If there is one word that can describe German painting, it has to be contrast. Think of Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, Mathias Grunewald, Adolph Menzel or Gabrielle Münter. Who was she? you might be asking – Kandinsky’s partner and active in Murnau 1901-13. Hofmann was a student in München and began his painting career there. He would have been aware of the Murnau Blaue Reiter artists and its shows.
Magnum Opus was the title of a major Hofmann exhibition at the Museum Pfalzgalerie Kaiserlautern (MPK), which is a small city in SW Germany. On show were 30 paintings from 1935-66 curated by Britta E Buchmann and Annette Reich, the Museun director and deputy, with Karen Wilkin and William C Agee from America. It is the norm for curators to exhibit the formative work of an artist leading up to the mature work. MPK was perfect for this as it has two identical wings on the ground floor leading from the entrance hall. Paintings made after 1956 were hung in one wing, and paintings from 1935 in the other. It made clear what Clement Greenberg and Darby Bannard had written over 35 years ago, that Hofmann became a major painter in the last 10 years of his life. He died in 1966 aged 86.
It was an inspired installation, paintings were given lots of space and even the labels were at a distance from each work (some might remember the Tate Gallery Hofmann show curated by John Hoyland, where paintings were hung far too close together). Also inspired was the positioning of Magnum Opus 1962 from Berkeley Museum, California which gave the exhibition its title. It was the first painting one saw when entering the entrance hall and even at 15 metres commanded ones attention. It is one of the great abstract paintings of the 20th Century – to compare with Mondrian’s Lozenge in Chicago and Pollock’s Lavender Mist in Washington.
In the wing with the earlier work was an extraordinary painting, Aquatic Garden, 1960, and hanging nearby were two famous pour and drip paintings from 1940-42. Interesting experiments, small and rather timid, the poured drawing aimlessly follows the canvas shape, makes a few amusing twirls but the bright colour does not save them. It was obvious that he felt uncomfortable with this way of working and he did not pursue it. But the large Aquatic Garden is a poured and drip painting made as if to say ‘I should have done this 20 years ago’. Here he used subtle colours, dark red as contrast against flesh tones with poured light blue newt shapes and lime green dribbling.
From the evidence of this exhibition, Hofmann does not make a sudden breakthrough but gets to the top gradually. The group of paintings made at the war’s end, the example being Figures in Ferment, 1945 from the Reinhold Würth collection, are superb. But MOMA’s Flowering Desert, 1953 is special. It has every colour of the rainbow, all manners of paint application, light and dark contrast, even black and white; a recipe for disaster. But he is disciplined and has developed theories for himself and as pedagogy. From this strong conceptual base he has the scaffolding (Struktur) and can let go, and he lets rip when confronted with the canvas and with his materials. It is a little masterpiece as perfect as Gericault’s small Cavalry Skirmish in the Wallace collection.
I have never seen a yellow that shines out of a painting as one sees in Magnum Opus. The other rectangle is a listless blue energized by adjacent dabs of green and dark reds. The crimson is a red, or rather reds, brushed furioso over orange and pink, hitting the edge on two sides and separated from it on the others by 2cm wide strips of the yellow and a thick white. And these thin strips are just as telling as the rectangles. That is finesse of the highest order.
He considered push and pull to be his major theoretical and pedagogical contribution. And it is made very clear in the floating rectangle series of paintings. Sometimes these go wrong and it happens when he puts too much into a picture. With Nirvana, 1963 he puts a sun-like disc where it should have been left blank, let alone another yellow. And with In Sober Ecstasy, 1965 the rectangles have been added as an afterthought over dry paint. Great as it looks in reproduction, I was disappointed and irritated by the thick gobs of paint under the flat painted rectangles. It is in the Mirvish collection and he has a great eye, so it was good to see his Pendular Swing which has two rectangles and a sock shape floating on kack puddles. Just perfect, as is a similar work from the Emmerich collection. No second thoughts there.
In his last ten years of furious and inspired painting, Hofmann developed two distinct styles and sometimes one runs into the other. The MRK exhibition puts to rest the criticism that he dealt with too much and should have settled for one distinct style. Sure there are odd balls in his production, but adventurous playfulness in the routine of studio work, keeps it all alive. Such an odd ball is Grey Monolith, 1963 where a broom loaded with thin greens and a hint of brown is pushed in regular lengths over a white canvas. Suggesting the influence of Louis or Frankenthaler maybe; or could it have been a criticism of the turgid regularity of Pierre Soulages? Then a huge painting where everything has been thrown in that he ever tried, painted like a Chinese master of the brush where everything has to be right first time, beggars belief that an 86 year old could have done it. It carries the delightful title Joy Sparks of the Gods.
His titles: And Thunderclouds Pass; In the Wake of the Hurricane; Flowering Swamp; Flaming Lava – are aptly chosen for the series made at the same time as the floating rectangles. These were the most daring, large, and original works in the exhibition. There are no features to retain the eye, just colour patches, areas, dabs, pourings and drips all made with vigorous physical activity. They are the product of a lifetime’s experience, of having painted many landscapes, interiors and still lives. It is as though he had a motif in front of his eyes whilst painting them, a motif of his imagination: die Natur.
The exhibition was coming to a close when I visited. They had run out of catalogues, it had received a good press and I was aware of serious visitors in the galleries. It is to be hoped that this show will lead to his recognition in Germany, the country of his birth and formative years. Hofmann is not just an American painter, or a German one. He is International, an artist for the 21st century where globalisation is breaking the boundaries between nation states, as it has in Europe.
David Evison, Berlin, September 2013