Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
The Source
signed and dated 'hans hofmann 62' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again 'the source 1962 hans hofmann' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
50¼ x 40 in. (127.6 x 101.6 cm.)
Painted in 1962.
Kootz Gallery, New York
Mildred E. Harris, New York, 1963
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 2 May 1988, lot 17
Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 6 May 1992, lot 11
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, Twentieth Century Exiles: Artists Fleeing Hitler's Oppression, November 2001-February 2002, p. 24 (illustrated in color).
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, Long Island Collects, January-March 2009, p. 16 (illustrated in color).

Lot Essay

This work will be included in the forthcoming Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné, sponsored by the Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust.

An exemplary work from his most celebrated period, The Source incorporates both Hans Hofmann's free use of spontaneous gesture and rigorous linearity. Two large rectangles, one painted in solid green and the other in opaque, rich red, are set against a loosely painted background of allover color. The rectangle, a hallmark of his mature style, was first figured in as a major compositional element in 1956. By the early 60s, the rectangle became the primary spatial organizer of Hofmann's compositions. In The Source, he even manages to use rectangular forms as surface elements by crisply outlining them in contrasting colors of thick, raised impasto.

The interplay of color in The Source creates a dynamic rhythm to the work. Hofmann's recurrent pairing of complementary shades of green and red creates this unexpected harmony. He adds gentle strokes of deep blue and bright yellow, inserting new spatial dimension. The artist even dabs areas of multilayered color that incorporate pure hues of pink, yellow, and white simultaneously. Alternating between vigorous gestural brushstrokes and thick patches of unmodulated color, Hofmann's layered patterns of color produce an intricately patterned and highly textural surface.

Hofmann's method of depicting depth was highly unique among his contemporaries. While he may have asserted the flatness of the canvas by his allover coloring, Hofmann represents depth through complex color and layered textures. The contrast of the planar shapes with the surrounding gestural brushwork creates an indeterminate spatial relationship, blurring the traditional notion of background and foreground. Hofmann stated, "Depth, in a pictorial sense, is not created by the arrangement of the objects one after another toward a vanishing point, in the sense of Renaissance perspective, but on the contrary by the creation of forces in the sense of 'push and pull'" (H. Hofmann, quoted in S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 14).

The 'push and pull' at work in Hofmann's compositions is essential to his paintings' visual impact. He believed that by nature the picture plane reacts automatically in opposition to the stimulus received, and that his materials should "fight back" (H. Hofmann, quoted in S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 35). The Source certainly shows the oppositional forces at work when paint is thickly applied to canvas: its green paint accumulates in shallow relief at the top edge of the red rectangle, asserting its three-dimensionality and its bright rich pigment. This work also illustrates the mid-century passion for expressing the materiality of paint. Certainly he was a key artist in the New York School painting movement, and enjoyed a close friendship with Jackson Pollock. The two were introduced by Hofmann's student and Pollock's wife-to-be, Lee Krasner in 1942 and soon became neighbors on East 8th Street in Greenwich Village. Their friendship proved profoundly influential to each artist's style and working methods.

Yet Hofmann's work resists strict identification with any one movement; in The Source, Hofmann demonstrates his vacillation, his ideological "push-pull," with being typecast in the New York School of painters. While he was certainly a key figure of Abstract Expressionism, his work is distinct among his peers. In his 1962 work, he incorporates distinctly-outlined shapes with amorphous ones, demonstrating his fusion of gestural, expressive strokes, with geometric shapes. So, as he explores a visual tension of formal relationships, he also tests the boundaries of stylistic classification. Additionally, his rich colors distinguished him from his contemporaries.

His intense treatment of color represents a crucial bridge between the new bravura style of American painters and the color interests of European artists. Surrounded and influenced by some of the greatest European painters of the early 20th century, Hofmann demonstrates his refined adaptation of the Fauves' daring use of color and tonal contrasts to evoke a sense of pure and unbridled energy. The bold contrasts of bright red with verdant green of The Source show Hofmann's debt to Henri Matisse and his rich use of color. Even Matisse's cutout aesthetic may have influenced Hofmann's working method: in his late paintings, Hofmann cut his rectangular shapes directly out of commercial Color-Aid paper. Close examination of many of his pictures often reveal tack holes. His precise, raised impasto along the edges of the rectangles certainly suggests he laid down cut shapes and pulled away a layer. These linear forms also demonstrate how Piet Mondrian was also a profound influence. The Dutch painter's influence stands out in this 1962 work, with its crisply defined blocks of uniform color.
This painting's provenance also demonstrates Hofmann's profound influence on his students, both through his work and his personal presence. Acquired in 1963, its original owner was a student of Nieves Billmyer, Hans Hofmann's most dedicated pupil. She later recalled that Billmyer introduced her to Hofmann and told her it was painted in the dunes of Provincetown, and that he changed the colors at least sixty times so that he finally achieved the balance of the colors in space, which was his goal. Enthralled with the painting, she found that it exhibited all the qualities that Hofmann believed were essential in creating a great abstract painting, demonstrating the balancing of movement and color in space in which the three dimensions manifest a fourth dimension. After keeping it in her collection for nearly thirty years, she only parted with the work in order to donate the sale's proceeds to charity.

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