Thinking About Hans Hofmann

Hans Hoffman Painting School in the former Hawthorne Barn Miller Hill 1939.jpog
Hans Hoffman Painting School in the former Hawthorne Barn on Miller Hill, 1939

When I was in art school, a full generation after he stopped teaching, people shared Hans Hofmann’s teachings with reverence. In a sense, they constituted mystical wisdom, having largely been handed down through the subjective experience of his students. Over the fifty-eight years he was a teacher, Hofmann emphasized different aspects of picture making, shifting what he did in the classroom with the shifts he was making in his studio. He remained vibrant because he remained learning. For a young art student, receiving wisdom passed from his students to my teachers and lastly to me, Hofmann’s vision sometimes seemed opaque and even contradictory. As an older, hopefully wiser, and certainly more experienced picture maker, I understand now how these tensions and ambiguities within his theory of art making are part of his gift. Today, Hofmann’s vision has been integrated in what we know about making pictures, making his literal lessons secondary to the broader knowledge he catalyzed.

Hans_Hofmann_painting_in_the_dunes
Hofmann working in Provincetown dunes.

Known most widely for his Push / Pull theory, Hofmann’s principles for picture making were straightforward. In his view, painters had to 1.) honor nature and our perception of it; 2.) understand the inherent qualities of paint as a medium, and 3.) be in touch with their own spiritual and intuitive relationship with both nature and paint. Push / Pull, at its most fundamental, is to understand that any force exerted within a painting requires answering with a counterforce. The approach allows a painter to simultaneously create space and flatness on a two-dimensional surface, without resorting to the pictorial ‘box’ of Renaissance perspective. In his later teaching, he focused on creating space and form with color, creating planes with color to create volume. This he learned from the work of Cezanne, whose example was always at the heart of Hofmann’s creative and pedagogical genealogy.

Hofmann’s school was one of many painting schools in Provincetown in the 20thcentury, and is arguably the most significant. He hosted a diversity of students – from the many, such as Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, Lillian Orlowsky, Wolf Kahn, Paul Resika, Red Grooms, and Allan Kaprow, who would make big contributions to American art to veterans exploring the possibilities of post-war life through the GI bill to Sunday painters. His Provincetown school for a time occupied the great barn built by Charles Hawthorne on Miller Hill, and later was located in his studio behind his home at 76 Commercial Street. There are few teachers, in any field, who taught so many students who had such a significant impact in their field. An accomplishment, indeed.

Pompeii 1959 by Hans Hofmann 1880-1966
Hans Hofmann , Pompeii 1959

As a teacher working in Provincetown today, Hofmann casts a long shadow. Most of the painting schools, centered on one teacher or teaching one theory of picture making, are gone now, replaced by more diversified art centers that offer multiple ways into the creative process. Indeed, today is an era when artists need to learn multiple strategies for art making, and as a teacher I’m obliged to introduce students to multiple ways of constructing a picture. And yet, I’m aware that my teaching theories, as divergent from Hofmann’s as they may be, are indebted to him. In that spirit, I want to end this reflection with a lesson, inspired by Hofmann: 1. Enter nature. 2. Push paint to its limit. 3. Trust your intuition. 4. Seek balance in your picture. 5. Repeat steps as necessary.

 

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