Saturday, December 19, 2015

More About Hans Hofman's Legacy

A visit to the Frost Museum of Art on the Florida International University campus is the occasion to discover a frequently omitted legacy from Hans Hofman with the exhibition Walls of Color: The Murals of Hans Hofman. The artist born in Bavaria, Germany, was a well-established artist and art teacher in Munich before he migrated to the United States in 1932. His reputation grew steadily as he opened well-attended art schools in New York City and Provincetown, eventually becoming known as the father of abstract expressionism in the United States. He is considered the theorist of the movement born after WWII, and shared his thoughts about art in his noteworthy book "Search for the Real". The first request for a collaboration toward a public art project came around 1950 when he was seventy years old. The Chimbote project commissioned by the Peruvian government never came to fruition, but was the start of a new period in Hofman's career, characterized by the production of larger scale works. The exhibition is made of abundant material related to the murals composed for public buildings, as the artist's collaboration with architects and developers flourished.
The magazines laid in glass cases at the entrance are filled with photographs showing the artist surrounded by colors in his New York apartment and five small works chosen among the artist's easel paintings hang on the wall, introducing the show. A fauvist landscape from the late 30's is followed by a cubist-inspired painting and finally an abstract work Out of this world, 1945, a gouache with hints of drips, while two inks on paper, 1949, experiment with shapes and depth. The exhibition progresses rapidly to the murals with two large longitudinal panels conceived for the Chimbote project, side by side, taking over the room. The project itself is presented in the same area with maps and drawings. The deep involvement of the artist is highlighted in the adjacent room filled with seven more panels, studies for the final product, mosaics. The interaction between colors and abstract shapes illustrates the "push and pull" technique of the artist, creating perspective and motion. Smaller drawings with gouache or crayon on paper complete the presentation of the project aimed at a local audience, peppered with indigenous symbols like snakes, Inca artifacts mixed with catholic crosses.
In 1955, closer to home, the mosaic for the lobby of the building at 711 3rd Avenue is introduced by an abundant material including reproduction of two panels, photographs and preparatory works. The technically challenging mosaic required half a million Venetian glass tiles in five hundred different shades. The ongoing collaboration with the architect William Lescaze led to the creation of another landmark in 1958 on the facade of the School of Printing 439 West Forty-Ninth Street and two studies are also displayed, labelled "Apartment House Sketch" which were not realized. Parallel to these, the paintings produced by Hofman at the same period reflect the influence of his public art. Hofman started to integrate rectangles in his works like in Lonely Journey, 1965, a gouache on paper from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a brownish background interrupted by islands of brightly colored rectangles and a reddish path wandering through the landscape. Two other paintings from the same period illustrate the changes and the use of rectangles by the painter. Working with architects for specific commissioned projects brought some limitations to creativity and some technical challenges. Hofman did not leave these deter him from his goals. Constrained by a limited palette of colors, he played with their juxtaposition to make them sing on the mosaics. The results are showing Hofman's commitment's to color and abstract shapes to engender spirituality, shining through his compositions.
The exhibition gives the opportunity to discover another stage in Hofman's career. Foremost a teacher, he never stopped experimenting and his public works provided the occasion to add another dimension to his paintings. The Chimbote project appears to have been a turning point in his maturation, as he kept spreading bigger fields of colors. The mosaics in New York City are the tangible result of his research and the exhibition is including appropriate material to illustrate these points.
Hofman was always a pioneer, introducing drip painting, redefining perspective, depth and dynamic with colors and shapes.
The exhibition succeeds in making an enlightening  contribution to Hans Hofman's legacy.

photographs by the author:

"Awakening", 1947
Chimbote Mural Fragment of Part I, 1950
" Push and Pull" (Study for Chimbote Mural). 1950


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