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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



"Hans Hofmann: Chimbote Murals," Miles McEnery Gallery, 520 West 21st Street, New York, NY, 9 December 2021 to 29 January 2022, Photo courtesy Miles McEnery Gallery.

There is something so wonderfully happy about the paintings of Hans Hofmann (1880-1966).  (This is true even when they're not perfect, which is often the case.)   So if you want to forget about the Omicron variation for a few moments, and enjoy life to the fullest extent currently possible, I highly recommend heading to the Miles McEnery branch at 520 West 21st Street to take in "Hans Hofmann: Chimbote Murals" (through January 29).   Don't worry about getting infected by the crowd: Hofmann was a straight white Northern European male, which means he is way out of style just at present. Talk about extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.


Clement Greenberg greatly admired Hofmann, both as teacher and as practitioner, though he too knew that this extraordinary artist wasn't perfect.  In 1947, in "The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture," the critic would salute the artist for his influence, the way he had brought French fauvism and cubism to America in the 1930s. After introducing Pollock as the outstanding painter in this article, and David Smith as the outstanding sculptor, Greenberg called Hofmann "the man who will be considered the most important figure in American art of the period since 1935."


More relevant here is the one time in the 1940s that Greenberg reviewed Hofmann's work, in a show staged by Howard Putzel's "67" gallery in 1945. It is a very funny review, in which Greenberg finds all kinds of faults in Hofmann's technique, but says at the same time that they just don't matter. For example, Greenberg writes that "perhaps" Hofmann "surrenders himself too unreservedly to the medium," but still he is a "force to be reckoned with in the practice as well as the interpretation of modern art."


The show at McEnery (which represents the Hofmann Estate) consists of ten panels on which are painted abstract designs for proposed mosaics.  Nine of the ten are tall and relatively narrow, about seven feet high and three to four feet wide.   The tenth is a smaller horizontal in a totally different style, with three simple shapes on a white field.


The idea was that the mosaics would be installed in a modernist environment designed by the architects Josep Sert and Paul Lester Wiener in the coastal town of Chimbote, Peru. The whole concept seems to have been put together by Sam Kootz, a businessman who had gotten interested in art in the 1940s and whose gallery represented Baziotes, Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb as well as Hofmann.


The project never got built but the studies function very well as paintings, even though stylistically they vary widely. Some of the images on them are hard-edged and geometrical, with relatively large, simple shapes, while others are composed of many smaller, more painterly elements. 


The hard-edged ones look most like Hofmann's later work, except that they're distinguished by straight-edged or triangular shapes instead of the rectilinear ones we associate with Hofmann's work of the 1960s.  However, the pure and simple but magnificently lively colors that are such a hallmark of Hofmann's work are already here.


This is the first time this set of pictures has been shown in public in thirty years, and from New York it goes to a venue in Hofmann's native country, Germany.  Individual paintings within the set are not for sale: they are being offered as a group for $5 million. (I don't normally cite prices but in this case, the gallery's press release is using them so I guess I am supposed to pass the word along: it looks like a tremendous bargain to me, if only I had $5 million and some place to put the pix).


More to the point is how cheery and at the same time how tough these ten paintings are.  They are like a shot in the arm or a slug of booze as well as a box of candy or a bouquet of flowers. Something for everybody is here.  I've heard it said that Hofmann liked to paint in the altogether, and I can just visualize this big strong nude man almost dancing about as he painted these big happy pictures. I like to think of him singing, too.


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