Showing posts with label Hofmann (Hans). Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hofmann (Hans). Show all posts

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ode to a Nightingale

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

From “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

In a 1930 review by Virginia Woolf of her sister Vanessa Bell’s paintings, Woolf writes, “[H]er pictures stand for something, are something and will be something which we will disregard at our peril. As soon not go to see them as shut the window when the nightingale is singing.” Virginia’s ode to her “nightingale” sister’s skill reciprocates the love Vanessa clearly felt for her sister as shown in her portrait of Virginia (above, from 1911-1912). Born May 30, 1879, Vanessa Bell found herself firmly within the artistic dervish known as the Bloomsbury group, which drove most artistic movements at the turn of the twentieth century in England. Wife of art critic Clive Bell, mother of art historian Quentin Bell, and lover of art critic Roger Fry and artist Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell influenced and was influenced by many of the modern art theories of her time. Her portrait of Virginia Woolf pares down the details of her sister’s image to get at the bare honesty of her writings, so paradoxically forthcoming and revelatory within her obscure modernist idiom. As Virginia warns, we close the window on Vanessa’s talent at our peril.

Thanks to her association with Roger Fry, Vanessa gained a familiarity with Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and all the other “isms” swirling about British avant-garde art circles. Fry encouraged Vanessa to experiment in such modes against her more natural naturalist impulses. Bell’s Abstract Painting (above, from 1914) looks remarkably like one of Hans Hofmann’s “push and pull” paintings of choreographed blocks of color. Clive Bell’s theories on color and form may also have contributed to Vanessa’s conception of this startlingly abstract work, literally years ahead of its time. Vanessa knew the groundbreaking work of Picasso and Braque around this time, but even they never attempted such an abstraction of pure color and form.

In The Tub (above, from 1917), Vanessa returns to a more naturalistic subject—the bather. After seeing the bathers of Degas, Cezanne, and Matisse, Vanessa chose to tackle the female nude in the same setting. Originally, the nude woman wore a white chemise to cover herself partially. “I've taken out the woman's chemise,” Vanessa explained in a 1918 letter to Fry, “and in consequence she is quite nude and much more decent.” The idea of nudity being more “decent” than wearing clothes harks back to the idea of honesty as an ideal. Sadly, this painting was never hung and remained rolled up until being rediscovered in the 1970s. Vanessa resisted the post-World War I turn to Surrealism, choosing instead to concentrate on portraiture and a more naturalistic style. Perhaps if The Tub had been known during that time she would have received the full hearing that Virginia hoped for her.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Not Fade Away

Is it “better,” as Neil Young suggested, “to burn out than to fade away?” When you look at the two greatest artists of the Abstract Expressionist school, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, you can weigh the possibilities. Pollock died relatively young in a drunken car accident. Born April 24, 1904, de Kooning lived much longer and sadly slipped into the slow oblivion of Alzheimer's disease. Of all the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning was perhaps the most charismatic—handsome (Val Kilmer played him in Pollock), funny in an English as second language kind of way, and devoted to his friends, which included Pollock, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, and the rest of the gang from the infamous Cedar Tavern, watering whole of the 1950s New York art scene. In 1981, de Kooning painted Pirate (Untitled II) (above), which shows some of the traces of his glory days of the Woman series but a definite softening and simplifying of his style, still based on gesture and movement yet no longer as brash and confrontational. Was this the way de Kooning wanted to take his art, the direction his illness was pushing him towards, or both?

Four years later, de Kooning painted a Triptych (above, individually named, from left to right, Untitled V, Untitled II, and Untitled IV, from 1985) for St Peter's Church in New York. The thick colors no longer appear. Instead, only the gestures remain. Some critics see de Kooning’s late work as a dialogue with other great artists, from his friend Arshile Gorky to modernist influences such as Kandinsky and Picasso. Again, de Kooning’s condition may have contributed to both the simplification of his gestures (as his dexterity waned) and his look backward. Alzheimer patients often develop a great sense of nostalgia for the past, longing to cling to their memories at the moment they become the most slippery. Emotions rise closer to the surface as well, making the memory of Gorky’s own painful end seem present despite being decades in the past.

de Kooning’s disease and his paintings during that period touch me for personal reasons beyond their obvious beauty. My family has a history of Alzheimer’s, a tradition I hope to evade. I remember visiting my grandfather in a nursing home with my father and having him mistake me for my father, unaware that the middle-aged man beside him was his son. Questions remain as to whether de Kooning actually painted such works as Untitled (above, from 1988), but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and accept that they’re the works of his brush and not fakes perpetrated by others, however much they differ from the rest of his work. These last works turn to pastel colors—simple, pleasing color arranged in broad, simple strokes. In that sense, they are childlike in their honesty and openness, much like an Alzheimer patient stripped of all their memories and, thus, identity and left with only the core of who they are. de Kooning’s late works show the core of who he was as an artist and a person, free of all the bravado and posturing. I like to imagine that looking at them I get a glimpse not only into the mind of the artist but into the mind of my grandfather and all those who are afflicted by this disease.

Friday, March 21, 2008

An Interview of the Soul

"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.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Through Thick and Thin

Before World War II, Nicolas de Stael painted mainly representational works. When hostilities erupted, de Stael responded to reality with greater and greater abstraction. Born January 5, 1914, de Stael met Jean Arp and Sonia and Robert Delaunay in the South of France in 1941 and followed their example in creating his first abstract paintings. de Stael painted Marathon (above) in 1948, but it represents much of his early work in the thick application of impasto. Like the Abstract Expressionists in America, de Stael’s paints in an athletic, physical style that naturally drew him to paint several sports scenes. The struggle of the straining marathoner mirrors the struggles de Stael encountered in finding acceptance and monetary success. Two years before he painted Marathon, de Stael’s wife died from malnutrition.

de Stael first found success in his abstract works based on recognizable landscapes, such as his Mount Sainte-Victorie (above, from 1954). To paint the same mountain that Cezanne made famous took a lot of courage, which de Stael certainly had. de Stael painted often with a palette knife, thickly working the paint onto the surface, similar to the technique of Chaim Soutine. Although de Stael knew and befriended Georges Braque, one of the founders of Cubism, I find it hard to see much influence in his work. de Stael’s unique blend of different influences, many of which concentrated on the use of color to express emotion, adds up to a school unto itself in many ways. This stylistic isolation found a counterpart in de Stael’s personal life, as depression forced him to pull away from his artistic peers. Many see de Stael’s work as a forerunner of Color field painting, which I agree with if you place his work next to that of Hans Hofmann, who also served as an inspiration to the Color Field artists but never truly became one of them.

de Stael finally succumbed to the worst elements of his depression in 1955 and took his own life by leaping from the balcony of his eleventh story studio. Blue Reclining Nude (above, from 1955) remained as one of his final works, a bold simplification of the human form that harks back to Picasso’s Blue Period and looks forward to the Color Field artists, again, in its use of broad areas of color composed of thinly applied paint. The artist who began working with such a heavy hand ended with a lighter touch. Sadly, nothing could lighten his heavy heart.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Birth of the Cool

Number 18, 1951, by Mark Rothko. Oil on canvas; 81-1/2 x 69-7/8 in. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Museum of Art, Utica, NY (53.216) ©2006 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

“The history of art is messier and more haphazard than most theories allow,” writes Karen Wilkin in the catalogue to the exhibition Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 currently at the Denver Art Museum. Beginning with Heinrich Wolfflin’s concept of the history of art as a pendulum swing between linear (i.e., precise and clean) and painterly (i.e., full of individual gesture) and then moving on to Clement Greenberg’s modern appropriation of that dichotomy in his appreciation of the Abstract Expressionists, Wilkin sets the stage for the generation after Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko–the Color Field painters. “Their art can be read as departing from the possibilities suggested by Rothko’s poised rectangles,” Wilkin writes, such as Rothko’s Number 18 (above). Yet, as Wilkin quickly shows, the relationship between the Color Field painters and their Abstract Expressionist “ancestors” as well as between themselves made for a “messier” story than their calm, cool paintings reveal.

Yellow Hymn, 1954, by Hans Hofmann. Oil on canvas; 50 x 40 in. The Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust; courtesy Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, New York. © 2006 Estate of Hans Hofmann / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Wilkin sees two factors defining what Color Field painting is. One is the idea of “cool,” “in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of the word,” Wilkin adds. McLuhan defined “hot” media as those works that “reach out” and grab you, whereas “cool” media require the individual to take the first step. The frenzy of the Abstract Expressionists heated up the art world in a way that the Color Field painters wanted to cool down. When the Color Field painters looked for inspiration among the Abstract Expressionists, Rothko obviously provided a model, but the lesser-known Hans Hofmann offered a different take on how an economy of means could be full of possibilities. Hofmann’s Yellow Hymn (above), with its organization and “push and pull” of warm and cool colors projecting from and receding into the surface, opened up possibilities that some of the better-known Abstract Expressionists couldn’t. “You could become a de Kooning disciple or satellite or mirror, but you could depart from Pollock,” Helen Frankenthaler said in a similar vein, rejecting the claustrophobically overpowering gestures of de Kooning for the freer, all-over effect of Pollock’s drip paintings. Matisse stands as another teacher for the Color Field artists, demonstrating how to build pictures with powerful, unmodulated blocks of color, adding to Hofmann’s lessons.

The second factor linking the Color Field school is the person of Clement Greenberg, who co-curated the Post Painterly Abstraction exhibition that first gathered these diverse artists together, allowing him almost single-handedly to define the terms of the movement and who and who wasn’t included. The power of Greenberg, the earliest critical champion of Pollock, seems almost impossible today, but was all too true in the 1950s and 1960s art world.

Flood, 1967, by Helen Frankenthaler. Synthetic polymer on canvas; 124 x 140 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art (68.12). Photograph Geoffrey Clements. © 2007 Helen Frankenthaler. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Helen Frankenthaler emerges as one of the central figures of the Color Field movement. “Frankenthaler’s multivalent images seem to distill the large phenomena of the natural world—sea and sky, night and day, and changing weather—into subtle, richly modulated relationships of hue,” Wilkin writes. Works such as Frankenthaler’s Flood (above) mimic nature’s power yet remain true to the tenets of abstraction. Sadly, as Carl Belz recalls in his short essay in the catalogue, Frankenthaler’s approach to Color Field painting soon received the criticism of being “too soft” by critics such as Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg fierce rival. “Too soft,” of course, served as code for “woman painter,” a standard putdown for female artists. Flipping through the biographies of the Color Field painters by Hrag Vartanian at the end of the catalogue and looking at the artists’ photographs, you quickly realize that Frankenthaler was the lone intruder in the all-men’s club. To think that she found her point of departure in the art of the macho Pollock, you realize just how innovative and individual Frankenthaler’s art truly is.

Floral V, 1959-60, by Morris Louis. Acrylic and magna on canvas; 98-3/8 x 137-13/16 in. Private collection, Denver. 1993 Marcella Louis Brenner. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Wilkin compares the effect of innovations in acrylic paint on the Color Field school to the effect of the advent of prepared oil paint on the Impressionists. Tubes of paint freed the Impressionists to venture forth into nature and paint in the open. Quick drying, brilliantly colored acrylic paint similarly freed the Color Field painters to try new effects, such as Morris Louis did in his Floral V (above) and other multilayered works. “It is impossible to determine which came first: the painters’ desire to cover large surfaces with thin, saturated, even handed color or the existence of paint that made this possible,” Wilkin writes. This chicken-egg conundrum lies at the heart of the Color Field movement, providing an early example of modern artists exploiting new materials and technology in pursuit of new effects.

Moultonville II, 1966, by Frank Stella. Fluorescent alkyd and epoxy paint on canvas; 124 x 86 in. Collection Mr. and Mrs. David Mirvish, Toronto. Photograph Sean Weaver. © 2006 Frank Stella / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Color Field painting today suffers from a inferiority complex, something that this exhibition should rectify. As Wilkin points out, although Color Field art shares much with their contemporary movements of Minimalism and Pop Art in terms of striving towards economy and anonymity of touch, Color Field art gets labeled as “decorative” or, even worse, “corporate” for lacking any overt political content even during such turbulent times as the 1960s in America. Belz captures some of the flavor of this pecking order and its injustice in comparing Frank Stella’s shift from Minimalism to Color Field in works such as Moultonville II (above) to Bob Dylan’s infamous choice to go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966. “As each radicalized his art and deepened it by taking inspiration from his art’s past and extending it into the present,” Belz writes, “each revealed the past in a fresh light. In doing so, each took me along to places that were at once familiar and new.” Using the example of Stella’s transition, Belz finds the essence of Color Field’s attraction, namely its ability to be both conservative by taking the best of the past and radical in extending that forward, thus providing a “model for lived experience” itself.

Chi Ama, Crede, 1962, by Robert Motherwell. Oil on canvas; 82 x 141 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; purchased by The Phillips Collection through funds donated by The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Gifford Phillips, The Chisholm Foundation, The Whitehead Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Laughlin Phillips, Mr. and Mrs. Marc E. Leland, and the Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown and Donald Brown, 1998. Photograph Steven Sloman. Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of the American Federation of Arts.

Perhaps more than any other modern art movement, Color Field art is a creation of art critics, for good and ill. Michael Fried’s “combination of intellectual rigor and passion for every aspect of works of art,” Wilkin writes, “quickly set a standard for illuminating formalist criticism” as he promoted works such as Robert Motherwell’s Chi Ama, Crede (above). Unfortunately, the bald pate of Clement Greenberg continues to rule over the Color Field world, for better or worse. “Even today,” Wilkin laments, “a decade after his death, the personal animosities aroused by this difficult, thorny man can seem to get in the way of objective judgment of his achievement, and by extension, to obscure the excellences of the art with which he was most closely associated.” Fortunately, Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 exorcises the ghost of Greenberg, lifting the label of pure decoration to reveal the creative thinking and even radicalism of the artists and their works. In curating and writing Color as Field, Karen Wilkin allows the Color Field school to step out of the long shadow of Clement Greenberg and show their true colors.

[Many thanks to the Denver Art Museum for providing me with a copy of the exhibition catalogue to Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 and for the images from the exhibition.]