Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
Property from a Distinguished West Coast Collection
Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)


Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
signed and dated 'Hans Hofmann 58' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again 'Terpsichore 1958 hans hofmann' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 x 45½ in. (152.4 x 115.6 cm.)
Painted in 1958.
Kootz Gallery, New York
Dr. Frank Stanton, New York
His sale; Christie's, New York, 14 November 1995, lot 22
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner
S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, no. 96 (illustrated).

Lot Essay

"Space sways and resounds;
space is filled with movement,
with the tone of colors and light,
with life and rhythm
and the dispositions of sublime divinity" - Hans Hofmann, 1932

Reverberating with color and energy, Hans Hofmann's Terpsichore is a supreme example of the innovative technique that ensured the artist's place as one of the most inventive painters of the twentieth century. Across a canvas comprised of a spectrum of warm and brilliant hues, Hofmann assembles a combination of geometric blocks of color, building up layers of paint to produce a surface that is rich in both visual and textural details. By cautiously laying down strata of contrasting colors in freshly applied paint, Hofmann not only produces an intricately patterned surface but also in the process becomes one of the pre-eminent exponents of mid-century passion for expressing the materiality of paint. Thus, by showcasing the thickness of the paint and the flatness of the canvas, Hofmann helped to declare this medium as autonoums, setting it apart from other marks of artistic expression.

Depth of color and texture lie at the heart of Hofmann's work and the superb breadth and quality of the paint surface of Terpsichore underscore Hofmann's total commitment to the painterly process. Against a spectrum of golden yellows and warm ochers, Hofmann introduces vivid bursts of fresh green, rich purples and vivid pinks. This "push-pull" of contrasting color and contiguous form lies at the very heart of his work and sums up the conflict between abstraction and figuration with which many artists of his generation struggled. Hofmann relieved this situation by allowing the tensions between the two traditions to play off against each other and in the process discovered a new visual language that challenged the traditions of the past. Thus, the horizontal blocks in the central portion of Terpsichore's composition mimic the horizon line of a more conventional composition capped by upright forms that recall traditional landscape features. Yet Hofmann's work is resolutely non figurative painting: unconcerned with replicating what already exists, he is only intent on exploring the strict relationships between form and color.

As well as his more prescribed investigations into the formal properties of paint, Hofmann's work also displays a tremendous sense of joyous energy, and the liquescent brushstrokes that sweep across the surface of this work are a physical manifestation of the artist's unique practice during this period. Even the title of this work alludes to the joy of movement that is inherent in some of Hofmann's best work, as he names this painting after one of nine Greek muses who inspired the creation of literature and visual arts. Terpischore (translated as "delight of dancing") was the muse who ruled over dance and the dramatic chorus and this combination of power, grace, and energy can be seen in the heart of this work. The spirited brushwork, rich palette of color, and almost molten impasto all serve to demonstrate Hofmann's total mastery of his medium.

Hofmann's exuberant use of color bears the legacy of the fauvist penchant for vibrant, irrational, and at times, acidic hues. Hofmann's study of the expressive capability of color takes its cue from the intense color palette of Matisse and Robert Delaunay. Indeed, Delaunay's thoughts on color theory resonate closely with Hofmann's work. As Hofmann would allow his inner feelings to collide with his visceral responses to nature, so Delaunay described the transcendence of art's subtle mimesis: "Nature is permeated by rhythms whose variety cannot be restricted. Art imitates it in this respect, in order to clarify itself and thereby attain the same degree of sublimity, raising itself to a state of multiple harmonies, a harmony of colors that are divided at one moment and resorted to wholeness by the selfsame action at the next. This synchromic action is to be regarded as the real and only subject of painting" (R. Delaunay quoted in H. Friedel, (ed.), Hans Hofmann, Munich, 1997, p. 8). The interplay of color in Terpsichore similarly injects a dynamic rhythm to the work. This pairing of dissonant colors creates an undeniable harmonious musicality, which resonates from the work, recalling the chromatic musicality of Kandinsky's abstract compositions. Gentle flashes of fuchsia pink, lavender, and mauve, streaks of almost luminescent white and fresh sweeps of green simultaneously emerge from and dissipate into a range of warm, golden hues. This wide variety of color is applied with equally varied brush strokes and textures. Like waves crashing into the sand, thick, luscious applications of paint achieve a shallow relief, causing them physically as well as pictorially to emerge from the ground.

As one of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism, Hans Hofmann represents a crucial bridge between European movements such as Cubism and Fauvism and the new bravura style of American painting. In 1960, Hofmann was at the height of his creative powers, as he refined and distilled his painterly technique and its underlying principles. It is evident in a painting such as Terpsichore that Hofmann has formulated a new kind of painterly expression, one in which he incorporates the Cubist structure of overlapping planes in order to indicate depth and surface, as well as adapting the Fauvist daring use of color and tonal contrasts to evoke a sense of pure and unbridled energy.


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