Hans Hartung (1904-89) was a central figure in mid-20th-century abstraction, a pioneer, along with Jean Fautrier and Wols, of European art informel and tachiste painting. He enjoyed a long and successful career abroad, but his U.S. reputation deflated when a 1975 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, organized by Henry Geldzahler, was savaged by the press. Since then, no solo show of his work has appeared in this country until this recent gallery exhibition of paintings from the last two years of his life. The German-born French artist is best known for his spare compositions of the 1950s, medium-size canvases in which centralized clusters of simple gestural brushstrokes were lauded for their intensity as well as their Zenlike perfection. Ironically, the paintings had been painstakingly transposed from small studies on paper; there was nothing spontaneous about them.
In the late works, however, including those in this exhibition, the gestures were not premeditated. Hartung often attacked the canvases with unconventional tools such as brooms, squeegees and spray guns, but, as before, the resulting images appear at once visceral and precise. Each of the 12 colorful, large-scale canvases on view features sprayed clouds of bright pigment over-painted with splashes and dribbles, usually in dark blue and black. The largest (approximately 6 by 10 feet) and one of the best, T1989-A7, suggests a cosmic panorama in which swirling clouds of gray and turquoise along the upper portion of the horizontal composition are infiltrated by splattered pools of gold and red on the right and below. Graceful elongated lines of poured black traverse the canvas at the center, adding weight and a focal point to the proceedings. A smaller canvas, T1988-K30, is uncharacteristically dark and brooding. The composition features a background of slate blue and black with an allover splatter of white drips that punctuates and activates the field. It evokes a celestial scene or a dazzling meteor shower.
Hartung, who lost a leg fighting with the French in World War II, was ailing and confined to a wheelchair in his Antibes studio when these paintings were made. He used garden fertilizer sprayers with various nozzles to alter the flow of the paint. An element of chance was involved as he frequently allowed assistants to choose the colors and prepare the backgrounds. Final sprays were applied at long night sessions of painting, during which the nearly paralyzed artist worked in a trancelike state aided by wine and Baroque music played at earsplitting levels. In this way, he produced some 360 paintings in his final year alone. Despite the controversy surrounding the extent to which assistants painted these canvases, it is clear, based on the impact of the show, that Hartung, whether hands-on or as a visual director, remained a brilliant image-maker to the end.
Photo: Hans Hartung: T1989-A7, 1989, acrylic on canvas, 723⁄4 by 1181⁄8 inches; at Cheim & Read.