View Hans Hofmann as a Restless Experimenter

A large retrospective, ‘Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,’ is at the Berkeley Art Museum, the recipient of a large gift from the artist in 1963.


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Hofmann’s Flying Red (1960).

Photo courtesy of BAMPFA

The 19th-century recapitulation theory memorably expressed by biologist Ernst Haeckel, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,”—or, the development of the individual echoes the evolution of the species — may be seen today as a freak mutation of scientific history. But it has a certain relevance when applied to some artists who devour and assimilate the art of the past, like Picasso or Arshile Gorky ‘doing’ Picasso before evolving into Gorky.

A large retrospective, Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction, is at the Berkeley Art Museum, the recipient of a large gift from the artist (50 paintings, plus an endowment) in 1963. (Hofmann taught briefly at Berkeley and had his first exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.)

The nearly 70 works from BAM’s collection and others show that, aside from being a conduit of advanced Parisian painting through his teaching on both coasts, Hofmann was, aside from his signature style of colored rectangles placed against painterly background fields, a restless experimenter open to new influences — to trying on other stylistic skins — throughout his long, productive life.

In his Paris youth, Hofmann knew Kandinsky, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Mirò, Matisse, and Brancusi. During his lengthy professoriate (he retired only at age 78), he taught and inspired a Who’s Who of American artists: Burgoyne Diller, Marisol, Helen Frankenthaler, Red Grooms, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Erle Loran, Wolfgang Paalen, Larry Rivers, Frank Stella, critic Clement Greenberg; even the film director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back).

BAM’s 2010 show of nine Hofmann paintings was entitled Nature Into Action, which nicely describes the artist’s intention of evoking reality through abstract means. As you proceed through the current show, you may be struck by both Hofmann’s aesthetic catholicity — Picassian, Matissean, and Surrealist DNA are clearly evident — and the forceful personality that reigns throughout. Hofmann said, echoing Whitman, “I am many people.”

Catalogue available. Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction runs through July 21, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2120 Oxford St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808, BAMPFA.org.

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