The thinker at mid century

By GREG COOK  |  January 27, 2009

The mural studies are hung on metal fencing suspended along the middle of the gallery. Sketch — Chimbote Mosaic Cross is a blue cross on a hot-yellow background with a red-pepper shadow. Circles or orbs float at the top of the cross and at the end of its left arm. Study for Mosaic Cross has a stout red cross at the right and on the left a red-and-yellow orb that radiates bands of color. Atop a putrid-green background, Chimbote Mural seems to depict a jagged, abstracted figure (a crucified Christ?) with what might be an all-seeing eye of God as its head. Sketches included here suggest that the mural compositions grew out of increasingly fractured and abstracted renderings of what might be a bird.

In these paintings, Hofmann layers vivid colors, scraping and scrubbing them, as well as slapping on lush, thick glops. Other paintings in the group are more schematic — prickly doodly lines, layered arcs and parallelograms, kissing geometric forms — in thinly applied paint.

Works falling outside this series hang on the surrounding gallery walls, suggesting rhymes and repetitions Hofmann was exploring. Provincetown seems to pick up the geometric motifs of the murals, this time stacking them in two groups of circles, tangles, and cockeyed rectangles. Hofmann, as he often does, has two main compositional modes: big and little. Major figures, shapes, heavy outlines are accented by little dots and squiggles.

And note the ravishing colors — among the Abstract Expressionists, only Rothko was his equal as a colorist. Hofmann favors the basic hues of a kid's paintbox, but at his best he's exquisitely sensitive to their combinations, to the way color taps directly into your heart.

Image in Green features a pale-gray cylinder-shaped thing in the center surrounded by coursing deep-mossy-green paint electrified by daubs of its opposite, bright red. Perhaps the central shape suggests a mask, with the thick dollop of blue at the top left as an eye, and an etched-out triangle and square as the nose and mouth. Whatever it might be, what matters is the delicious dense viscous paint, its ragged textures, the seeming thrust and velocity of the brushstrokes. Hofmann could do thin washes of paint, too (see his gouaches here), but it's when he gets the paint as thick and juicy as cake frosting that he's at his best. And when he's at his best, he gives all his Ab Ex peers a run for their money.

So why does the debate still go on about his standing in the canon? Why does he still not get pride of place in museums? I'd say old ways of thinking die hard. Also, Hofmann's work suggests a man endlessly fascinated by the basic problems of abstract painting. The results can feel like hit-or-miss exercises — relentless permutations on a handful of elementary points: color, shape, line. Perhaps that's why he tried out drip painting in the early '40s, before Jackson Pollock got there, then quickly abandoned it for other things. Perhaps that's why he was revered as a teacher — because he broke abstract painting down to clear fundamental principles that he was passionate about and that served as the foundation of his art and his career.

And I'd say that size matters — particularly in the macho world of Abstract Expressionism. Many of these guys (it was a boys' club) painted murals for Depression-era financial-relief programs, got hooked on the power of scale, and subsequently continued to work big. Hofmann mostly stuck to easel-sized canvases. Less obviously grand, they give his work intimacy.

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