Recording Hofmann’s “physical struggle” with the canvas
“Making a picture is almost a physical struggle,” says Hans Hofmann, whose prodigious nervous energy is communicated in the expanding dimensions and exuberant colors of his abstractions. Working with astonishing speed, never sitting down, constantly in motion between his palette and his easel, applying his paint with broad, lunging gestures, Hofmann often finishes a painting in a few hours. The rooms of his sprawling, bright-walled house in Provincetown, where he takes his school every summer, his apartment and his studio in downtown New York, all are filled with his paintings of the past ten or fifteen years, along with a number of French primitives and some recent Dubuffets bought in Paris when Hofmann had his show there last year. He likes to be surrounded by his own work because “a strong picture constantly suggests new ideas; shows up the weakness of others.” If you can’t keep looking at a picture,” the artist continues, “it should be destroyed.” Finished pictures that don’t stand this test are returned to his easel. (The work-in-progress illustrated on pages 40 and 41 was completed in two days, but afterwards worked on for three more sessions before he was able to let it hang on his wall.) When Hoffmann is dissatisfied with a painting, he doesn’t “patch up” the corner or color that bothers him, but goes over the entire composition. “A picture must be finished in one sweep,” he says, and this partly accounts for the violent immediacy of his works, whether they have taken hours or months to create.
One of the most influential art teachers of today, the buoyant, seventy-year-old painter has had a career, since he founded his school in Munich in 1915, divided between his classes and his own painting. In 1930, Hofmann was persuaded by his many American students to leave his native land to teach at the University of California. Then, four years later, he opened the school in New York that has attracted students in large numbers from all over the country. Here, Hofmann spends two strenuous days a week (he has morning, afternoon and evening classes) lecturing or criticizing.
Any discussion of Hofmann’s technique must revolve around his theories. “Technique is always the consequence of the dominating concept; with the change of concept, technique will change.” Perhaps because of the elasticity of his theories, his students’ work ranges from strict non-objectivity to close representation. But Hofmann does not encourage the latter. “Objective renderings are too often minimized: the human figure becomes a doll; a landscape, a marionette set,” he says. Although his teachings are based on abstract principles, Hofmann always has his students work directly from life—as he does himself, with the exception of some “automatic” paintings. One window in his studio or one still-life can supply the forms—sometimes recognizable, usually not—for an indefinite number of pictures. (The still-life he set up for the picture here has so far been the subject of five other paintings; see p. 59.) “An artist must look to nature for the essence of space—but appearance must be thoroughly understood. Space was never a static, inert thing, but alive, and its life can be felt in the rhythm in which everything in a visual ensemble exists.”
An accidental grouping of furniture might thus serve as an inspiration, but the first creative step in the making of this picture was the careful disposition of objects on a table. (An important part of his teaching technique is involved with the actual construction—often in themselves cubist—of the still-lifes he puts before his classes.) Hofmann can, in arranging a still-life, present an object not in terms of its own shape but as a “space-maker.” Thus, in this still-life a white bowl, three apples, an ashtray, a small pitcher and a jar of show-card color lose their conventional solidity as the distances between them—activated here by a “backdrop” of silver wrapping paper and the shaft of cellophane in the vase—become more prominent and suggestive than the objects themselves. Beginning with a “visual ensemble,” Hofmann, in a sense, finds his subject only when the picture is finished. Sometimes general environment is reflected—the pictures painted in Provincetown are “full of sunlight”; sometimes, a mood—“A shape can be sad or gay; a line, delirious.” The work-in-progress wasn’t named until Hofmann had made a series and discovered at last that the fruit bowl, radically changing its form from one version to another, seemed to be the dramatic center in each: hence, the expository title—Fruit Bowl: Transubstantiation, No. I, II, III, IV, V, etc.
Although his attitudes and methods have changed often, Hofmann has always been preoccupied with scale and likes to work on large canvases, explaining that “you can’t use your biceps on a small picture.” But, recalling his first visit to the Metropolitan, where, after walking through the museum, he found a tiny Ryder “one of the greatest pictures on exhibit,” he adds, “an artist should be able to show his capacity for monumental expression in a smaller picture.” Thus, as a discipline, he spends some time every week making sketches on paper or pressed wood boards. For these, a large sheet of cardboard placed on a chest (below, left and right) serves as his desk (this is the only time that Hofmann works sitting down). After decades of experience, he “no longer has the patience to work with pen, pencil or crayons” and he always draws with a brush, making quantities of temperas—often twenty or thirty in an hour. These sketches are not made as preliminaries to a painting but purely as “exercises.” For more concentrated work on a particular problem, however, he finds tempera an inelastic medium and uses oil.
The three black-and-white oil sketches from the still-life (p. 40; top left) demonstrate his search for the possible depth of his subject on a two-dimensional surface. In the first, he takes the largest area, and the objects are consequently smaller in relation to the rectangle; in the second, jutting forward in a close-up, the bowl looms large in the composition; in the third, which is the simplest in pattern and closest to the painting, the relative distances have settled in a range between the first two sketches. But the only important motif carried from these sketches through the development of the painting is the subtle vertical split, slightly left of the center of the composition; otherwise the painting, even to the proportions of the canvas, is completely independent of them.
Hofmann has evolved no rules for the making of a picture. On the contrary, always on guard against intellectualism and virtuosity, he says: “At the time of making a picture, I want not to know what I’m doing; a picture should be made with feeling, not with knowing. The possibilities of the medium must be sensed. Anything can serve as a medium—kerosene, benzine, turpentine, linseed oil, beeswax…even beer,” he adds jokingly. He usually works with a full palette, but for Fruit Bowl, No. I he used only four colors—white, red, blue and yellow—bringing in one more, crimson, when the picture was almost finished. Revealing his taste for extremes in impastos, he states that he “may use a hundred tubes for one picture, or one tube for a hundred pictures; lots of medium or none at all.” During the making of a picture, he gets covered with paint and spatters everything around, but he is scrupulous about clean materials. A can of turpentine and a huge roll of gauze are always handy for cleaning his brushes and palettes at the end of a session. While working, however, he very rarely stops for this purpose. Lavish with his materials, he keeps his studio well-stocked with “all instruments possible for the making of a picture.” A large assortment of palettes (panes of glass, pressed-wood boards, table tops), palette knives, jars full of brushes, boxes of tubed colors, rolls of canvas, bristol boards are all neatly arranged, ready for immediate use. He usually paints on heavy duck—originally for the sake of economy, but now because he finds it holds up better than linen against his battering technique. He prepares the raw canvas himself with flat white to close the pores, then a gesso ground, which me maintains is the only ground that does not turn yellow. (Its one disadvantage is that these pictures cannot be rolled because they would crack.) Although he likes his pigment applied generously (Hofmann is often amused by his students’ “starving palettes”), he tries to keep areas of canvas uncovered throughout the development of a picture as its texture and color are important foils for the variety of his impastos and tones. (In the final version of Fruit Bowl, No. I for instance, the cone of paper, the area around the dots in the cellophane and occasional edges of planes are still raw canvas.) “If I lose my ground, I have overshot my aim,” he says, and in this case he restates forms with white paint (he uses Permalba) to find his bearings again. White is the most important color, the artist finds, “since it is the most neutral and the finest shades always take a definite relation to it.” By “pure color,” a term Hofmann constantly employs, he does not mean color as it comes out of the tube. Any mixture, he maintains, can be pure; it is in their relationship—as, for instance, the juxtaposition of tones to create the illusion of light—that colors may become dirty.
“Painting, to me means forming with color,” Hofmann states. His first stroke of color is very important since it may be visible in the final version of the picture, and so, for Fruit Bowl, No. 1, Hofmann spent considerable time studying the still-life before picking up his brush. (The artist, who has been putting himself on the spot for decades by demonstrating before his pupils—often with seventy people in the classroom—was able to paint while the photographer was present, but ordinarily allows no one in his studio except his wife, Miz.
His beginnings vary. This time he picked up a small soft-haired brush, dipped it in turpentine, then in blue and yellow paint, and rapidly established the “architecture” of the still-life with fine, fluid lines in a drawing on canvas that actually evokes a blueprint (p. 40; top right). The diagonals were found in the large planes of the silver paper propped up behind the still-life and in the cylinder lying on the table; horizontal and vertical directions, in the tabletop, the cardboard pillar underneath, and the large board behind. Junctions of light and dark were caught as dots at the corners of the lines. But Hofmann doesn’t always begin a picture with contours; as often he starts out by applying flat areas of paint, as in the second step here.
Using a bunched-up piece of gauze about ten inches square, he next picked up some yellow paint, then white and a bit of red, and smeared them around on his palette to get an evenly mixed tone, which he then rubbed thinly on the right side of the picture where, next to the white canvas, it assumes a darker, brownish hue. Then, with another piece of gauze, he rubbed a related mixture of yellow, white and green on the left side, establishing a “background” which immediately pushed the entire still-life construction forward. (“The picture must achieve a three-dimensional effect, distinct from illusion, by means of the creative process.”) In the same way, other forms were rapidly colored in: a large, rough trapezoid of blue was smeared on; then using the same piece of gauze, he picked up some yellow and rubbed the resultant streaky green on another form. So far, he had kept his color within the original contours, which he reiterated from time to time with a small brush. But his method of applying pigment is never arbitrary—canvas was allowed to show through in one area; covered with long, carefully directed strokes in another; and in the simple act of “filling in,” the position and scale of the planes became radically altered.
But then, suddenly, the artist broke away from his original drawing, utilizing more specific forms as he picked up the left contour of the white bowl, and the diagonal shaft of cellophane. Here, the white lights in the crumpled, transparent paper were translated into a tick-tack-toe diagram, traced on so thinly that the paint dripped down. (Hofmann often works on the floor when he uses thin paint, partly achieving his drawing in this case by carefully tilting the canvas one way or another to control the “runners.”) In the second stage photographed (p. 41; top left), the negative space of the uncovered canvas became the dominating solid form, weaving through the colored areas in a bold and final image. It is the artist’s contention that “at every stage in its development, a picture should be finished” in the sense of clear relationships of color and form. Often, at this point—where forms are left as they were first stated, without modification—he will find the spontaneity has crystallized and that any further work would dilute the effect. But here he felt it necessary to “fill the picture more.” Forms were put down and wiped away as the impulse of the drawing swung from side to side: a stroke shooting to the left was balanced by another to the right. He scraped off unwanted colors with a palette knife; picked up one of the paint-soaked pieces of gauze that had accumulated on his palette table, wrung it out so that it was almost dry, dragged it across the coarse-grained duck for a dry-brush effect; dipped another piece into turpentine (the only medium used for this picture) and washed on a glaze. As the composition became more complex, the impasto was laid on more thickly, sometimes heightening a color, sometimes contradicting it. The artist picked up a thick gob of deep blue paint with a large brush held in his fist like a dagger; brought it down with force on an area of raw canvas, then on a pale blue rectangle; heavy streaks of white were drawn across a fresh layer of yellow; a brushful of red was plunged into an area of green—but, incredibly, working in thick, wet paint like this, he managed to keep his colors intact and separate.
His remarkable control here is a direct result of his method of applying pigment. Using his hands, cloth, palette knives, “anything I see around,” Hofmann sometimes thinks “a brush is a great limitation.” Only very good ones can withstand the rough treatment he gives them—pounding them straight down into the paint or scrubbing them on the canvas so that the bristles stick out in all directions. From his large collection, which includes dozens of house-painter’s brushes, he once salvaged some Rubens brushes that were worn down to half an inch above the ferrule by cutting away part of the metal exposing another inch of good bristle. But he doesn’t insist on expensive brushes, and often prefers to use a cheap, frayed one. “The choice of a brush is as important as the choice of a color in affecting the drawing,” says Hofmann. There is perhaps no other living artist who can give a dab of paint the special, haphazard intensity of expression that he can; and the splotches, streaks and dots, apparently so wildly splashed on, are always under perfect control.
In the photograph of the third stage (p. 41; top right), these splotches of bright color seem, at first glance, to be zig-zagging in a free action on top of the basic geometric structure; but on closer examination, they can be found to describe the edges precisely, or fill out the corners of a new group of planes, superimposed like overlapping sheets of glass. Spotted with opaque paint, giving off flashes of colored light, the picture here attains a marvelous transparency. And a daring, spinning equilibrium is created as these planes, on the verge of toppling over, are pivoted, almost dead-center in the composition, at the lower rim of the fruit-bowl. By this time (after three hours’ work), the artist was holding fifteen brushes in his left hand, and his four original colors had each multiplied into as many distinct tomes. Color and drawing, feverishly animated in effect, were at their most complex. From here on, development was a matter of simplification, and the picture advanced by means of “creative destruction.” Qualifying the development here was the fact that the paper behind the still-life collapsed and knocked the objects out of position so that the artist had to work only by the logic of the picture itself. (The subsequent paintings in the series were made from an altered arrangement of the same objects: the three apples were put in the fruit bowl; the jar of show-card color, the ashtray and the cylinder of paper were removed; a lemon was added).
After an eight-hour session the following day, the composition settled into a simpler balance as whole groups of small, glittering planes were swallowed up by a deep, substantial green in massively defined rectangular forms. A brilliant, heavy yellow now covered the initial, delicately tinted “background” and light, rapid contours acquired a magnificent, somber rigidity. A long ribbon of red, flippant and final, on the left, and his signature on the right declared the picture complete—but, after beginning Fruit Bowl, No. II, Hofmann was impelled to return to the original version three times before he brought it—with a thick red calligraphy, the most pronounced addition—to its final stage.
“A work of art is finished from the point of view of the artist,” says Hofmann, “when feeling and perception have resulted in a spiritual synthesis.” This synthesis may occur at any point, or even—as demonstrated by the different stages and “transubstantiations” of Fruit Bowl —during the execution. As he has written, “Every deep artistic expression is a product of a conscious feeling for reality.” But for the spectator, the reality that appears in Hofmann’s canvases is the powerful one of paint alone.
Originally appeared February 1950.