This work will be included in the forthcoming Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné, sponsored by the Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust.
Using jewel-toned hues to clarify the thick impasto paint, Hans Hofmann creates a dynamic surface that finds its own rhythm and order through its arrangement of color. In 1957, the penultimate year of his legendary teaching career, Hofmann refines his stylistic approach, distilling his freely-painted compositions into more structured arrangements of rich colors and abstract shapes. Set on a grand scale, Swamp Series IV--Sunburst illustrates the artist's decisive move towards the planar, geometric style for which he would become known. The Swamp Series, a hallmark of Hofmann's stylistic transition, remains fundamental within the artist's body of work; another painting of the series entitled Flowering Swamp has been held in the Smithsonian's collection since 1966.
In Swamp Series IV, Hofmann paints verdant colors alongside bright, vibrant hues. As its title suggests, the picture evokes the dense light that is filtered through marshy greenery and refracted off shallow water. Hofmann shows his sensitivity to tonal proportion and color pairing when he amplifies the intensity of his atmospheric hues by placing them alongside their contrasting color. The artist paints large areas of green with deep blue in the picture's center, while placing vibrant red and yellow along the edge. Finally, he punctuates the large spaces of color with small squares of bright yellow and red, which resemble the surface of water illuminated by the sun.
Hofmann's new manner of painting finds its originality in Swamp Series IV, wherein gestural strokes of pure color emerge with unexpected formal clarity. Here, he shows the lifelong influence of Piet Mondrian, drawing heavily on the Dutch painter's use of abstract shapes, compositional order and flat un-modulated color. In one of his essays on painting, Hofmann wrote, "It is the greatest injustice done to Mondrian that people who are plastically blind see only decorative design instead of the plastic perfection which characterizes his work. The whole de Stijl group from which Mondrian's art was derived must be considered a protest against such blindness. The group aimed toward the purest perfection" (H. Hofmann, "The Search for the Real in the Visual Arts," in Hans Hofmann, J. Yohe, ed., New York, 2002, p. 48). In Swamp Series IV, Hofmann applies paint to emphasize the planar surface of the work. The picture's negation of illusionistic depth and its bright, unfiltered color pay homage to Mondrian's process of painting. But Hofmann achieved balance by mediating his own intuitive sense of expressive color and spatial relation with Mondrian's objective and methodical program.
Swamp Series IV remains distinct from Hofmann's work of just a year later, favoring its rhythmic composition of irregular forms over a harsh, linear structure. For Hofmann's posthumous retrospective exhibition, the American painter and scholar Walter Darby Bannard wrote, "Stylistically, 1957 may have been Hofmann's most consistent year. The rectangles are there in some pictures and are taking on the character, if not the size and weight, they will assume later. But most of the paintings of this year take the small, sparkling dabs of the previous painting, greatly enlarge them and set them in a rough alignment with the edge" (W.B. Bannard, Hans Hofmann, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1976, p. 15).
Always interested in the potential of vibrant color, it was only in the 1950s that Hofmann discovered how color can transform a series of brushstrokes into a harmonious pictorial entity. In Swamp Series IV, rich color generates the potent forms and shapes that cover the canvas. His confident, horizontal strokes recall those of Claude Monet, another master of color. According to Clement Greenberg, it is only through Monet's work that "we find any possible precedent for the elisions of light-and-dark contrast that Hofmann dares to make for the sake of pure, singing color" (C. Greenberg, Art and Culture, New York, 1971, p. 191). Hofmann's picture asserts its modernity however, by collapsing the distinction between color and subject matter. While Monet's pastoral pictures place the imagery first and choose hue as a consequence, Hofmann's colors determine pattern and form. In Swamp Series IV, form becomes a consequence, while color becomes the subject. In this resolutely abstract work, Hofmann links the Impressionist style of loose brushwork with the saturated hues of the Fauvist painters, thereby endowing both movements with new currency and relevance.
In Swamp Series IV, Hofmann takes inspiration from nature, believing that the natural experience corresponds to the pictorial one. This 1957 work calls to mind the marshy terrain of Cape Cod, which may have taken on special significance for Hofmann as he planned to close his Provincetown art school the very next year. Since 1915, he taught painting to innumerable students, fostering the talent of students like Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler and Larry Rivers, among others. After so many years of devoting himself to his students, this work displays Hofmann's new focus on his own individual style. His first three works of the 1957 series, Flowering Swamp, Autumn Gold, and Swamp Series III, were exhibited in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden's 1976 show, "Hans Hofmann: A Retrospective Exhibition." As the last of the sequence, Swamp Series IV: Sunburst, is a worthy punctuation to his work of 1957; the luminous composition celebrates the artist's free use of rich pigments and intuitive rhythmic order.