Hans Hofmann: Technique Into Art

Robert Sievert

  There were two major shows of Hofmann's work last season and I feel an assessment is in order, both of the work and of the impact Hofmann has had on the generations of American Artists.

This whole thing first came to a boil when last year I entered into a difference of opinion with a colleague who was trying to interest me in the work of John Grahm. I said I was very interested in him because my work with the Hofmann Technique had opened me to certain aspects of Grahm's work. My colleague, who works for a commercial gallery, expressed dismay and began to say things like Hofmann potato / Grahm a pearl. When I said I could not understand how one could deny Hofmann's genius (meaning his ability to create a body of work truly his own) I was told I would be laughed at. He went on to say that the powers that be (moneyed art dealers) held Hofmann's work in very low esteem. Spurred by a sense of indignation I began my investigations.

A Historical Background of The Hofmann Technique

When I first learned this material, it was presented to me as finished theorem: This is the way it is. Everything was related to the picture plane. One had to see the page as the physical limits of the picture plane. One had to divide this plane into movements and find volumes. I knew that the technique was an outgrowth of cubism and cubism was an outgrowth of Cézanne. But it wasn't until I recently reviewed the work of Heinrich Wolflin that I began to realize the historical dimensions of the theory.

Wolflin traces impulses in spatial representation from the 14th century on. He clearly designates different modes, linear and painterly. The painterly mode is the one that interested me. He identifies artists who see in "clumps" that are in various points of distance from the frontal plane. He goes on to establish a historical progress from the linear (perspective) recession to painterly recession. In his account of painterly recession he gives a pretty good discription of what we were taught to be plastic space. Everything was gauged in its distance from the primary picture plane.

Wolflin was writing this material at the same time as the development of cubism. Cubism was developed out of Cézanne's and other Impressionists' analytical treatment of pictorial space. It would seem likely that the advancement of spatial awareness and representation in the plastic arts was also recognized in the theoretical worlds as well.

It is well established that Hofmann sat in Parisian Cafes with Picasso and other forgers of the "new art" in the early years of cubism. It is likely that Hofmann grasped the foundations of his method during this period and took it back to Germany where he began to teach and develop his pedagogical technique which became quickly world famous.

Hofmann opened schools first in Germany and later in the United States. Many of his students went on to become wonderful artists. It has recently been stated that Hofmann's students abandoned his teachings to find success. Nothing could be further from the truth. His teaching enabled them to structure pictures in realism, abstraction and surrealism.