Painted in 1963, during a period which one Museum of Modern Art curator described as being the peak of the artist’s production, Enigma is a triumphant example of Hans Hofmann’s significant contribution to the 20th century art historical canon. The blocks of contrasting colors that appear to float across the surface of the canvas represent the culmination of his theory of “push” and “pull”, whereby color and form interact to produce an energetic painterly surface which reverberates with chromatic intensity. A highly influential painter and theorist, Hofmann successfully developed a way of depicting space while at the same asserting the primacy of the flat canvas. Here, his blocks of thickly applied color accentuate the horizontal and flat nature of the canvas, but at the same time creating the illusion of depth as color and form that seems to retreat and recede as they reverberate across the canvas. Painted just three years before his death in 1966, Enigma becomes a lasting epitaph to one of the most important and influential abstract painters of his generation.
Across its rich and densely painted surface, Hans Hofmann choreographs a series of colorful blocks that appear to float across a large expanse of variegated color. The major passages of paint are laid down thickly, their surface smoothed flat, possibly the sharp edge of palette knife. Bright citrus yellow sits alongside verdant green, which in turn are positioned next to passages of dark ochre. These strong blocks of color are laid down over a layer of a base layer of softer reds and pinks that change, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, as the eye travels across the canvas.
Enigma is the culmination of a theory which Hofmann first began to develop in the early 1940s. He believed fervently that a modern artist must remain faithful to the flatness of the canvas support. To suggest depth and movement in the picture, he theorized that artists should create contrasts of color, form, and texture. The result was his “push” and “pull” theory, which he first introduced in an essay called Search for the Real and Other Essays, which he published in 1948. “Push and Pull are expanding and contracting forces which are activated by carriers in visual motion” he said. “Planes are the most important carriers, lines, and points less so…the picture plane reacts automatically in the opposite direction to the stimulus received; thus action continues as long as it receives stimulus in the creative process. Push answers with pull and pull with push…. At the end of his life and at the height of his capacity, Cézanne understood color as a force of push and pull. In his pictures, he created an enormous sense of volume, breathing, pulsating, expanding, contracting through his use of colors” (H. Hofmann, quoted by L. Barnes, “Push and Pull,” in L. Barnes & J. Hülsewig-Johnen (ed.), Creation in Form and Color: Hans Hofmann, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielfeld, 2016, p. 149).
Hofmann studied in Paris during the flourishing eras of Cubism, Fauvism and German Expressionism, and elements of his paintings can be traced directly to those sources as influences. His doctrinal reliance on the plane as the principal component of his compositions is rooted in the precedence set by modern masters like Braque, Klee and Mondrian, all of whom had a prodigious influence on him. As Hofmann’s style evolved over time, and his shapes began squaring off into identifiable geometric forms that acted as both visual cues and spatial organizers, this influence became more and more evident. When devising the composition’s structure, for example, Hofmann would often pin rectangles of colored paper to the canvas to ensure the accurate placement of the forms and a successful interplay among them all—a method borrowed directly from Braque, the father of Cubism. Meanwhile, his vivid and often unorthodox choice of colors derive from the Fauves and the German Expressionists. In Enigma, he oscillates between using complementary colors that reinforce the presence of one another—sometimes a pleasant contrast, other times a jarring dissonance—and opting for colors that are so similar to one another that the distinction is only identifiable by a textural interruption in the thick impasto of paint. These subtle differentiations only strengthen the use of his technique of “push and pull” by both creating and destroying the illusion of depth on the canvas.
1963, the year in which the present work was painted, was an important year for the artist. He was honored with a major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by William Seitz, the exhibition cemented the artist’s reputation as one of the most important and individual artists of his generation. In the introductory essay to the catalogue, Seitz wrote, “Hans Hofmann, now working at the peak of production few younger artists could sustain, is one of our major masters. He is a symbol of both the international origins of American painting and its subsequent world influence. It is a sign of greatness, in the career of an artist, when his personal development cannot be separated from that of his epoch; such is the case with Hofmann. He is both a synthesist, who in his work and theory has concentrated the tradition of which he is a part, and a radical inventor who has given impetus to three generations of artists” (W. Seitz, quoted by L. Barnes, “Push and Pull,” in L. Barnes & J. Hülsewig-Johnen (ed.), Creation in Form and Color: Hans Hofmann, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielfeld, 2016, p. 150).
In 1962, the year before the present work was painted, Hofmann summed up his career with the following statement. “My aim in painting, is to create pulsating, luminous and open surfaces that emanate a mystic light, determined exclusively through painterly development, and in accordance with my deepest insight into the experience of life and nature” (H. Hofmann, quoted by L. Barnes, “Push and Pull,” in L. Barnes & J. Hülsewig-Johnen (ed.), Creation in Form and Color: Hans Hofmann, exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielfeld, 2016, p. 150). As such, Enigma, acts as a vital embodiment of the artist’s philosophy, the pinnacle of the Abstract Expressionist’s art, packed with chromatic and textural dynamism.