Biography of Hans Hofmann, Abstract Expressionism Pioneer

hans hofmann
Bill Witt

Hans Hofmann (March 21, 1880 - February 17, 1966) was an American painter born in Germany. He was one of the foremost pioneers of the abstract expressionist movement. As an art instructor for four decades, he influenced some of the greatest painters of the 20th century.

Fast Facts: Hans Hofmann

  • Occupation: Painter and art teacher
  • Born: March 21, 1880 in Weissenburg, Bavaria
  • Died: February 17, 1966 in New York, New York
  • Spouses: Maria Wolfegg (died 1963), and Renate Schmitz (married 1965)
  • Selected Works: "The Wind" (1942), "Pompeii" (1959), "Song of the Nightingale," (1964)
  • Key Accomplishment: 1963 New York Museum of Modern Art retrospective that toured three continents.
  • Notable Quote: "In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light."

Early Life and Education

Born to a German family in Bavaria, Hans Hofmann demonstrated a keen interest in science and mathematics from an early age. At age sixteen, he followed his father's career path and took a job with the government. The younger Hofmann worked as an assistant to the director of Public Works. The position allowed him to indulge his love of mathematics while patenting a wide range of devices, including a portable freezer for military use and a radar system for sailing ships.

During his government employment, Hans Hofmann began to study art. Between 1900 and 1904, while living in Munich, he met his future wife, Maria "Miz" Wolfegg. He also befriended Philipp Freudenberg, owner of the high-end department store Kaufhaus Gerson and a passionate art collector.

hans hofmann still life
"Still Life". Geoffrey Clements / Getty Images

Through Freudenberg's patronage over the next decade, Hans Hofmann was able to move to Paris with Miz. While in France, Hofmann immersed himself deeply in the avant-garde painting scene. He met Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and many others. As his reputation grew, Hofmann's painting "Akt (Nude)" appeared in the 1908 Berlin Secession show.

Leaving Germany

When World War I broke out in 1914, Hofmann and his wife were forced to leave Paris and return to Munich. The government disqualified him from military service due to a respiratory condition, and he opened an art school in 1915. In 1924, he married Miz. Hofmann's reputation as an art instructor reached overseas, and in 1930, a former student invited him to teach the 1930 summer art session at the University of California at Berkeley.

After spending two years traveling between the U.S. and Germany to teach and work, he postponed a return trip to Germany "for the foreseeable future." Hans Hofmann lived in the United States for most of the rest of his life, applying for U.S. citizenship in 1938 while Europe was barely a year away from the start of World War II.

In 1934, Hans Hofmann opened his art school in New York and offered classes for the next 24 years. In the summer, he moved his instruction to Provincetown, Massachusetts. He earned tremendous respect as an instructor working as a mentor to Helen Frankenthaler, Ray Eames, and Lee Krasner, as well as becoming close friends with Jackson Pollock.

© Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; used with permission
Hans Hofmann (American, b. Germany, 1880-1966). Fantasia, 1943. Oil, duco, and casein on plywood. 51 1/2 x 36 5/8 in. (130.8 x 93 cm). Gift of the artist. Berkeley Art Museum, University of California. Photo: Benjamin Blackwell. © Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Abstract Expressionism

Hans Hofmann was the only painter of the group of New York-based artists given credit for popularizing abstract expressionism who was directly involved with the Paris avant-garde before World War I. With that connection, he bridged the gap between two of the most influential communities of artists in the 20th century and inspired a generation of painters.

In his own work, Hofmann explored color and form. He claimed that art could be given its voice by distilling it to its basics and removing unnecessary material. Among his prominent pieces was "The Wind." For years, many historians believed that seeing paintings like it was a key influence on Jackson Pollock's development of the "drip" painting technique. More recent examination has led art historians to believe that Hofmann and Pollock were experimenting with poured paint at the same time.

hans hofmann the wind
"The Wind" (1942). University of California, Berkeley Art Museum

In 1944, Hans Hofmann received his first solo gallery show in New York. Art critics celebrated it as a step forward in the exploration of the abstract expressionist style. His work during the 1940s ranged from playful self-portraits executed with bold strokes to colorful geometric shapes that echoed the work of European masters Hans Arp and Joan Miro.

Later Work

After a retrospective at the Whitney in New York in 1957, Hofmann experienced a late-career renaissance of interest in his work. He quit teaching in 1958 and focused on the creation of art for the final years of his life. Artists and critics alike celebrated his work around the world. In 1963, New York's Museum of Modern Art mounted an even more extensive retrospective that traveled across the U.S., South America, and Europe.

During the 1960s, Hofmann endured significant sadness due to the passing of many of his artist friends. In response to the deaths of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock as well as others, he dedicated new pieces to their memory. The most significant blow occurred in 1963 with the passing of Miz due to a heart attack. In the fall of 1965, Hofmann married Renate Schmitz, a woman 50 years his junior. They remained together until his death from a heart attack on February 17, 1966.

© 2010 Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust; used with permission
Hans Hofmann (American, b. Germany, 1880-1966). Memoria in Aeternum, 1962. Oil on canvas. 84 x 72 1/8 in. (213.3 x 183.2 cm). Gift of the artist. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2010 Renate, Hans & Maria Hofmann Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Educator

Hans Hofmann was arguably the most influential art instructor of the 20th century. He influenced a generation of young European artists through his teaching in the first years after World War I. Later, particularly in the 1940s, his instruction inspired a generation of American artists.

Hans Hofmann's School of Fine Art in Munich focused heavily on the ideas of Paul Cezanne, Wassily Kandinsky, and the Cubists. He offered regular one-on-one critiques, which were a rarity in art schools of the time. Some historians count Hofmann's Munich school as the first ever school of modern art.

One of Hofmann's most lasting contributions to the understanding of art was his push/pull theory of spatial relations. He believed that contrasts of colors, forms, and textures created a push and pull in the mind of the viewer that must be balanced.

Hofmann also believed that social propaganda or history lessons put an unnecessary burden on paintings and did not make them better works of art. The additional content worked against a vivid depiction of space and the pure magic of creating two-dimensional art on canvas.

Legacy

As an instructor and mentor, Hans Hofmann was at the center of some of the most significant movements in modern art from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s. His avid interest in the colorful work of Henri Matisse took the young Hofmann away from a focus on cubism that ultimately led to his work with "slabs" of color in his mature abstract expressionist work of the 1950s and 1960s.

Sources

  • Dickey, Tina. Color Creates Light: Studies with Hans Hoffman. Trillistar Books, 2011.
  • Goodman, Cynthia. Hans Hofmann. Prestel, 1990.