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

Monday, December 14, 2015

Rothko's Journey at the MFAH

Mark Rothko's large paintings with their signature rectangular fields of color stand out in museums, galleries, art fairs, attracting eager visitors. Creativity appears to have struck the artist like lightning, leading to swift recognition and fame. The exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Mark Rothko:A Retrospective will dispel such an assumption with more than sixty works displayed in chronological order offering a glimpse into the painter's career.
Most of the works are on loan from the National Gallery of Art and the first room is filled with early pieces from the 1930's. Figurative scenes featuring familiar surroundings like crowds in the New York subway, primitive compositions à la Gauguin or inspired by Greek mythology veer to surrealist and abstract pieces influenced by European movements. Forwarding to the late 40's with the series of "Multiforms", made of biomorphic colored blurry shapes followed by a period of "Transitional Paintings" in the adjacent room, Rothko's vocabulary is maturing with vertical abstract landscapes made with oil paint bleeding into the canvas. Yellows, oranges, reds surround the visitors as the walk through the exhibition leads to the "Classic Paintings" from the 50's. Rothko gave numbers to his paintings or left them untitled. Scholars and art critics defined and named periods according to the painter's technique and biography. Bathing in colors, I felt elated and heard music (The Ode to Joy from Beethoven to be precise). Following Rothko's advice, I stood 18 inches from the canvasses, letting my eyes overflow with luminous colors and limitless horizons. Being surrounded by the paintings radiating energy and life, is a unique experience which offers an occasion to participate in the artist's search for sublime goals. A similar exhilaration overtook me a few weeks later at the Phillips Collection while contemplating the four paintings from the same period in the Rothko Room.  The transition to his next endeavor is brutal. Drama, tension and ultimately doom transpire from the four variations in red commissioned for the Seagram's Four Seasons Restaurant followed by the black and violet compositions realized for the Rothko Chapel located a few miles away at The Ménil Collection. The paintings are somber and the commissioned works lack spontaneity. Lost in the darkness of the black fields, I could not find the thread leading to meditation. The last paintings are reflecting the artist's physical limitations. He changed his technique radically, downsizing the canvasses and using acrylic for his two-toned compositions in black and grey. However his last message is a vision in red, ethereal, a scream for life and hope, radiating pure energy.
The exhibition offers not only a didactic way to look at Rothko's career, but is also a unique venue to experience the physicality of his paintings. Expressing his philosophy through his work, Rothko makes it universal and timeless. Before undertaking his career shortened by his self-inflicted demise, Rothko reflected on art and philosophy in the early 40's and his writings gathered by his son Christopher were published in "The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art".
As a whole, the exhibition allows to follow the maturation of the artist's technique and his parallel inner journey and growth.
Rothko was very protective of his works and when looking at them I keep in mind this quote from the artist himself:
"A painting lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefore a risky and unfeeling act to send it out to the world."

photographs by the author

"Underground Fantasy", 1940
"Number 2", 1947
"Number 7", 1949
"Untitled", 1970