The Legacy of Hans Hofmann
Selections from the Hofmann School
at Lori Bookstein Fine Art
This is a small exhibition on a far-reaching subject. It
is intended as the first in a series of exhibitions examining
the work of painters who studied under Hans Hofmann. Émigré
artist and über-teacher, Hofmann exerted enormous influence
over the course of American painting from the early 30s
Born and trained in Germany, Hofmann lived in Paris and circulated
among the original Fauves and Cubists. He knew the European
lodestars (Matisse, Mondrian, Kandinsky) and communicated
better than anyone else the principles of their art. A voracious
and inventive hybridizer, he extracted exuberantly from the
School of Paris, from Die Brücke, Der Sturm and the Bauhaus.
He ransacked the whole of art history, with particular emphasis
on Matisse and Cezanne. Out of the pillage came an evangelism
of form-through-color that impassioned two generations of
painters. His own art has been recognized since the 50s
as the wellspring of what was then the "new" American
Where to begin tracing an influence as eclectic and sprawling
as Hofmanns? Bookstein starts from her own predilection
toward certain women among the second generation New York
School painters. The featured legatees are Nell Blaine, Lee
Krasner, Mercedes Matter, Louisa Matthiasdottir, Anne Tabachnick
and Selina Trieff "and others." Those others are
the three men on view in the back room: Paul Resika, Robert
De Niro and Larry Rivers.
The ensemble is quirky, intimate and well worth the visit.
It is also less coherent than it might have been if the subject
had not been presented mainly as a womans thing.The
overall effect suggests publishers overstock more than
a cohesive effort at following lines of inheritance. But not
to carp. The show has its own pleasures and surprises whether
or not it fully bears the weight of succession attributed
Lee Krasner, who studied with Hofmann between 1937 and 1940
and first introduced him to Clement Greenberg, is represented
by three works on paper. A small gouache study for a mural,
dating from her last year under Hofmann, is a generic abstraction
that provides interesting counterpoint to two of her later
signature gestural patterns. Both owe much to her study of
Krasner had a gift for designing shapes and setting them
afloat within a convincing and unified field. Is there more
than that to it? Her work has always seemed a little empty
to me, more rhetoric than content. But, in all candor, I have
difficulty seeing it without reference to the feminist politics
that surrounds it. Does it matter? Krasner has been made a
brand name and recognizable brands are not to be argued with.
A darksome, broody little panel by Nell Blaine (Little
Fish Abstraction 1948), painted within four years of leaving
Hofmanns tutelage, is wonderful to find. Accompanying
it is a 1991 pastel, a calligraphic dance in greens and oranges,
of the view from her studio window.
I have always been drawn to her early abstractions, even
preferring them to the interiors and floral pieces she turned
to after a near-fatal, crippling bout with polio in the 1950s.
The Abstract-Expressionist ethos of those years, with its
insistence on muscular paint application and over-sized canvases,
became patently impossible for her.
For all the grandiloquent claims made for individual Abstract-Expressionists
and for the movement itself, Nell Blainewho retrained
herself to paint with her left hand and from a wheel chairlived
the heroism that was AEs prevailing posture. This small
abstraction stands like an archeological fragment, evidence
of a loss that cannot be gauged.
For me, the most gratifying part of this show is the opportunity
to see Tabachnik, Matthiasdottir and Trieff in one room. However,
the gallery is actually just thata living room in a
small prewar apartment of good address. Ceilings are not high;
viewing space is tight and unsympathetic to groupings of large
paintings. Yet each of these three painters is seen to best
advantage in larger works.
Tabachnik was an expansive painter who widened her canvases
over the years. Matthiasdottir and Trieff are both very physical
ones. The density and beauty of their surfaces is most apparent
when the paintthe rhythm of the brushis given
the wingspan it requires.
Anne Tabachnick had studied briefly with Nell Blaine before
becoming a student of Hofmanns in 1946. Tabachnik was
an uneven painter but even in her unevenness she was more
interesting than many better known names. She was adventurous
in subject matter, refusing to stylize herself with a trademarked
imagery. Of the two paintings on view here, pay most attention
to Black Still Life, 1960. She saw Matisse through
Hofmanns eyes and spent her painting life altering and
developing that filtered vision.
Her work seemed to disappear after her death in 1995. For
those of us who have missed it, it is welcome news that Lori
Bookstein is representing her estate. This means her painting
is about to become visible again. It is something to be grateful
Louisa Matthiasdottir entered the Hofmann school in 1941,
the same year she arrived here from Reykjavik, Iceland. She
is represented by two canvases from the 1980s. A third
canvas, an uncharacteristically tiny jewel of a thinga
single white sheep-shape, like a glowing heraldic device,
on field of pure primariesis unaccountably in the back
The featured paintings are samples of her Reykjavik street
scenes, with the vigorous, pictorial shorthand that is so
distinctly her own. Yet I suspect that someone coming upon
her work for the first time might be disappointed in the selection
here. Neither of the two adequately conveys Matthiasdottirs
gift for capturing the preternatural clarity of Icelandic
light nor the full drama of her compositional finesse.
If Matthiasdottir is here, why not Leland Bell? Bell and
Matthiasdottir met in Hofmanns class. Their long marriage
was a graceful, abundantly productive union that sustained
each of them in their separate creative identities. One of
the finest of modern figure painters, Bell has never received
the recognition his work demands. His absence from this show
is a black hole at the center, given its premise.
The other obvious gap is Paul Resika. Resika seized that
School of Paris joie de vivre, opulent and romantic,
that is at the heart of Hofmanns achievement. Resika,
above all others exhibited here, delivers painting that testifies
to his own profound affinity with the substanceto be
distinguished from the various stylesof Hofmanns
long creative journey.
Yes, there are two small acquatints in the back office.
But Resika does not translate adequately into prints. His
painting is deceptively simple. The simplicity of his imagery
and bon vivant coloration converts well but not the
soul of it.
The power of his best work exceeds color, supporting it and
insuring its emotional charge against dissipation on the retina.
His strength resides in his touch, in fluid, balletic handling
that yields complex and refined surfaces. Resikas paint
is not added, like a sauce, to his imagery. His paint quality
is beautiful because it is n intimate expression of his personal
feeling for form and his empathy with the medium. The prints
on view here leave us lonely for a sight of the paint.
Mercedes Matter joined the Hofmann School from 1933 to1935.
She went on to found the New York Studio School and become
an influential teacher in her own right. She is an extraordinary
woman. Her painting, however, is less satisfying than might
be expected from the daughter of one great colorist (Arthur
B. Carles) and the student of another.
Her father was once asked what a talented but untrained youngster
should study. I love his answer: "Tell him to play billiards.
On that green surface and within that frame he will find the
equilibrium, symmetry, triangulation, direction, motion and
restraint of all art." Matters oeuvre seems
to me the product of someone devoted to marking the path of
those billiards balls but without feeling for the game.
Her fragmentation of volumes froze into a scheme, a Cezannesque
manner that seems to mimic, rather than advance, the struggle
for significant form. Looking at her painting, I come away
with an impression of someone intellectually engaged by spatial
concepts and the conundrums of vision but with little interest
in her medium, still less in her motifs. On the evidence of
what is hanging here, her work belongs more to the history
of pedagogy than art.
Selina Trieff studied with Hofmann in the mid-50s.
Included here, accompanied by more recent work, is a delicious
little abstraction from her student years that has nothing
of the student about it. It is done with great confidence
and command, precisely the qualities that characterize her
later figurative work.
While Trieff considers herself an abstract painter, she has
remained one only in the way that every serious artist can
be called an abstractionist. All good art involves an imaginative
search for forms and techniques that serve its own pictorial
reality. While very far from descriptive realism, Trieffs
highly singular iconography is too unabashedly anthropomorphiceven
a bit zoolatrousto relinquish its identity as figurative.
But it is a bewitched figuration, steeped in self-referential
theatricality and ceremony. It suggests a carefully constructed
symbolic order wherein Trieff officiates as her own divine.
While you are in the gallery, make certain to catch Larry
Rivers still life in the back. It is great fun to see
such a nondescript beginning to such an extraordinary career.
A successful show is not necessarily one that pleases everyone
in every detail. This exhibition, in giving its audience something
to grapple withthings to compare, contrast or argue overis
ultimately a very rewarding one.