BAMPFA retrospective offers a fresh look at Hans Hofmann

Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction is an exceptional and significant new retrospective by the world-renowned and influential abstract artist Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). The show presents a fresh look at creations spanning Hofmann’s 30 years of studio work in the United States, as well as one piece from his former homeland in Germany.

With over 65 paintings, the exhibition includes art on loan from the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, as well as many from private collections that have not been publicly shown before. Over two-thirds of the show is from the holdings of BAMPFA, which houses the most extensive museum collection of Hofmann’s work in the world.

Hans Hofmann: Cataclysm (Homage to Howard Putzel), 1945; oil and casein on board; 51 3/4 x 48 in.; private collection. Photo: Courtesy of Miles McEnery Gallery, New York, NY; with permission of the Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

As a young man in the early 1900s, Hofmann left Germany to study and paint in Paris, where he worked with Matisse and became friends with Picasso, Braque and Robert and Sonia Delaunay. His art was also appreciably influenced by Cézanne and the Cubists. Some of his paintings at BAMFPA recall those early influences, including Still Life—Round Table on Red with Palette and Painting, 1938.

BAMPFA’s unique history with Hofmann began when he received an invitation to teach art at UC Berkeley. The offer enabled him to leave Europe and permanently settle, in 1932, in the United States.

The relocation was the beginning of his lengthy and influential career as an avant-garde painter and teacher of generations of well-known artists. Until 1958, Hofmann taught painters including Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Ray Eames, Larry Rivers, Allan Kaprow, Irene Rice Pereira, Israel Levitan, Robert De Niro, Sr., Worth Ryder, Jane Freilicher, Wolf Kahn, Marisol Escobar, Richard Stankiewicz, and Lillian Orlowsky.

Hans Hofmann: Indian Summer, 1959; oil on canvas; 60 1/8 x 72 1/4 in.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California, photography by Jonathan Bloom.
Hans Hofmann: Goliath, 1960; oil on canvas; 84 1/8 x 60 in.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California, photography by Ben Blackwell.

Hofmann’s own canvases during this period led to successful exhibits and the creation of his early abstract expressionist works, which emphasized color, form, and space. Hofmann painted Cataclysm (Homage to Howard Putzel), 1945, in memory of Putzel, a gallerist who had championed Hofmann and the young Jackson Pollack.

Hofmann’s paintings between 1958 until his death in 1966 are his most well-known abstract expressionist efforts. These are larger canvases with insets of vibrant colors and shapes, like the striking Indian Summer, 1959, Goliath, 1960 and Combinable Wall I and II, 1961.

In 1963, Hofmann donated to UC Berkeley nearly 50 of his most important paintings, along with a substantial cash contribution toward the construction of a new museum building, in appreciation of his first U.S. position. Although the 1970 Mario Ciampi-designed brutalist structure on Bancroft Way that Hofmann’s gift helped construct is no longer occupied by BAMFPA, Hofmann’s generosity established 20th-century painting as a significant strength of BAMPFA’s collection, which still shines brightly today.

Throughout his long career, Hofmann continually experimented with the expressive properties of color, form and space. His exuberant, vibrant canvases retain their modernity, energy, and the tension of expansion and contraction, or what Hofmann called “push and pull.” This scholarly and satisfying exhibit brilliantly shows off Hofmann’s talent and originality.

Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction is on view until July 21 at BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford St. in downtown Berkeley. For further information, visit BAMPFA online.