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“[Hofmann] could be said to take the easel tradition into regions of chromatic experience it never before penetrated. In these regions he preserves the easel picture's identity by showing how oppositions of pure color can by themselves, and without help of references to nature, establish a pictorial order as firm as any that depends on conspicuousness of contour and value contrast,” (Critic Clement Greenberg, Paris: Editions Georges Fall, 1961).
Hans Hofmann, born in Bavaria in 1880, became one of the most influential artistic icons of the post-war era. He showed an early interest in science and mathematics and didn’t turn his focus to fine art until he moved to Munich in his 20s, where he studied alongside Wassily Kandinsky and experimented with form and colour.
His early preoccupation with foundational artistic and geometric theories was more fully developed after he moved to Paris in 1904 and he immersed himself in the Modernist avant-garde, including Picasso, and continued his studies with students of Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse until 1914.
While the influence of Fauvism and Cubism are evident in his works, Hofmann also drew on his scientific background to further develop his theory of composition. As an artist and teacher, Hofmann was a leading influence in Abstract Expressionism. However, the artist so immersed himself in the development of abstract artistic theory that he painted little during this time.
Instead, he became a teacher and founded his first school in 1915 in Munich where he expounded the theories of those artists who were most influential to him, namely, Cézanne, the Cubists and Kandinsky, and where he taught his students the principles of a free and automatic kind of non-objective painting through a technique he referred to as “push and pull.”
He used rectangles of rich, pure colour, large sweeping brushstrokes and aimed for a spatial relationship of expansion and contraction. "Depth, in a pictorial sense," he wrote, "is not created by the arrangement of the objects one after another toward a vanishing point, in the sense of Renaissance perspective, but on the contrary by the creation of forces in the sense of push and pull" (H. Hofmann, quoted in S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 14).
He continued teaching in the USA throughout the 1930s, where he became one of the most respected leaders of the New York Abstractionists. It wasn’t until the 1940s that he devoted himself to painting, applying the theories he had developed for decades into unique compositions. The importance he placed on depicting movement and to tapping the subconscious to create dynamic and expressive painting was part of the decade’s zeitgeist and thrust Hofmann to the forefront of Abstract Expressionism. He was championed by influential art figures like Peggy Guggenheim, Betty Parsons and Samuel M. Kootz who were part of a new era of art dealers and galleries. His first solo exhibition was at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in New York in 1944, which was positively reviewed. The influential critic Clement Greenberg considered it a breakthrough and after another exhibition in 1945, he wrote: “Hofmann has become a force to be reckoned with in the practice as well as in the interpretation of modern art.”
By the mid-1950s, Hofmann was a master of his painterly theory, executing a seminal body of work that explored the possibilities of colour and colour contrasts, and formally exploited them in his compositions by juxtaposing them, accentuating the effects through the range and variety of textures with which he applied the oils. By 1958, at 78 years old, he retired from teaching to focus on painting.
In the decade that followed, Hofmann's recognition grew through numerous exhibitions, notably at the Kootz Gallery, culminating in major retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1957) and Museum of Modern Art (1963), which travelled to venues throughout the United States, South America, and Europe.
He died in New York in 1966. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential art teachers of the 20th century. His willingness to experiment with new modes of painting inspired a generation of artists, including Jackson Pollock, to find their own aesthetic paths. His works are in the permanent collections of major museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, National Gallery of Art, and Art Institute of Chicago.