"When the impulses which stir us to profound emotion are integrated with the medium of expression, every interview of the soul may become art,” Hans Hofmann once wrote. “This is contingent upon mastery of the medium." Born March 21, 1880, Hofmann both excelled at self-expression and teaching others to master the medium of painting. In many ways, Hofmann is the father of both Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting in America, having taught such diverse artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Red Grooms, and, almost, despite an introduction through Krasner, Jackson Pollock. While teaching, Hofmann continued to paint in his own unique style, creating beautiful works such as The Golden Wall (above, from 1961), which epitomizes Hofmann’s concept of “push and pull” in creating the illusion of movement and depth in violation of the classical idea of perspective.
"Colors must fit together as pieces in a puzzle or cogs in a wheel," Hofmann said in reference to his theory of “push and pull.” In Equinox (above, from 1958), for example, the cooler colors (the blues) seem to recede into the distance as the warmer colors (red and yellow) appear to move forward, creating an illusory effect of movement that intellectually you know is impossible but emotionally and aesthetically you can believe in. When PBS broadcast a special on Hofmann in 2003, they included on their website a Push and Pull Puzzle interactive feature that allows you to play with the “cogs” of color that generate such perpetual motion machines. When Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists longed for a way to create motion on a flat canvas, they looked to Hofmann. When the Color Field artists searched for ways to express emotion through the interaction of pure planes of color, Hofmann provided the answers for them, too.
Hofmann’s life and career span almost the entire history of modern art. In Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, Hofmann met and learned from Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. From them he developed his approach to the figure, as seen in his 1942 Self-Portrait (above). Later, Hofmann explored the world of color with Robert and Sonia Delaunay, whose Orphism certainly played a role in his “push and pull” theories. Through his teaching, Hofmann connects the roots of European modern art with the golden age of post-World War II American art. Fame for Hofmann himself, however, came late in life. His first solo exhibition came at the age of sixty-four. As his students rose to prominence and critics began searching for their origins, they discovered the talents of Hofmann, who patiently waited for his day in the sun. It wasn’t until Hofmann reached his late seventies that he finally gave up teaching to devote himself to his painting entirely. With patience not only for his students but also for the praise long overdue, Hofmann literally gave his entire life to the pursuit of art.