The Importance of Color in the Art of Hans Hofmann
Nov 9, 2016
It would be difficult to name a more influential 20th Century painter than Hans Hofmann. The biographies of hundreds of important artists, teachers and innovators would not be complete without mentioning Hofmann as a key inspiration. He was an associate of Picasso and Braque in Paris in the early days of Cubism. He knew Mondrian in the early days of De Stijl. He was close friends with the Delaunays, and helped them to develop the theories that led to Orphism. And that is only the beginning. As an instructor in Europe and America, Hofmann shaped the thinking of multiple generations of artists. Without his contribution, it is unlikely Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting or Lyrical Abstraction would have flourished. Not to mention the scores of other Modernist art trends that emerged from the studios of his legions of students, and the students of those students. What was it that Hoffman imparted to his contemporaries that made him such an inspiration? As both an artist and a teacher, the most important tenet to which he was dedicated was the influence of nature on art. And the way that he believed nature found its fullest expression in painting was through color.
Hans Hofmann the Scientist
It is not uncommon to find an artist who is also skilled at science. Like scientists, true artists believe that more knowledge is better than less knowledge. And both science and art are intimately tied to the natural world. By understanding the laws of nature better from a scientific perspective, artists can more fully express their creative side. Before becoming an artist, Hans Hofmann was proficient in math and science as a child. Born in 1880 in Bavaria, one of his first jobs at age 16 was with the government, working for the Ministry of the Interior. He earned a reputation there as an innovator and even received several patents, including one for a calculation device called an electromagnetic comptometer.
But by age 19 he felt inspired to pursue art, and had his own apartment in Munich and was studying painting under the tutelage of Moritz Heymann, a German Impressionistic painter. Between 1899 and 2004, he moved to more than a dozen different addresses in Munich and studied art from multiple different teachers. During this time he also had the fortune of meeting two people who changed his life forever for the better. One was Maria Wolfegg, who he called Miz, and who would eventually become his wife. The other was Philipp Freudenberg, a wealthy department store owner. Freudenberg was impressed by the skill Hofmann displayed as an artist and became his patron, providing him and Miz the resources to live in Paris for ten years, from approximately 1904 to 1914.
Hans Hofmann - Landscape, 1942, oil on panel
The Paris Years
In Paris Hofmann blossomed into a Modernist. He hung out at the Café du Dôme with important members of the European avant-garde, including Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Robert and Sonia Delaunay. He was surrounded by innovative thinkers and engulfed in an atmosphere of experimentation and optimism. His absorption of insight from his contemporaries rapidly advanced his thinking. He painted continuously and exhibited frequently, and was ravenous in his intellectual curiosity.
During this time Hofmann also matured in his appreciation for travel and nature. Summering on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, he was profoundly influenced by the varying values of color and light. But in 1914, all of this came to a pause when his artistic development was unexpectedly delayed. While visiting Germany, Hofmann and Miz became trapped when the German government declared war on neighboring Russia. They would not be able to return to Paris, not even to recover the many artworks Hofmann left behind there. But Hofmann was at least spared military service because of an injury. So rather than being forced to serve in the German Army in World War I, in 1915 Hans Hofmann opened his first art school, in Munich.
Hans Hofmann - Rossignol, 1963, oil on canvas
A Modern Teacher
Hofmann threw himself completely into his twin careers, as artist and teacher. After the war, he enthusiastically instilled in his students the value of travel and the importance of experiencing different natural landscapes. To do this, he instituted what would become a lifelong tradition for him, holding summer courses away from the city. And the summer course was but one of his innovative approaches to teaching. He also rejected labels for art and discouraged his students from getting bogged down in academic discussions of their work. He told them, “Painters must speak through paint — not through words.”
He discovered during these years the necessary differences between the mindsets of artists and teachers in order for both to be successful. As an artist, his goal was to always paint from intuition, to remain spiritually connected with nature, and to refrain from planning the result in order to keep the spirit of discovery alive in his work. But as a teacher, he learned he must be precise in his directions. The balance he found between guiding his students and letting them remain true to themselves mirrored the balance in his paintings. It was a reflection of who he was. His thoughtfulness and openness was so unusual, and so forward thinking, that throughout the 1920s his reputation as a Modernist art teacher attracted students who traveled to train with him from around the world.
Hans Hofmann - Aironautique, 1949, Mixed media on paper
One international student who studied with Hofmann in Germany in the 1920s, American artist Worth Ryder, went on to join the art department at the University of California Berkeley. By invitation of Ryder, Hofmann came to Berkeley and taught a summer session in 1930. So began a series of excursions to America for Hofmann, which included a show of his paintings in San Francisco in 1931 and a summer session in Los Angeles in 1932. And also in 1932 he taught a six-week course in New York, at the Art Students League.
The American experience so uplifted Hofmann that he decided to stay. He opened his own school in Manhattan, and over the coming decades evolved into the secular equivalent of a guru in the American art scene. His students included leaders of their generation, like Lee Krasner. His friends included art world giants like Frank Stella, who once wrote an article about Hofmann titled The Artist of the Century. And his fans included prominent cultural minds, like Peggy Guggenheim and Clement Greenberg, who attended lectures by Hofmann and championed his efforts as both an artist and a teacher.
Hans Hofmann - Fall Euphony, 1959, oil on canvas
What Hofmann Taught
What made the lessons Hofmann shared powerful was that they were simple and direct. Their profundity was in their ability to inspire without controlling. A tiny sampling of the guidance he offered his students includes: “…there are greater things than the object. The greatest thing is the human mind;” “Being inexhaustible, life and nature are a constant stimulus for a creative mind;” “The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of color;” and, “In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light.”
Hofmann believed magic was possible in art, but that it relied first on magic being present during the act of creation. He taught his students to seek that magic in the light and color of the natural world. He did not care whether his students were representational or abstract in their approach, nor did he even respect the validity of such labels. He was proud that his generation had moved on to respect the purity of aesthetic elements like color, luminosity, composition and balance, for their own merits. “It makes no difference whether a work is naturalistic or abstract,” he said. “Every visual expression follows the same fundamental laws.”
Hans Hofmann - Untitled, 1943, ink on paper
A Living Influence
A multitude of artists today cite Hofmann as a key influence on their use of color. One-time studio assistant to Hofmann, German-born American artist Wolf Kahn has devoted his whole career to exploring the radiance of color and light as seen in nature. And while her paintings look far different than those of Kahn, contemporary Abstract Expressionist painter Francine Tint also cites Hofmann as one of the most important influences on her use of color. Simply Google the phrase “influenced by Hans Hofmann,” and you will find more than 20,000 other examples waiting to be perused.
In his writing, Hofmann eloquently stood up on behalf of artists, teachers and the general human ability to appreciate art, by saying, “The great majority of people have the means of approach to plastic beauty as part of their natural equipment. The teacher can develop this natural endowment as Necessity, the greatest teacher, has developed speech.” As a teacher, he communicated this principle by helping artists create connections with nature. As a painter he demonstrated it through his unceasing exploration of the harmony of color. Most importantly, as a member of the human community he helped us understand why it matters.
Hans Hofmann - Miller Hill, 1941
Featured image: Hans Hofmann - Untitled, 1942, crayon on paper.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio