Selected to grace the cover of Hans Hofmann’s landmark retrospective exhibition at MoMA in 1963, Lava is one of the finest paintings of the artist’s celebrated late career. Uniting succulent impasto with a cascade of exuberant, jewel-like colors, the work reveals the astonishing painterly prowess that the artist achieved in his final years. Included in retrospective exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C (1976-1977), the Tate Gallery in London (1988), and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1990), Lava dates from a particularly significant time for Hofmann. In 1957, three years before this work was painted, he ended his hugely influential teaching career to concentrate solely on his own art. Reflecting his flourishing creative energies, it was a period that saw his work attract mounting critical acclaim. Testament to the esteem in which his late works are held, paintings executed by Hofmann around the same time as Lava reside in public museum collections in both America and Europe.
Evoking the viscous, fiery substance after which Lava is named, paint erupts over the entirety of the canvas, flooding it with a vital sense of movement and energy. The color has been applied so generously that in some areas it rises from the canvas in miniature waves, cresting into stormy peaks. In the catalogue for Hofmann’s 1963 retrospective at MoMA, William Seitz described the treatment of the surface of this “great” painting as “an organically boiling and breathing impasto, a maelstrom into which a hundred or more tubes of paint can be squeezed” (W. Seitz, quoted in Hans Hofmann, Museum of Modern Art, exh. cat., New York, 1963, pp. 43-46). Ranging from blood red to earthy ochres, Lava’s palette intensifies the sense of sublime ferocity that emanates from the work. Hofmann has applied these colors with an infinite variety of gestures, ranging from short, staccato bursts to long, lavish strokes, allowing each tone to leap from the picture plane with a joyous and independent force.
Lava is the culmination of a lifetime spent exploring, developing, and articulating his ideas about art. One of the most influential and important theories he advanced was of the “push and pull” within a painting, which described how he used balance and contrast between colors and forms to create pictorial dynamism. Rejecting the traditional practice of creating depth through graduations of tone, it was a way of creating space without denying the flatness of the picture’s surface. Although he was greatly inspired by nature, as the name of this present work suggests, his intention was never to attempt to imitate it. Instead, he believed in the innate integrity of pictorial space. As he wrote in a late essay, “Pictorial space is an aesthetically created space and is as such as real as nature. Its reality is based on the reality of the hidden inherent laws of the picture surface” (H. Hoffman, quoted in S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 44).
Hofmann studied in Paris for the decade before World War I, where he became interested in Cubism and Fauvism, which would eventually lead to a total commitment to gestural abstraction. He admired the work of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, whose bold treatment of color remained a significant influence on his work throughout his career. The critic, Clement Greenberg, later said of their relationship, “One could learn Matisse’s color lessons better from Hofmann than from Matisse himself” (C. Greenberg, “The Later Thirties in New York,” Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, p. 232). But Hofmann was also greatly inspired by music, likening his rich tapestries of harmonic and dissonant color to musical composition, and claiming that his ideal was “to form and paint as Schubert sings, and as Beethoven creates a world in sound” (H. Hofmann, quoted in Hans Hofmann 1880–1966, Tate Gallery, exh. cat., 1988, p.12).
Hofmann’s innate understanding of painterly rhythm is manifest in Lava, which resonates with a pure sense of delight in the simple pleasures of handling paint. Yet despite its seeming spontaneity, the joyful dance that Hofmann orchestrates between color, texture, and gesture is born of decades of experience and executed with a masterful level of skill. A year after Lava was painted, Clement Greenberg pronounced: “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, 1961, p. 9).