central pillar of Hofmann’s teachings was his theory of "push and pull," which evolved out of a desire to create depth within a painting while still maintaining a respect for surface. He achieved this through the use of volumetric color. Overlapping planes of color replaced the more traditional modeling and perspective to create depth. Hofmann orchestrated his colors to create perfect compositional equilibrium, a technique on display in works such as On the Pier (1936), and one that he passed to his many students.

Painter and poet Michael (Corinne) West produced explosive, highly gestural Abstract Expressionist works throughout the 1940s and 50s. A member of Hofmann’s first class at the Art Students League, West credits her instructor as a lasting influence on her art. Hofmann’s emphasis on the “inner eye,” the ability to apprehend the essence of things, guided the artist in her spiritual approach to abstraction. In paintings such as Nihilism (1949) the artist reworks earlier, colorful, Pollock-inspired compositions with heavy accumulations of gold and silver paint. The resulting surface feels rough and layered, almost geological. West experimented with the relationship between surface and depth of her works, alternating pouring paint directly on the canvas to produce spatters and drips with carving out swaths of paint with a brush or palette knife.

Fritz Bultman’s Delta—The Lame Tramp (1959) combines the expressive gesture of Abstract Expressionism with the balanced layering of color taught by Hofmann. The strong horizontal along the top and the repeated verticals coalesce into a central rectangular form, not unlike Hofmann’s slabs of vibrant color. Bultman also works from nature, even in his abstract compositions. In the 1950s he often depicted the lowlands of his native Louisiana, and the Delta series to which this painting belongs draws from the artist’s vivid memories of fires burning in the swampy landscape of his childhood. Praised by his peers and critics alike, Bultman was a central member of the nascent New York School in the mid-1940s. His work was praised in the New York Times in 1949 for its “remarkable power of organization” that created a “welcome clarity” of composition. These qualities, no doubt, had been fostered during his studies with Hofmann in both New York and Provincetown.

In another work from 1959, John Grillo adapts the brilliant color and push-pull sensibility that Hoffman taught to the medium of collage. Like Hofmann, Grillo is able to create both space and depth through the juxtaposition of areas of pure color, but here he has utilized this method in a composition that seems almost monochromatic. Upon closer inspection, however, the brilliant yellow divides into two distinct tones, one a shade darker than the other. The contrasting cream also settles into two tones, and tiny accents of bright red become visible. With these subtle variations and details, Grillo draws viewer into the collage, creating depth with his carefully arranged forms. Inspired by his former teacher, in his late career Grillo further developed his own personal aesthetic through teaching.

San Paulo in Trono is an example of Michael Goldberg’s colorful explorations in collage from the early 1990s. Trained under the mentorship of Hofmann in the 1940s, his early lessons in color emerge in this work, with striking passages of red, yellow, blue, and green applied throughout the bold, all-over composition. Goldberg combines gestural brushstrokes with precisely stenciled, flat geometric shapes in an interesting contrast between control and instinct. The title of the piece, San Paulo in Trono, invites an additional layer of meaning. Now, the viewer may interpret the striped passages as stand-ins for the titular Saint Paul. In all, this work brings together bright colors, bold brushwork, collage elements, and narrative allusion into the same riotous canvas.


—Hollis Taggart Galleries

INVENTORY IN CONTEXT aims to creatively contextualize works from our gallery collection, both historical and contemporary. Please look forward to a new installment each month.

Hollis Taggart Galleries