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 30’s onward.

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 50’s as the wellspring of what was then the "new" American painting.

Where to begin tracing an influence as eclectic and sprawling as Hofmann’s? 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 woman’s 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 to it.

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 Matisse.

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 Hofmann’s 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 1950’s. 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 Blaine—who retrained herself to paint with her left hand and from a wheel chair—lived the heroism that was AE’s 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 that—a 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 paint—the rhythm of the brush—is given the wingspan it requires.

Anne Tabachnick had studied briefly with Nell Blaine before becoming a student of Hofmann’s 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 Hofmann’s 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 for.

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 1980’s. A third canvas, an uncharacteristically tiny jewel of a thing—a single white sheep-shape, like a glowing heraldic device, on field of pure primaries—is unaccountably in the back room.

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 Matthiasdottir’s 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 Hofmann’s 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 Hofmann’s achievement. Resika, above all others exhibited here, delivers painting that testifies to his own profound affinity with the substance—to be distinguished from the various styles—of Hofmann’s 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. Resika’s 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." Matter’s 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-50’s. 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, Trieff’s highly singular iconography is too unabashedly anthropomorphic—even a bit zoolatrous—to 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 with—things to compare, contrast or argue over—is ultimately a very rewarding one.


March 1999

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