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‘The Nature of Abstraction’: Hans Hofmann’s lifetime of work featured at BAMPFA

By March 6, 2019 No Comments
"Cataclysm (Homage to Howard Putzel)," 1945; oil and casein on board. (Photo courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery, New York, NY; with permission of the Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

A walk through the latest major exhibition at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is a tour of multiple styles — hints of Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Pollock.

Thing is, they’re all by one artist.

It’s decades of work from the late Hans Hofmann, one of the most significant painters and influential teachers of art in the 20th century, known for his bold use of color, shape and planes.

“Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,” on view now through July 21, offers a fresh look at his vivid experiments in the avant-garde and abstract expressionism, trying out cubist, fauvist, surrealist techniques and more, often transcending genre and style.

“He did many iterations of various techniques almost as a scientific experiment,” said Lucinda Barnes, BAMPFA’s curator emerita who has organized multiple Hofmann exhibitions during her tenure at UC Berkeley. “He was pushing the results, in essence asking, ‘What is the greatest artistic truth I can reach in this method?’”

Indeed, gallery by gallery, visitors will move from his early studio work and landscapes of the 1930s, to his “slab” paintings of the late 1950s and his abstract works at the end of his career. Some of his most iconic works were created just before his death in 1966 at the age of 85.

The retrospective draws on BAMPFA’s own holdings — the world’s largest museum collection of Hofmann’s work — as well as important public and private collections from around the globe.

“Combinable Wall I and II,” 1961; oil on canvas. (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California, photography by Ben Blackwell)

Lawrence Rinder, the museum’s director and chief curator, calls it a “monumental” exhibition for BAMPFA — and a natural one, considering Hofmann’s close ties to the university from the get-go. The German-born Hofmann was already an established artist and teacher in Munich when he was invited to teach at UC Berkeley in 1930 before establishing his famously influential schools in New York City and Provincetown, Mass.

In recognition of the university’s role in his migration to America, Hofmann donated nearly 50 paintings to UC Berkeley in 1963, as well as a generous financial gift for the construction of a new museum building.

“This feels like such an incredible moment,” Rinder said of the retrospective. “That visit (in 1930) set the stage for him to come to the U.S. And because of his gift — probably one of the most generous gifts an artist has ever made to an institution — his impact on BAMPFA and the Bay Area and global art cannot be overestimated.”

The gallery exhibit is set up in a general chronology, starting with still-life works apparently created in Hofmann’s own studio in the ’30s. There are bold swaths of color with mere hints of shapes and structures as in “Table with Fruit and Coffeepot,” (1936).

“These are of the studio, the very place he worked,” Barnes said during a press preview of the exhibition. “He knew Matisse, Picasso, and you can see those elements there.”

“Indian Summer,” 1959; oil on canvas. (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California, photography by Jonathan Bloom)

In the next gallery, large paintings could be from an entirely different artist as he continued to  experiment with styles, even the drip technique usually attributed to Jackson Pollock. In “The Wind,” (1942), Hofmann used deep blues and blacks with swirls of white. “There was always discussion about who used this technique first, but it was really kind of simultaneous,” Barnes said. “I see this as kind of being in conversation with everything that was going on in the art world at the time.”

In the next gallery, moving into the 1950s, the scale of Hofmann’s work grew bigger and bigger with vibrant rectangular color panes, a focus on light, plane, color and contrast in a concept he called “push and pull,” referring to expanding and contracting visual forces.

By 1957, at the age of 77, Hofmann had closed his schools and turned to painting full time for the first time in more than 40 years, working actively through the next decade to produce some of his most powerful and iconic late-career paintings, such as “Goliath,” (1960), with blocks of color on even larger canvases.

“Through this exhibition, we experience new revelations across the full arc of his career,” Barnes said.

After the exhibition closes in Berkeley, it will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., in September. BAMPFA’s Hofmann show will be accompanied by a film series titled “Painters Painting,” plus other events.

For a full schedule of programs, visit the website at www.bampfa.org. The museum is at 2155 Center St., Berkeley.