Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
Property from the Collection of Frederick and Dorothy Rudolph
Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)

Outlook to the Sea

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
Outlook to the Sea
signed and dated 'hans hofmann '64' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again 'outlook to the sea 1964 hans hofmann' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 x 52 in. (152.4 x 132 cm.)
Painted in 1964.
Kootz Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1965
S. Villiger, ed., Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Volume III (1952-1965), Farnham, 2014, p. 444, no. P1544 (illustrated).
R. Coates, "Happy Birthday, Hans Hofmann," The New Yorker, February 27, 1965, p. 100.
New York, Kootz Gallery, Hans Hofmann, 85th Anniversary: Paintings of 1964, February-March 1965.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries and Williamstown, Williams College Museum of Art, Second Williams College Loan Exhibition, March-June 1976.

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Lot Essay

"...and then to such wholly Abstract Expressionist paintings as the wildly improvisational "Outlook to the Sea," whose darting, zigzagging pattern, crusty with impasto, mounts up to a glimpse of a patch of blue (the sea?) at the top. The mood and the general tenor of the approach are, if anything, even more elastic- "youthful," one might say- and it would be difficult indeed to think of another painter alive today who could produce on the one hand as lightsome and delicate a fantasy as..."

Robert Coates, "Happy Birthday, Hans Hofmann", The New Yorker, February 27, 1965, p. 100.

“Hofmann could be said to take the easel tradition into regions of chromatic experience it never before penetrated” (C. Greenberg, Hofmann, Paris, 1961, inside cover jacket.) With that declarative statement, the influential critic, Clement Greenberg could well have been describing Hofmann’s 1964 painting, Outlook to the Sea. A work of blazing chromaticism and directional momentum, in which opposing markings make reference to the surging vortices of Paul Cézanne’s passage brushwork and Georges Seurat’s divisionist markings, cascading overtop one another as they surge toward the deepest of ultramarine blues, the ‘sea’ of the title. To tease specific color names out of this torrent of prismatic chroma would be beside the point, for virtually all secondary tones, greens, oranges, and purples that ease into pinks, turquoise, magenta, are laced with white, lending a brilliant luminosity to the surface. Upon closer examination, it’s as if the surface were filled with joyous eruptions of seismic events, streaked red, now yellow, now blue. Further activating the various planes is lush impasto pushed down here, freed and allowed to wander and curl there, pressed and lifted at will through the spontaneity of brush application and palette knife. Strokes are elaborated in variation of circular or rectangular forms, creating ribbons of color as if run through by a minute squeegie or crowded layer upon layer in chromatic striated effect. These series of muscular markings determine in large measure the form of the work, the flattening and shaping of small areas of color realized in a large ovoid shape tending toward the blue. Above, banks of irregular and multidirectional shapes seem to multiply at will, building a broader area within which brushwork is given play. Surrounding the left side of the canvas and following down and around to the lower right corner, larger, orange, red and yellow irregular shapes seem to contain the swirling energies of interior action. As Greenberg wrote, “color determines form from the inside as it were; thick splotches, welts, smears, and ribbons of paint disposes themselves into intelligible shapes the instant they hit the surface; out of the fullness of color come drawing and design” (Ibid., p. 20).

Born in 1880 in Bavaria, the course of Hofmann’s life crossed many artistic centers – Munich, Paris, New York – and coursed as many art movements. It is at times startling to recall that from his teenage years Hofmann, an artist we identify primarily as an American abstract painter, was absorbed in the surge of modernist art. Hofmann was the elder by one year of Pablo Picasso and by five of the “founder” of Orphism, Robert Delaunay, with whom he was close. He befriended several Fauve artists, including Matisse, with whom he sketched while living in Paris. And further, Wassily Kandinsky was a friend whose early work from his years in Munich Hofmann preserved from the ravages of the First World War. When Kandinsky moved into non-objective art and Picasso and Georges Braque evolved their radical Cubism, Hofmann was merely entering his thirties. All of these art “movements” had their affect, catalyzing Hofmann’s explorations of line and color through a vast range of inventive styles that continued to the end of his life in 1966. His turn to non-representational abstraction during the heyday of the New York School artists’ hegemony occurred when Hofmann was already in his fifties, while artists such as Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, and Jackson Pollock were twenty or even thirty years Hofmann’s junior. One might chart in Hofmann’s own oeuvre parallels between his production and the masterworks of his artist-friends, masters all. Most striking for the present work, however, would be the surface activation and directional pull of Kandinsky’s Composition VII or the overlapping prismatic tonalities in de Kooning’s canvases, where planar surfaces are interrupted by the force of gesture and compression, as well as muscular movements that cross and overlap bespeaking tumultuous energies.

Hofmann, like Kandinsky and de Kooning, is a painter of nature, not in the sense of mimesis, wherein one strives to replicate natural phenomena, but rather in the sense that one reduces or simplifies nature’s complex forms. Hofmann was committed to the fullness of natural phenomena, where color, shape, and space play against one another to create what he considered a “plastic” art, “plastic” in the sense of the sculptural where three-dimensional volumes are wrought from an ostensibly flat planar surface. His sense that through an essentializing process, that is to say, removing details of form, all nature could be reduced to three pure geometries, the cube, the cylinder, and the sphere. These forms can be tracked in Outlook to the Sea not only in the larger ovoid shape, but also more tellingly in the volumes wrought from impasto. The thickness of the painterly mark, the abrupt beginnings and endings of brushwork, the way they are overpainted to build up the plasticity of three dimensional volumes that Hofmann felt essential to true painterly conviction, can be seen throughout, from the directional crisscross through to the transparencies of the weft and warp of the canvas. Hofmann’s masterly use of white creates the effect of backlighting, forges a sense that each color is shot through with luminosity. The effect derives from pigment interlaced with light and brings about a nearly positive and negative alternation. “Space has volume,” he said “Voids have volume, like objects. They have form and are as concrete as objects. The synthesis of positive and negative space produces the totality of space” (H. Hofmann, quoted in W. Seitz, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 11). The extraordinary energy of a work like Outlook to the Sea derives from the accumulation of light and dark markings on a flat surface, each concrete mark shot through with illumination as white carves volumes in illusionistic space out of color. As Hofmann often declared, “Forms exist only by means of light; and light only by means of form” (Ibid.)

A work like Outlook to the Sea demonstrates above all Hofmann’s artistic approach, the intensity of his empathy for his subject matter, what the artist has called ‘feeling into’ the act of depiction, wherein one’s experience, one’s sensitivities inform and ‘agitate,’ as Hofmann recounts, the actions themselves. One feels in looking at this work that a continuous, self-generating process catalyzed form and space, which could be realized in perpetuity. This is in part due to the absence of the drawn line, the exception being the sudden and anomalous squiggle at the lower right over a muted green-brown field. A freely gestural mark, it places a final punctuation, or final accent as it were, on the vast downward heaving markings. The pictorial structure here derives from miniature color planes that cumulatively define the architectonic shape of the whole. As they pulsate by means of the “push and pull” of two- against three-dimensional space, this counter-play between projection and recession and the shifting of planes side to side create a sense of breathable volume, enlivening the surface in a kind of intervallic rhythmic dance.
Color, of course, is key. The arrangement of primary colors—blue, yellow and red—is counterbalanced by the secondary, orange, arranged such that their placement mirrors the optical effect of their chroma. The large blue field is balanced by two vibrant, nearly vertical areas of red, which are then supported by the curving gradation of orange pigmentation as its shape diminishes in size and dilutes in tonal quality, through red accents that become mauve and finally settle into the deeply shaded greenish-brown.

In 1915 when the artist was thirty-five years old, he opened the Hofmann School of Fine Arts in Munich. At the time he closed his revered school on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village in 1958, he had been teaching for four decades and had produced a group of extraordinary students, among them Lee Krasner, Robert De Niro, Sr., Conrad Marca-Relli, and Larry Rivers, who went on to major acclaim. He then turned to his own art, creating an extraordinary series of works over the final eight years of his life. Outlook to the Sea figures as among the most exuberant and imaginative.

Hofmann’s influence as both an artistic innovator and as a teacher of painting and modern art in general is incalculable. Continuously inventive, deeply theoretical in his systematic writings on art, he combined the immediacy of optical excitement with a deeply persuasive sense of pictorial structure. In its dynamic painterliness, Outlook to the Sea reflects the temperament as well as the achievement of this artistic master. As a landscape, it also resonates with Hofmann’s own understanding of his art’s relationship to nature: “In nature space is charged with the whirlwind of inner disturbance, and so it shall be with the picture” (H. Hofmann, quoted in S. Hunter, “Hans Hofmann,” Hans Hofmann: With an Introduction by Sam Hunter and Five Essays by Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 29).

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