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Art Review

In teacher's works, strokes of brilliance

New exhibit focuses on Hofmann's paintings from 1950

Paired with Catalonian architect Josep Lluis Sert for a New York City gallery show, Hans Hofmann produced a series of murals (above) that imagined the rebuilding of the city of Chimbote in Peru. (Hans Hofmann) Paired with Catalonian architect Josep Lluis Sert for a New York City gallery show, Hans Hofmann produced a series of murals (above) that imagined the rebuilding of the city of Chimbote in Peru.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 1, 2009
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WALTHAM - With Brandeis University having announced its decision to close the Rose Art Museum this summer, "Hans Hofmann: Circa 1950" is one of a trio of exhibitions that are set to be the last mounted by the museum.

Hofmann was the great enabler of modern American art. Having witnessed the budding of avant-garde movements in France, Italy, and his native Germany at the century's outset, he moved to America in 1930 and became one of the most important influences on the fabled generation of artists that included Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.

That, regrettably, is how most people still see him: as an important influence, rather than an artist in his own right.

It's easy enough to see why. He was a great teacher, remembered so well by his students that this aspect of his life's work is routinely placed front and center. He was also, as a painter, a late bloomer - and when he did bloom, his efforts had a bursting, haphazard quality, like hose water pressurized by a thumb.

The variety, the restlessness, and the constant experimentation in his work has ended up militating against people's ability to know and understand it. What's more, it set him apart from the other Abstract Expressionists, who almost all settled on signature manners (think of Rothko's lozenges of color, Pollock's splatter, Franz Kline's black-on-white gestures, Barnett Newman's "zips").

"Hans Hofmann: Circa 1950" is the Rose Art Museum's bold attempt to revive Hofmann's reputation as a painter - "to place the work itself center stage," in the words of the museum's director and this show's curator, Michael Rush, "allowing it to be valued . . . as the product of an underrecognized genius."

Full of thrusting energy and frequently beautiful, it's a show I can recommend wholeheartedly. And yet Hofmann was patently not a genius. He was something else again - an adventurous, animating figure capable of painting scintillating abstractions, but in the end someone so absorbed in process and form that he was liable to forget what he was painting for.

Where Pollock bewitches, expending terrific energy on achieving images of unearthly calm; where de Kooning's twitching, slipping brushstrokes make different strains and speeds of feeling haltingly cohere; and where Rothko's paintings make fuzzy fields of warm and cool color breathe with a kind of beautiful soul-ache, Hofmann's paintings excite and impress, but rarely move.

The buzz you feel in front of the best of them comes from watching a naturally cerebral man throwing caution to the wind. But reservations creep in as the suspicion builds that Hofmann could never completely let go of his rational streak, that a certain German fastidiousness may have impeded his way to a more stirring art.

To the "problem" of Hofmann's changeability, Rush's unexpected solution has not been to cherry-pick the best works from his career in an attempt to superimpose a measure of coherence, but rather to focus on a single year, 1950.

It was not just any old year: It was Hofmann's 70th, and it saw him tackle, among other things, the remarkable series of studies for murals that make up the core of this show. (They have never been shown in a US museum before now).

The art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that 1950 was the year Abstract Expressionism "gelled as a general manifestation." The year saw Hofmann paint more than 50 works and write two of his most important essays. Despite his advanced age, he joined the so-called "Irascibles," a group of maverick painters (including Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko) who gained priceless publicity by writing a letter to New York's Metropolitan Museum protesting their exclusion from a survey of American art.

He was part of a three-day gathering of radical artists who hoped to give the new movement definition. And he participated in historically important shows like "Post-Abstract Painting 1950 - France and America" in Provincetown and "The Muralist and the Modern Architect" at the Samuel Kootz Gallery on West 57th Street in New York.

It was for the latter show, which teamed artists from Kootz's stable with well-known architects (Adolph Gottlieb worked with Marcel Breuer, William Baziotes with Philip Johnson, and Robert Motherwell with Walter Gropius), that Hofmann produced the murals displayed here.

His partner was the Catalonian architect Josep Lluis Sert, and the project was an imagined rebuilding of the city of Chimbote in Peru. Hofmann's tall, panel-like paintings (each 84 inches high and less than half that across) were studies for murals that were intended for a church; hence the motif of a cross that recurs in four of the nine canvases.

But despite the identical format, the paintings differ wildly in style and execution, as if Hofmann didn't know quite how to handle murals on such a scale.

Some are full of thick, impastoed paint, hastily applied with a palette knife or thick brush. Their urgent, joyous energy is given structure by tautly painted lines filled in with passages that are dashingly swirled, delicately dimpled, or casually pooled.

Others in the group are seamlessly rendered in flat, frictionless planes of lustrous primary colors set one against the other, with only sporadic outbreaks of brushy paint.

Rush has hung these mural studies in the middle of the Rose's main exhibiting space. They are attached to racks suspended by wires from the high ceiling and displayed at shifting angles.

Two of them combine the strong vertical format with tilted, overlapping planes and alternating smooth-and-textured paint in ways that put me in mind of two seminal paintings by Matisse and Picasso: "Goldfish and Palette" (1914) and "Harlequin" (1915). Scholars have long regarded these two works, which hang side by side in the Museum of Modern Art, as a kind of sublime painted "dialogue," or challenge-and-response, between the two twin peaks of 20th-century art. The connection feels apt, because no two artists were more important to Hofmann.

From Picasso, he took Cubist space. From Matisse he took an exquisite sensitivity to color relations. In fact, he distilled his understanding of the link between color and space into his legendary "push-pull" theory, which remains in play in art schools today.

The Chimbote mural studies are complemented here by an array of paintings and drawings hung on the gallery walls, some of them related to the project, many not. Few of them really sing. Again, you sense Hofmann's terrific excitement, both intuitive and intellectual, at the prospect of a vigorous, brightly colored style of abstraction, but little evidence that he has been able to capitalize on it.

There is one exception - a dazzling, Matisse-like painting called "Magenta and Blue." It appears to be an abstracted interior featuring a pineapple, a jug, and a window. The slightly fussy, diagrammatic drawing in thin black lines that makes some of Hofmann's large-scale painting seem fiddly is trumped here by bold planes of red, green, yellow, pink, and blue. The painting is at oncefastidious and free, disciplined and screwball - like a pursed-lipped matron wearing a prettily embroidered peasant blouse.

Hofmann, even within the space of a single year, comes across as a profoundly agitated artist. That year saw him busy kindling a new spirit in American painting, but he seemed constantly torn between the lessons of earlier innovations, from Fauvism and Cubism to Constructivism and Expressionism.

That's what makes him - and this show - so interesting. It's also what makes his achievement worth arguing about.

A final word: The catalog, with essays by Rush, Catherine Morris, and Irving Sandler, is excellent, characteristic of the Rose's high standards in scholarship and its reliably original approach. Here, for instance, each reproduction of the Chimbote panels is followed by four pages of close-ups, giving viewers a brilliant insight into the vigor and complexity of Hofmann's brushwork.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

HANS HOFMANN: CIRCA 1950 At: Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, through April 5. 781-736-3434, www.brandeis.edu/rose

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