Madness/Genius : The Paintings of Hans Hofmann

Artwork copyright Hans Hofmann/Yares Art; Photographed by John Tilley.

There is an unexplainable, visceral excitement inherent to the viewing of a Hans Hofmann canvas in person, and the lovely exhibition at Yares Art in Midtown, New York, is certainly testament to this experience.

It is always a fascinating phenomenon when the febrile lunacy of the artwork seems to quiver and leap from the walls of the ever-peaceful gallery setting.  Hofmann’s pieces are large and engulfing, occupying various moods, speeds, and opacities on a single canvas, not too mention a kaleidoscopic use of vibrant, energetic color.  The texture of the paint itself is important as well, often swelling upon the surface in various evocative ways, sometimes soft and bulbous, other times violent and coarse.

The titles of some of the paintings suddenly transform what seem to be entirely abstract pictures, studies of movement and space, into renderings of recognizable subjects.  The best example of these is Setting Sun, where a massive orange orb that, prior to our leaning over and reading the title, was merely a circle anchoring the composition visually, becomes the evening sun – what, then, we must wonder, are the dancing blues in the “foreground,” or any of the other sumptuous slashes of paint that seem to dissolve and vibrate around the stable, warm orb in the center?  This piece in particular seems to be the calling card of this show, and suitably so – the quickly disappearing sun, setting below an unreliable horizon, is an apt metaphor for Hofmann’s dance between representation and abstraction: a kind of twilight zone that is full of possibility.

By using the titles of the pictures as unexpected cues to form and context, the artist engages in a playful game of I Spy with the viewer, a game which is always at hand in the viewing of art but which here has been brought to the fore.  What are we looking at in a picture titled Moonshine Sonata – a frenzy of predominately blues and greens with small bright splashes of orange and yellow, with bare canvas boldly shining through in the background – or Mirror – a mammoth swath of green?  The question becomes irrelevant even as we ask it, for what we are looking at is the painter asking us to look.  We are drawn in by the virtuosity of his brushstroke only to be lambasted with our own expectations for form promised by the titles of the former pieces.

The impulse persists, however: some of the pieces leave the distinct feeling of music.  The swipes of paint are dancerly, the sudden rectangles seem to resemble tones, or perhaps the keys of a keyboard, the aura-like fade-aways of the colors like decrescendos – one can almost picture the musical composition to accompany some of the pieces.  It is not surprising to learn that the artist was in contact with Picasso and many other artists who self-consciously explored the fundamental elements of painting – there is the particular sensation of wonder and discovery at play in these pieces, which envelop the viewer in all the raging beauty of a mad genius. 

Hans Hofmann

“The Last Decade: Major Paintings 1955 – 1965”

Yares Art

745 Fifth Ave, New York, NY 10151

(212) 256 – 0969

On view until July 1st


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