Painted in 1964, Hans Hofmann’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik [A Nightly Love Song] is a powerful culmination of the artist’s greatest body of work, the ’slab’ paintings that he produced in a final flourish during the last years of his career. Named in homage of Mozart’s exuberant orchestral arrangement by the same name, Eine kleine Nachtmusik [A Nightly Love Song] is an exquisitely calibrated balance of vivid color harmonies. Set against a rich, red backdrop, an array of vibrant, jewel-like colors alternately advance and recede according to Hofmann’s “push and pull” technique. The result—an intense, arresting and lavish painterly creation—exhibits the last great flowering of an artist who dedicated his life to the pursuit of his craft.
Created during an era of mounting critical acclaim, including a 1963 retrospective at MoMA and his exhibition at the 1960 Venice Biennale, the present painting exemplifies Hofmann’s last, great style. As Karen Wilkin has written in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, “Hofmann’s ’slab’ pictures, with their saturated hues and urgent paint application, are his most sought-after and readily recognized works. Intensely colored, pulsing rectangles have become emblematic of the artist” (K. Wilkin “Hans Hofmann: Tradition and Innovation,” in S. Villiger, ed., Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Volume I, Farnham, 2014, p. 47). Indeed, these late, great paintings—produced in the final years leading up to his death in 1966—are considered the artists magnum opus. Numbered “1536” on the reverse, the painting corresponds to related works in major museum collections. The adjoining numbered works in the series, such as #1537 (Nulli Secundus, 1964) in Tate, London and #1538 (Imperium in Imperio, 1964) in University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, demonstrate the artist’s mastery and finesse. The preceding number, #1535, titled To J.F.K -- Thousand Roots Did Die with Thee, was painted in the aftermath of the JFK assassination and now belongs to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. Together with Eine kleine Nachtmusik [A Nightly Love Song], it was exhibited in what proved to be the final exhibition during the artist’s lifetime—his 1966 solo show at Kootz Gallery on February 1st. Writing in her review for Artforum, the art critic Rosalind Krauss praised Hofmann as “the grand master of the New York School,” (R. Krauss, “Hans Hofmann, Kootz Gallery,” Artforum, April 1966, Vol. 4, No. 8, p. 47), and William Berkson, writing in Arts Magazine, declared: “It was astounding to see how many ideas and techniques of painting Hofmann commanded. In the last decade, during which time he closed his school and took to painting full-tine, his work seemed like that of a ‘natural,’ a learned young painter who, finding his self-control, discovers that painting is infinitely available to him” (W. Berkson, “In the Galleries: Hans Hofmann,” Arts Magazine, Vol. 40, No. 6, April 1966, p. 56).
Revealing an extraordinary array of different approaches, whether dripped, brushed, or molded with a palette knife, Eine kleine Nachtmusik [A Nightly Love Song] is tinged with the artist’s joie de vivre. The thick, rich surface of the painting’s background is rendered in lush, red pigment, applied with a palette knife or, at times, straight from the tube. Against this dramatic red backdrop, Hofmann has stacked an array of brilliant, light-filled rectangles, where the joy and relish of an artist at the height of his powers is conveyed in every stroke of the brush. Adhering to his signature palette of bold primary and secondary colors, the painting is carefully calibrated so that each color exists in concert with its neighbor, whether sky-blue, sunflower-yellow or bright, emerald green. These shimmering, jewel-like colors alternately rise upward from their rich, red curtain, becoming exquisite players upon a theatrical stage, or sink deep into the background of the picture plane, so that a good deal of depth is conveyed by their keen arrangement. As the curator Paul Moorhouse has written, “These flat shapes preserve the reality of the picture surface. But, through variations in size and color, they suggest movement by appearing to advance and retreat, thereby animating the pictorial space. Through this perceived animation they infuse the inert matter of paint with an impression of vitality” (P. Moorhouse, “The Structure of Imagination: Hofmann’s Late Paintings,” in S. Villiger, ed., op. cit., p. 60).
Throughout his life, Hofmann was very much inspired by music, and he sometimes compared the keen arrangement of harmonic and dissonant color that he balanced in his paintings to those found in musical composition. Hofmann even described his painterly technique in musical terms, claiming that his goal was “to form and paint as Schubert sings, and as Beethoven creates a world in sound” (H. Hofmann, quoted in Hans Hofmann: 1880–1966, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 12). As its title suggests, the present painting is titled in homage to Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and certainly the careful relationship of each color “chord” as it relates to its neighbor demonstrates the sort of symphonic relationship between musical sounds in Mozart’s famous symphony, with its lively, joyful refrains.
Vibrantly colored and exquisitely balanced, Eine kleine Nachtmusik [A Nightly Love Song] exemplifies Hofmann’s celebrated “push and pull” technique, where bright slabs of color play against each other as certain colors recede and others advance. Hofmann believed this was the root of all painting, saying “only from the varied counterplay of push and pull, and from its variation in intensities, will plastic creation result” (H. Hofmann, quoted in W. C. Seitz, Hans Hofmann, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York,1963, p. 27).
Having emigrated to the United States from his native Germany in the 1930s, Hofmann rose to prominence in the ‘40s and ‘50s amongst the New York School painters as an impassioned and gifted teacher. He split his time between New York and Provincetown, Massachusetts, spending his summers in that coastal resort town. Hofmann’s work gradually evolved from post-Cubist abstractions rooted in nature—like his early paintings of Provincetown or the abstracted still lifes made in his studio—but when he retired from teaching in 1958, his paintings took a deeper, more spiritual turn. Executed on a large scale with the confidence and zest of a learned master, these paintings can now be seen as the denouement of a lifetime spent analyzing and exploring the essential plastic elements of two-dimensional abstract painting. Their titles made use of Latin phrases, such as Miz--Pax Vobiscum, which he named in honor of his wife of forty years, or after pieces of music, such as the present painting.
Hofmann also benefited from the close support of one of the most influential art critics of the postwar era, Clement Greenberg, who praised him as “the most important art teacher of our time,” saying, “Hofmann’s name continues to be the one that springs to mind when asked who, among all recent painters in this country, deserves most to be called a master in the full sense of the word” (C. Greenberg, quoted in C. Goodman, Hans Hofmann, New York, p. 9). Eine kleine Nachtmusik [A Nightly Love Song] is a powerful culmination of the artist’s lifelong devotion to, and exploration of, the fundamental principles of painting. The powerful sense of energy, neatly corralled into rectangular slabs that advance and recede from the pictorial plane, in concert with the dynamic colors he selects, makes it one of the artist’s most accomplished ’slab’ paintings of this era.