Hans Hofmann Technique And Me

Robert Sievert

Robert Sievert: "Marth's Vineyard Sunrise"

Robert Sievert: "Autumn Pond"

Robert Sievert: "New York Harbor Plein Aire"

As a student I studied with Nicolas Carone, a brilliant artist, who had been a student of Hans Hofmann. What was taught in Nick's class was straight Hofmann technique. We learned how to work from models and still life and create an illusion of three dimensions on a two dimensional plane. The technique involved finding volumes within analytical lines, and learning to flatten the entire design on the plane. Great Art has always been flat, I was told.

I struggled with the technique for five years in Nick's classes. We worked only in charcoal and all work was subject to revision by both Nick and myself. I had a hard time witnessing Nick draw over my work and put in revisions. Later I was to learn that Hofmann spoke directly to this issue when he told students that the paper was a learning ground, not a personal expression and was subject to revision by both the teacher and the student.

I was very studious and helped run classes, organizing a drawing studio with fellow student Joyce (Sudborough) Sampson. This was the 14th Street Drawing Studio. It became a Mecca for many practicing artists. I remember Paul Jenkins sitting next to me one night. He looked at the work on my pad and shook his head, "This way of drawing concerns itself too much with method" he told me,"It's like trying to have good manners"

My own work began as I moved into the area of direct painting. I struggled for a few years following my studies at Cooper Union and in the studio classes of Nick Carone, to establish a personal style that would demonstrate the mastery of my studies.

At one point I threw up my hands and abandoned all hope of ever discovering the great truths of abstract art. I packed up a paint box and walked across the street to the Staten Island waterfront. I began painting the snatches of New York Harbor visible through the deserted piers of the Stapleton waterfront.

At the time I did not realize how connected this work was to my studies. I perceived it as walking away from my training (The Hofmann Technique), but my work had something in it that people responded to! A " sense of space"? I continued to paint from nature and had success in the blossoming "realist scene" in the early years of SoHo, in the 70's. I was labeled a painterly realist. I was most known for my pictures of New York Harbor.

Recently while reading the excellent book by Cynthia Goodman on Hans Hofmann I encountered the phrase "Hans Hofmann's lifelong obsession with seascapes." Something clicked. I remembered my first pictures of the Stapleton waterfront.

I divided the canvas with the main division, the waterline. I defined the space. I continued to find divisions and ended on the last step, which was to bring the light into the picture. I now see that I was painting out the vision handed to me in Nick Carone's classes, the Hofmann style of defining a space, finding volumes, expanding plastic space. It was all there in my seascapes, the enormous volume of light and air. I must say that I think Nick was a truly inspired artist who added greatly to the ideas of Hofmann, especially when he spoke about light and pictorial metaphor.

I now understand how seascapes are the perfect medium for this technique. There is the deep space of the sky vaulting backward into the horizon and its perfect reflection in the water. When one paints water there are a number of different elements: the surface of the water, the reflection of the sky, the reflection of skyline, boats or other objects adjacent to the water, as well as the multifaceted nature of its surface. Also, one must see the water as a volume that is defined by its limits.

Now after thirty years of painting I must ask myself: What did I get from studying this technique? When I originally studied, Nick's whole emphasis was on finding abstract form in nature. The whole class was geared toward making abstract art. I always felt that I failed this expectation. My work was about image. But having this formal imprint in my mind I was able to see nature in terms of its abstract structure.

As I slowly built my own vision and technique I now see how I was guided by this technique and understand how a whole generation of artists who studied it as well were inspired by Hofmann: Wolf Kahn, Lois Dodd, and Nell Blaine, to name a few. Nell Blaine, I know, was listed as one of his early students. She was an excellent painter who suffered a debilitating accident and painted from a wheelchair most of her life. She showed regularly on Fifty-Seventh Street. Her paintings were always brilliant, mostly flowers and still life subjects, reds to break your heart. When I was showing at Green Mountain Gallery, the Gallery must have sent her an announcement of my show. She sent me a wonderful note complimenting my work and wishing me luck.

I think if you are aware of the technique, you see it in others.

And just how does this technique affect painters of realism? One of the main contributions to the painter of realism that this technique has to offer is its connection to the painterly tradition. The tradition with Rembrandt at its helm. Hofmann admired Rembrandt greatly. This tradition goes for a greater truth of light and form and eschews details, especially linear detail. Plastic space constructs the picture, not detail. Negative space becomes a defining element in the construction of pictures as well.

I recently sold a painting to a woman who first saw my work on the Internet. She told me that she loved my harbor and marine subjects best. "They are so abstract!" she told me. Now when I see my paintings, I realize that all of the Hofmann ideas are there. Yes, there is push and pull, the spaces open up. I really know how to nail a subject back into space.

I see it almost as a full circle. Hofmann and the cubists/modernists took apart space and defined a new way to represent it, staying within the painterly tradition. I studied this technique as a way to make abstract art and now use it too as a measure of the natural world that I paint. My pictures however don't really make it as "realist works", they are so much more an expression rather than a description.