Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Hans Hofmann in Provincetown
by Deborah Forman
The Early Years
The teaching tradition in Provincetown, beginning with Charles W. Hawthorne, contributed mightily to its longevity as an artists' colony. When Hans Hofmann opened his school there in 1935, the modern age arrived. As the representational artist Chaim Gross said, Hofmann "changed the whole picture of Provincetown" -- and, I might add, of American art. 
Hofmann brought with him the vitality of European modernism. Although a number of early twentieth-century artists had injected into the colony the radical ideas of Cubism and Fauvism, which they were exposed to in Paris prior to World War I, tradition still reigned in Provincetown and beyond. In the 1920s and 1930s the representational images of the Ashcan School, Social Realism, and Regionalism held sway in America. Hofmann recognized the need for modernism in American culture, which he saw as "repressed." Interestingly, half a century earlier, the American writer Henry James saw the same lack of substance and left the States for Europe to find a civilization rich enough to be a foundation for his novels.
By the 1940s artists fleeing war-torn Europe and occupied France came to New York, bringing modern art with them. Meanwhile some American artists were finding their own path to abstraction and non-objective art, and the European artists further stimulated their interest. Since 1930, Hofmann had been in America and teaching the lessons he had absorbed when he was in Paris prior to World War I.
Born in 1880 in Weissenburg, Germany, Hofmann began studying art in Munich as a teenager. He saw and was influenced by the work of Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens, believing, as he did, that the past should be considered a foundation for the future. He also became familiar with the art of Wassily Kandinsky, the Impressionists, and the Post-Impressionists. It is no wonder that Hofmann was drawn to Paris. With the support of a patron, he left Germany in 1904 with Maria Wolfegg, who was to become his wife. When he arrived, Paris was buzzing -- Fauvism was demanding a new, colorful approach to painting and a few years later the revolutionary ideas of Cubism would enliven the scene. Hofmann was introduced to the work of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Sonia and Robert Delaunay, several of whom became his friends. He also undoubtedly knew the work of the artists associated with Die Brücke and the Blaue Reiter, who were active in his native country. Hofmann returned to Germany in 1914, and when war broke out Paris became off-limits to a German alien. Excused from military service due to a respiratory ailment, Hofmann opened the School for Modern Art in a Munich suburb in 1915. By the end of the war, students were flocking there.
In 1930, one of his students, Worth Ryder, who was chairman of the art department at the University of California at Berkeley, invited Hofmann to teach there. He subsequently taught at the Chouniard School of Art in Los Angeles and had several exhibitions of his work in California before moving in 1932 to New York to teach at the Art Students League. In 1933 he taught at the Thurn School of Art in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and later that year opened the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Manhattan. A year later, his classes in Provincetown launched an era that lasted twenty-three years.
His wife, Maria, known as "Miz," had remained in Germany and cautioned Hofmann not to return, in light of the Nazi take over. Although Hofmann was not Jewish, he had many students and friends who were, and the Nazis would have labeled his art "degenerate." When the couple was finally reunited in 1939, Miz became her husband's helpmate, cultivating relationships with artists and students and entertaining often. She painted the furniture and the floors of their homes in bright shades as a celebration of the colors he loved and a nod to the artists who used them.
Hofmann became an American citizen in 1941. With the war in Europe, he realized his new home was in America, whose openness and vitality he greatly admired. European modernism was his foundation, and on it he built a new artistic expression that latched onto the high-flying excitement of post-war America.
Hofmann's and His Students
During Hofmann's time in Provincetown, thousands of artists came to the little fishing village to study with him. He first taught in a barn on Miller Hill Road, where Hawthorne gave classes. In 1945 Hofmann bought a house on Commercial Street in the West End and taught behind the house in a barnlike building built by the artist Frederick Waugh. Hofmann's reputation as an innovative and exuberant teacher was widespread, and his students celebrated his exceptional teaching style, unbridled optimism, and passion for art.
The artist Fritz Bultman had warm memories of Hofmann as a teacher. Bultman's relationship with his teacher went beyond the studio -- he recalled that Hofmann was a friend and a mentor and almost like a father to him. Bultman met Miz Hofmann before he knew her husband. He was only sixteen when he traveled to Munich to study at the Bauhaus, but by the time he arrived Hitler had closed the school. While in Munich, he rented a room from Hofmann's wife. After returning to the States, he took classes with Hofmann in New York and in Provincetown from 1938 to 1942. Bultman recalled that Hofmann was "a marvelous teacher because he was so human." He was also a taskmaster who emphasized the importance of observation. "What I learned most from Hofmann was how to see, how to live, and a real sense of values," Bultman added wistfully. Like so many young artists, Bultman was rebellious, yet Hofmann understood and knew how to inspire self-discipline. Bultman said he admired his teacher's "openness and European worldliness." Hofmann was aware "of the complementing duality of Cubism's concern with form as volume and Fauvism's concept of color as volume," Bultman noted, "and he tried to incorporate these conflicting yet complementing concepts into his work."
Hofmann brought together the structures of Picasso and Braque's Cubism with the evocative power of Matisse's colors and motivated a generation of American artists to free themselves from the constraints of representational art and launch an indigenous art movement (see cat. no. 55). Although at least partly based on European ideas, this new art form was energized with the American spirit that accompanied the emergence of the United States as a world power at the end of World War II. Hofmann exerted a pivotal influence on the rise of Abstract Expressionism, which propelled American artists into the twentieth century and transported the center of the art world from Paris to New York.
Many of Hofmann's students expressed the same feelings as Bultman. He was more than a teacher; he was a compassionate human being. Despite a thick German accent, he was an effective communicator. His energy, vitality, and sense of humor more than compensated for his deficiency in the language. A 1930s photograph of Hofmann painting a landscape in the hills of Truro captures his effervescence. His stance is solid, but his entire body seems in motion, animated with an energy that was so much a part of his paintings.
Hofmann's ideas were reinforced by his commanding physical presence, observed Haynes Ownby, who studied with him in New York and Provincetown from 1952 to 1956. As kind as he was, he was also tough, "very forceful, very vehement in his criticism," Ownby said. Yet he accepted all interested students into his classes. Ownby recalled that Hofmann's exuberance "spilled over into his students' lives. He took stairways two steps at a time. His laugh was a hearty roar."
Selina Trieff and Robert Henry met in the early 1950s, when they were art students at Brooklyn College. They studied with some of the same teachers, but Hofmann was the most important. He was the one who drew them to Provincetown, where they continue to make vital contributions to the artists' colony. The couple found him to be an extraordinary instructor who aimed at developing a student's individuality. "He taught a structure in a way that promoted whatever his students wanted to do," Henry said. Trieff added, "He loved his students." And, more than that, Henry said, "He loved art. Financial success was not the goal. It was truly all about art." In her new book, Color Creates Light, Tina Dickey relates the importance Hofmann placed on an artist's integrity, being true to his beliefs and not being swayed by the marketplace. 
Hofmann spent hours teaching drawing. When his students first arrived, they worked with charcoal on paper until he felt they were ready to add color -- and then only gradually. Working from a live model, they spent several days on one drawing, Robert Henry recalled. While that might seem like a long time, the emphasis was on improvising and constantly revising the image. The drawing "was like a living thing. . . . You put something down and then looked at it to see if it worked," Henry said. Along with the charcoal, a chamois and eraser were necessary tools.
A distinctive method Hofmann used, which some teachers would repudiate, was marking up a student's drawing. He might demonstrate a point in the margin, actually rework an area, or make a line to indicate a direction or movement he felt should be incorporated. If he thought the drawing was static, he would rip it in half and reposition the parts to set up a more dynamic composition.
The students also worked from still lifes, but they were merely a departure point for exploring two-dimensional space. The objects he arranged were designed to create tension between negative and positive spaces and various colors. He did not expect his students to paint or draw a representation of what they saw; rather, he hoped they would express their personal experiences, as they considered movement, color relationships, planes, and volume. He taught that it was important to reduce the subject matter to a series of planes, expressing the volume found in nature. That amounted to placing elements so that the space was rhythmically activated by a system of forces and counterforces -- his "push-and-pull" theory (cat. no. 56). If one element in an artwork pushed, there would be a response -- a pull -- from another element. This approach promoted a dynamic relationship between color and form. All elements in an artwork are interrelated so that changing a color, line, or form affects everything else.
Lillian Orlowsky, who studied with Hofmann for ten years in New York and Provincetown, emphasized how Hofmann taught her to observe nature and experience it: "He gave you all the elements to make a work of art, but he couldn't make an artist of you. He could only give you the possibility. . . . He made me realize that you don't imitate nature, but you sense nature spatially and re-create it on a two-dimensional plane."
Hofmann insisted, however, that art was not totally intellectual and stressed the importance of intuition. He also emphasized the value of simplifying what was seen in nature. He talked incessantly about movement and rhythm in a work of art. Although he was always looking for innovation, he never dismissed the art of the past. He believed that "only by the incorporation and understanding of the total art of the past is the artist able to move and change forms radically," Bultman said.
The Work of Hofmann's Students
The work of Hofmann's students is varied -- it is clear that his aim was not to teach a specific way of painting or drawing; rather, by exposing his students to certain fundamentals, he hoped they would come into their own individual style. His approach required balancing freedom with self-discipline. Myron Stout's stark minimalism is a good example. His paintings are significantly different from his teacher's robust, freewheeling canvases. Stout absorbed the fundamentals of Cubism from Hoffman (particularly the latter's late works with rectangles) but then went his own way, ultimately eliminating color and producing strong works in black and white. Stout was a slightly built Texan with a kind face and a scholarly presence; he began studying with Hofmann in 1946, and expressed great admiration for his teacher.."He knew where you were to start with better than you knew it," Stout said. "Instead of pouring it in, he drew it out of you." Stout had a very specific explanation of Hofmann's "push and pull." Nature has three dimensions, but the surface on which an artist works has only two. So it is a matter of translating those three dimensions into two and maintaining a sense of volume. Stout said that no matter how abstract a work became, it was vital to maintain a connection to nature.
Before he studied with Hofmann, Stout's work was figurative. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Stout drew landscapes in pencil, charcoal, and Conté crayon. Then he moved on to geometric shapes. In the mid-1950s he began to work in black and white, which became his signature. He arranged his forms in the space of the canvas to achieve a carefully crafted balance. Although Abstract Expressionism prevailed at the time, Stout arrived at his own artistic vision with an approach that had a cool, deliberate quality in contrast to the heat of the reigning movement.
Stout's images include rectangles in idiosyncratic arrangements or meticulously aligned; organic, amoeba-like forms floating in a sea of black; or two triangles, joined like butterfly wings, floating across a black background.
At his apartment on Brewster Street in Provincetown in the mid-1980s, Stout recalled how Hofmann made him aware of his own creative potential. "This is the thing every painter has to learn. He has to find out what there is in the whole language of art that he connects with and through which he can find his own expression. I think Hofmann helped me in that respect. He was able to do that sort of thing for his students." Referring to Hofmann's emphasis on color, Stout explained how he came to find his expression in black and white. Color was important to Hofmann, he said, "because everything that has to do with painting is light. And color is light and light is color." But Stout maintained that black and white are also colors and that every color conveys a particular emotional impact.
Unlike Stout, Fritz Bultman found his way with color; like Stout, Bultman had an affinity for non-objective forms. Hofmann's influence is apparent in Bultman's rich use of color and his sense of movement. His paintings of the 1940s are structured by defined shapes. In the 1950s Abstract Expressionism took hold. Although Bultman's works are essentially abstract, he often drew from the live model,-- and his work of the 1960s is illuminated by sensuous curves, probably related to this practice. These nudes reveal his sensuous command of line -- a similar line that is so beautifully formed in his collages.
Bultman's collages, such as Kiting (cat. no. 12), are composed of large pieces of paper painted in glowing colors in gouache and convey a rhythm that was likely influenced by the jazz of his native New Orleans. Some of his collages are suggestive of the movement of the ocean, which was so much a part of his attraction to Provincetown.
There is a strong relationship between Lillian Orlowsky's work and her teacher's. Before she studied with Hofmann, she had a typical traditional experience at the Educational Alliance in New York in the 1930s, y.et her early figurative work shows the influence of Cubism. Hofmann, she said, gave her a new understanding of the picture plane. Her paintings and collages, initially structured formally, eventually became free-form Abstract Expressionist works. Her collages of the 1950s and early 1960s are densely packed with daring colors and robust forms.
Orlowsky married William Freed in 1942, and two years later they went to Provincetown, where they spent the next two decades working side by side at the Days Lumberyard studios, established by Frank Days in 1914. Hofmann also worked there, as did his students Bultman, Robert De Niro Sr., James Gahagan, George McNeil, and Stout. Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell also found Days a good place to paint.
Freed's paintings clearly reveal Hofmann's influence. His early work was representational, but by the 1940s he was painting still lifes with Cubist distortions and lively colors. By the 1950s he had caught the fever of Abstract Expressionism and often included geometric forms to highlight volume in two-dimensional space.
In the late 1950s Orlowskys and Freed built a home and studio on Brewster Street, where they lived half the year. When Orlowsky and I met in 1995, she was a lively, grandmotherly figure who spoke modestly about her art. Being an artist, she said, is less about talent than hard work. It is about searching for "new forms and new means of expression."
Selina Trieff and Robert Henry studied with Hofmann and then found their own direction. Early in their careers, both pursued abstraction, but their current work is mostly figurative, although Henry still sometimes works in the abstract..
Trieff, a petite woman with a lively sense of humor, places richly painted theatrical figures against a flat background. She dresses her clowns, dancers, actors, and pilgrims in leotards or robes, in tight hoods or wide-brimmed hats, all with masklike faces, as in Women in Hats (cat. no. 105). Her figures are painted in vibrant colors, often embellished with gold leaf. Their faces have a sameness: staring eyes, a broad nose, and turned-down lips. "I'm using my face in some ways," she said. "Sometimes they look like this member of my family, that member of my family." Goats, sheep, chickens, and dogs, which often add a whimsical quality, are also players in Trieff's canvases. Although her paintings are figurative, they employ abstract elements, she noted..
Henry, who taught art at Brooklyn College for thirty years, sometimes works abstractly, which he approached in Springtime Fantasy (cat. no. 52), with its birds and foliage in a whirlwind of color. Much of his output, however, is distinctly figurative and many of his pictures are narrative. Henry insists, "There's no clear line between figuration and abstraction. Space is real. It may not be filled up with identifiable objects, but there's the reality of space, there's the reality of light."
Unlike Trieff's stylized paintings, which freeze her figures, Henry's compositions are rarely still. His subjects vary, but he frequently depicts lonely figures in dreamlike settings. He likes mystery, "the mystery of existence, the mystery of reality," he said. Now in their seventies, Trieff and Henry have made significant contributions to the art colony and were celebrated in October 2009, when the Provincetown Art Association and Museum honored them as Distinguished Provincetown Artists for Their Lifelong Achievement.
Hofmann's influence is readily apparent in the work of John Grillo, who studied with him in the late 1940s in Provincetown and New York. Grillo credits Hofmann with sparking his sensitivity to composition and color. It was all about "push and pull," something everyone who studied with Hofmann mentions. According to Grillo, color is the most important aspect of his painting, as in Untitled Mosaic (cat. no. 38). Whether his work is non-objective or figurative, it is the color that salutes the viewer. He cautions, however, that one should not assume that these buoyant shades necessarily evoke happiness. "They resolve the aesthetics of a picture in one way, and liberate the subconscious into a more conscious feeling. The idea is to strike a mood in how you put colors together."
Like so many of his era, Grillo was schooled in representational painting. In the 1930s he became interested in the work of the Ashcan School, Thomas Hart Benton, and Reginald Marsh. In the 1940s, after serving in the Navy in World War II, he studied in San Francisco. He was influenced by modernism and Abstract Expressionism, went east in 1948, took classes with Hofmann, and joined the New York circle of abstractionists. In 1967, when he began teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he returned to figurative work. After teaching for twenty-five years, he retired in 1991 to Wellfleet, where he lives not far from Trieff and Henry. Grillo continues to go back and forth between abstract and figurative styles, which, he explained, "is about being creative, more open, and digging into the past, present, and future. It's about being freer and not being tied to the marketplace."
Grillo's figurative work includes his Tango series (begun in 1985), which depicts sultry, voluptuous dancers captured with robust colors and sensual lines. His Circus series (begun in the 1980s) erupts with the energetic images of the three-ring arena. Vibrant colors enhance his forms; even the curvaceous lines in his black-and-white drawings and prints have a colorful ring. When straight edges enter, they only enhance the ubiquitous curves. He usually works quickly and spontaneously, a method that gives him the best results.
Sam Feinstein adapted some of Hofmann's approaches in his own classes. In his barn on Cape Cod, he set up fifteen-foot-long arrangements of fabric, driftwood, clay pots, cooking pans, bottles, and garden tools, and taught about the relationships between shapes and colors. It did not matter to him if his students took a representational or an abstract approach.
Feinstein's early work was realistic but became expressionistic in the late 1930s. His Harbor series, painted in the late 1940s while he was summering in Gloucester, Massachusetts, includes imaginative seaside views of boats and docks. Not long after, his paintings done in Provincetown venture into Cubism. By the early 1950s Feinstein had moved on to non-objective art, using energetic bursts of color. Forms that had structure soon dissolved in heavily textured oceans of hot colors, as in Pieta Peita III. (cat. no. 28). A master colorist, Feinstein saw color forms as the building blocks of a painting. Although he painted all the time and taught classes in New York, Philadelphia, and Princeton in addition to the Cape, he refused to exhibit or sell his work during the last forty years of his life. Like Hofmann, Feinstein was not motivated by success in the marketplace.
Although Hofmann influenced Peter Busa, the latter also took cues from Stuart Davis and Arshile Gorky. Busa studied with Hofmann in New York and Provincetown, where he had a home for many years. He worked in a variety of styles, using biomorphic shapes, as in Original Sin II, (cat. no. 13), and geometric patterns. His dramatic use of color can be associated with Hofmann. Busa incorporated motifs from Native American art into his Indian Space series.
George McNeil took classes with Hofmann in the 1930s and in 1936 was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists, an organization committed to promoting abstract and non-objective art. In the early 1960s he began incorporating inserting the human figure into his work. Although Pamplona (cat. no. 77) has the vigor of Abstract Expressionism, a figure is emerging, which becomes more apparent in Jocastra (1962; Provincetown Art Association and Museum), and No Uncertain Terms (1984; Cape Cod Museum of Art). His paintings are notable for the electric colors -- hearty orange, boisterous blue, raucous red, velvety teal, pungent green, and sunny yellow -- that make his figurative paintings burst forth in perpetual motion. McNeil's world is wild and turbulent and disorienting -- a brash circus of lively engagements.
Paul Resika's colors are a clue that he studied with Hofmann. He was a teenager in 194647, when he took lessons with the master in both New York and Provincetown. Often referred to as an expert colorist, Resika did not begin that way; he insists that he "became a colorist" only in the last twenty years.
Hofmann united the colors of Matisse with the structures of Cubism, and this same merging of volume and inventive color is evident in Resika's work. His early canvases are abstract. In Italy in the 1950s he turned to realism and his palette became dark and mellow. Back in America, his work became lighter. He painted outdoors and produced light-filled landscapes. At the time, Abstract Expressionism was in vogue and then Pop art, but Resika sought a different path.
By the 1980s he had found his signature style in views of the boats, cottages, and harbors of Provincetown. "Does it matter what you paint? Piers and boats are forms you can do something with," he said. "You do what you can do to get you to work - to find the form." Planes of vivid dashes of color are often loosely painted. In Fanfare (cat. no. 94), the neatly painted cottages are cheerfully reflected in the water; Provincetown's Pilgrim Monument delicately pierces a cluster of fluffy clouds. Distinct outlines in his lighthouse paintings are a reference to Cubism. In both color and structure, you can see Hofmann's influence, but like so many of his students, Resika took an approach distinctly his own.
Fresh from Tennessee, the twenty-year-old Charles Roger Grooms went to Provincetown in 1957 to study with Hofmann, but, unlike many others, Grooms found Hofmann's classes were not for him. "I liked very much the wildness, the sensuality, the explosion of paint of Abstract Expressionism -- the slap and dash -- but I wanted to harness it to real life," he recalled. Although he rejected Hofmann's teachings, Provincetown offered him a lot. He became part of the Sun Gallery, a small space on Commercial Street, which sparked its own little revolution, challenging the reigning Abstract Expressionists with a new form of figurative art. Grooms considered his time in Provincetown momentous. It was there that he earned the moniker "Red" -- because of the color of his hair -- given to him by Dominic Falcone, who, along with his wife, Yvonne Andersen, ran the Sun Gallery.
Grooms is known for his collages and sculptural pieces. His pictures, assemblages, and walk-through environments -- "sculpto-pictoramas," as he calls them -- are robust and rowdy, exploding with color and the blaring sounds of the city. His is a fun-filled world, chock- full of crowds of people in train stations, on subways, and on city streets. Cartoonlike characters mix and match in his topsy-turvy environments. There are aa multitude of stories embodied in his creations, which he realizes with hardware-store materials: plywood, two-by-fours, pine planks, fabric, Fiberglas, resin, Styrofoam, and insulation foam. He has also done a series on artists -- for example, To the Lighthouse (cat. no. 39), a playful picture of Edward Hopper painting an iconic lighthouse on the Cape as Grooms stands over him.
Hofmann had a powerful influence on numerous artists; and many of his students became major players: Helen Frankenthaler, Wolf Kahn, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Frank Stella, and others. Some experts consider Hofmann the first Abstract Expressionist. For many, -- not only his students, -- he led the way to a revolution in American art. His schools in New York and Provincetown were melting pots of ideas at a time when American artists caught onto European modernism and were developing their own, distinctly American, way of responding to a new world.
The Master's Art
Hofmann's teaching dominated his early years in America. According to Dickey, he did not do his first painting in America until 1934, when he was giving classes at Ernest Thurn's school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and living with the artist Arthur B. Carles and his daughter Mercedes, who encouraged him finally to take brush in hand and paint, and he began with a Pointillist approach he had used in Europe.
His work of the 1930s and 1940s shows clear evidence of a landscape, figure, or still life. Several self-portraits of this period are done with vigorous black lines, which dominate washes of colors. His still lifes are often set in a room; line and color meet in robust animation and natural space is obscured in an effort to create a new impression of reality. Provincetown and Truro are often the subjects of his landscapes; he painted on the beach and did views of harbors, marshes, and dunes. No matter what he took from the natural world, his paintings were passionate responses to what he saw. They sparkled with color and effervesced with a spiritual intensity. Although some of these landscapes are dashingly simple responses to nature, Bultman said that they capture the essence of the location so accurately that he was able to identify exactly where Hofmann poised his easel.
Hofmann had his first one-man show, in New York in 1944, at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century Gallery, which exhibited the works of Abstract Expressionists, including Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. According to one account, it was Pollock who urged Hofmann to show his work, contending he would not be a real artist unless he exhibited.
Hofmann's spirit took off in America and his work exploded in the late 1940s and 1950s. Latching onto the automatism of Surrealism, which emphasized the role of the unconscious in directing a work of art, Hofmann moved further into abstraction. He created a whirlwind of meandering lines across ravishing colors, often allowing drips of paint to emphasize the spontaneity of the work. His unruly The Third Hand (1947; Berkeley Art Museum, University of California), with its blobs of red and yellow, splatters of paint, drips, and, most unusually, handprints, emphasizes the painting process. The year 1947 was momentous: Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, added one of his paintings to its collection and the up-and-coming art dealer Sam Kootz gave him a show in New York. The following year, Addison Gallery debuted a retrospective of his work.
Although Hofmann had numerous contacts with American artists and undoubtedly was influenced by them, he continued to look to Europeans for inspiration -- Matisse and Picasso, for certain, and also Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian. Strong outlines defining whimsical shapes, circular blobs, loose swishes of color, and peripatetic drips are emotional expressions of an artist exploring a variety of styles. Search for the Real, (1948) is a window into these explorations.
In 1949 Hofmann had a show at the Galerie Maeght in Paris, which Picasso attended. That summer was a turning point, as Abstract Expressionism was coming into its own. During the 1940s, when many of the Abstract Expressionists visited, the village had become better acquainted with this art form; now, it was time to explore it further. The poet and artist Weldon Kees came up with the idea for Forum '49, which took place in a former garage at 200 Commercial Street in Provincetown. Bultman and Hofmann were also involved in setting up the programs. Along with panel discussions and lectures on art, architecture, jazz, psychoanalysis, and politics was an exhibition of the works of fifty artists. Highlighted were the early modernists Oliver Chaffee, Blanche Lazzell, Agnes Weinrich, and E. Ambrose Webster. As Kees pointed out, "The roots of vital abstract work . . . had its beginnings in Provincetown not long after World War I." Also on exhibit were the works of Adolph Gottlieb,, Hofmann, Motherwell, Pollock, and Rothko in "the first New England exhibition entirely devoted to abstract painting." At Forum '49 Hofmann declared, "Modern art is the symbol of our democracy."
In the years following World War II, while Americans celebrated the victory over totalitarianism, Hofmann must have remembered that the Nazis had outlawed his kind of art in his native Germany. In America, he and his fellow artists were at liberty to pursue an anything-goes style with determination and enthusiasm. Yet he gave full credit to the art revolution in Paris and challenged the assertion by some American artists that their work was entirely new.
By the early 1950s major museums in Chicago and New York were collecting Hofmann's paintings (see cat. no. 55). At the time, his work emphasized texture, with thickly encrusted dabs and a riot of colorful dotlike forms referencing Pointillism and pulsating with a charged rhythm that was almost audible. Amid brushes of color, he introduced spacious planes that preceded his signature rectangles, which became dominant in the mid-1950s. These works, which evoke not only Cubism but also Mondrian's careful arrangement of geometric forms, celebrate planes of intense color and overlapping, intersecting rectangles. The two-dimensional space he emphasized to his students is strikingly represented. The colors, however, hearken back to Matisse.
In 1957 the Whitney Museum of American Art gave Hofmann a retrospective. The following year, he closed his schools. He was seventy-eight and wanted to paint full time. Until then, the financial asset his schools provided was important to his welfare; the sale of his paintings had not been enough, even for his relatively modest lifestyle. Yet his teaching remained a passionate pursuit, not something he readily wanted to give up after forty years.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s he continued his devotion to the rectangle. In some works, the canvas is an array of numerous rectangles, taking a dominant position. In others there are fewer rectangles, but they are of varying sizes so that the larger ones bounce forward and the smaller ones retreat; at the same time, their vivid colors keep them vibrating so that each one occupies a valued position. In following the approach that "less is more," Hofmann later singled out only a few rectangles, which he plastered over a loosely painted background. The result is an engaging contrast of sharp lines and soft swishes of color. He apparently rejoiced in playing colors against one another, sometimes boldly contrasting a yellow and red or maroon and green. On other occasions, he placed two similarly colored rectangles -- a red and deep orange -- adjacent to each other so that they almost blend. Whatever arrangement he pursued, the shapes seem to be in constant motion, either battling or flirting with one another, and in this way commanding the attention of the viewer.
Hofmann continued to gain recognition for his painting, and an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1963 further enhanced his reputation. The exhibition traveled to museums across the United States and Europe and South America That year. Miz died, and in 1964 he married Renate Schmitz, more than fifty years his junior. Toward the end of his life, Hofmann took a break from the structure of the rectangle to move into compositions of amorphous shapes soaking up vivacious colors, but those rectangles often found a place among the fluid sweeps of color.
Hofmann continued to summer in Provincetown and painted until his death in 1966, one month before his eighty-sixth birthday. He is buried in Truro.
His importance as a painter has continued to grow, but it was his teaching that dominated his career. He was a powerhouse in his classes. His commitment to art was paramount. He was able to draw on his students' individuality by demonstrating a well-defined concept of art, which inspired an amazing diversity. His students were attracted by his warmth and affection for them. He taught with a firm hand but never encouraged his students to imitate him or adopt a particular style. With remarkable insight, he developed a deep understanding of their motivations and their talents. In that way he was able to expand their horizons so they could pursue their own creativity. Part of his greatness as an artist was his ability to teach and learn at the same time. As he inspired his students, they, too, must have influenced him. It was a two-way street. The creative juices flowed, stimulating an abundance of talent that sparked dynamic American art forms. Hofmann stood above it all with his knowledge of past greatness flowing into a waterfall of new ideas colored with splendid innovations and dramatic expressions.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from interviews with the author.
2. Tina Dickey, Color Creates Light (British Columbia, Canada: Trillistar Books, 2011), p. 97.
3. Ibid, p. 128.
4. Since 1972 the Days Lumberyard has been the site of the Fine Arts Work Center, which grants fellowships to emerging artists and writers. Current fellows have the opportunity to work in studios that have the imprint of the historic figures who pioneered the art colony.
5. Dickey, Color, p. 143.
6. Dorothy Gees Seckler, Provincetown Painters (Syracuse, N.Y.: Everson Museum of Art and Visual Artis Publications, 1977), p. 75.
7. Jennifer Liese, "Forum '49 Revisited," exhibition. brochure,
Provincetown Art Association and Museum, July 30-August 17, 1999.
About the author
Deborah Forman is an author based in Brewster, Massachusetts.
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay was published in Resource Library on August 17, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on August 15, 2011.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle, Assistant Curator, and Claudia Thesing, Director of Development, of the New Britain Museum of American Art for their help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.
RL readers may also enjoy biographical
information on selected artists cited in this article in America's
Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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