IN SEARCH OF THE REAL Drawings by Hans Hofmann and His Students
October 31, 2009 - January 14, 2010
Curated by Donald Beal.
Organized by the Provincetown Art Association and Museum
The emergence of mid 20th century abstract art in America has, at the eye of its storm, the teaching of Hans Hofmann in Provincetown in the years 1935-58. In histories of Abstract Expressionism, Hofmann's teaching has always eclipsed his status as an American artist. Although many retrospective presentations of his painting have addressed this imbalance, this exhibition of his students' drawings takes the former claim seriously and examines the effects of his pedagogy upon a generation of American artists.
Hofmann, who had taught at his own art school in Munich since 1915, began to teach summer classes in the US in the early 1930s: first in Berkeley then at the Art Students' League in New York, with George McNeil and Irene Rice Pereira among his first students. In 1933 he opened the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts that eventually found a permanent home in Greenwich Village. In 1935, summer sessions in Provincetown extended his New York teaching to a year-round program. In the 1930s, as Hitler rose to power, closed the Bauhaus, and declared modern art “degenerate” and as New York became home to many prominent members of the European avant-garde in exile such as André Breton, André Masson and Max Ernst, Hofmann's American students (Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and Larry Rivers to name a few) participated in the ground-breaking emergence of a new form of expressive abstraction.
Hofmann holds an anomalous and contradictory position in the history of American art. He was of the generation of Picasso and Matisse but exhibited with Jackson Pollock (32 years his junior). Although he was over 50 when he arrived in the US, he came to be regarded as a central figure of Abstract Expressionism: the first American art movement to garner international attention. In the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s when Europe was inaccessible to most young American artists, the contact that Hofmann had made with Fauvism and Cubism in Paris, and with Expressionism in Munich (especially Wassily Kandinsky and his Blue Rider group) was especially valued. As is often the case with significant artists who do not seem to fit neatly into a national style or period, Hofmann's importance is often described as a metaphorical bridge between the avant-gardes of New York and Paris that gave American artists access to European pre-war modernism.
As painter and curator Donald Beal sees it, Hofmann's teaching (much of which happened in Provincetown) catalyzed a sea change in American art, for he brought to the practice of working from life a dynamic and revelatory visual mode. In other words, Hofmann's instruction, for many of his students, opened up new ways of seeing, of both working from observation and looking deeper into things and subjects in the development of a flexible, formal artistic language.
As a student of several Hofmann students, Beal finds in the legacy of his teaching “a way of working that couples deep contemplation and instinct with a living, formal visual language. It excludes nothing as long as it finds a living visual form. It opens the world up rather than confining one to a bunch of narrow 'isms'.” The presentation of these student works asks the viewer to look carefully at the ways in which the older artist shifted his students' ways of seeing and guided the development of their individual means of expression.
Maura Coughlin, 2009
The exhibition is curated by Donald Beal, who teaches painting and drawing at UMASS Dartmouth. It was shown in a slightly different format at the Provincetown Art Association in Provincetown earlier this year.