This work will be included in the forthcoming Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné, sponsored by the Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust.
"At all stages of the creative development, both color and form develop, one through the other into a reciprocal compensatory relationship comparable to harmony and counterpoint in music. The magic of painting, however, can never be fully, rationally explained" (H. Hofmann, "The color problem in pure painting--its creative origin," Hans Hofmann: A Retrospective, (ed.), Karen Wilkin, New York, p. 40).
Selected by the Whitney Museum for their 1990 Hans Hofmann retrospective, Te Deum showcases the most important element of his compositions: color. Hofmann paints with bright color contrasts and echoing forms to exhibit the work's lyrical potential, appropriately titling the painted Te Deum after the Christian hymn of the same name. This 1964 work acts as a telling punctuation to his long and illustrious career.
In characteristic boldness, Hofmann paints vertiginous rectangular forms alongside free, gestural brushwork. While the artist restrains his palette to pure tones of green, red or blue for the geometric shapes, he interrupts the composition's structure with loose strokes of layered color. Hofmann's pigments are expressed with special potency in Te Deum, since the artist makes use of the entire spectrum of painterly marks. He applies pigment in opaque, furious scribbles of orange and red, beside broad applications of washed pigment. In the center, Hofmann blends yellow and green with notes of purple and red, so that each color seems to dissolve with poetic drama, especially in contrast to the rigid quality of the surrounding rectangles. In Artforum, Walter Darby Bannard singled out Te Deum for its free use of color, remarkably unrestricted by spatial concerns: "Hofmann used this freedom to his advantage. The red rectangle in the upper right of Te Deum, 1964, cuts across a number of colors of various hues and values below and 'behind' it, but the top-most portion fades into the similar hues and values surrounding it" (W.D. Bannard, "Hofmann's Rectangles," Artforum, Vol. 7, summer, 1969). Here, Hofmann displays his inimitable ability to employ the geometric pictorial motif, without letting it govern his composition.
Te Deum reveals Hofmann's longstanding reverence for the Fauvist painters. While studying in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, he met Matisse, Léger and Delaunay. Hofmann was particularly influenced by Matisse, whose Danseuse creole exudes the same luminous color effects as Te Deum. Both works feature rich tones of allover red, which contrast the bright green and blue rectangles. Matisse's even red background transforms the corner window into a trompe l'oeil device, so the frame appears to hang from the wall as a flat tableau. The geometric shapes in Te Deum also resemble the traditional format of painted pictures, acting as pictorial elements that allude to the legacy of painting. However they also function as abstract devices that assert the canvas' flat surface and structure, since Hofmann aligns the depicted edges with the actual edges of the canvas. Through his references to painterly traditions, the artist manages to exemplify his theory of the "push-and-pull," which explores the tension between figuration and abstraction.
Though Hofmann calls attention to the surface of the canvas, he manages to simultaneously depict depth by layering and juxtaposing gestural strokes with tight brushwork. His evocation of depth and planarity was lauded by Clement Greenberg, the post-war aesthetic tastemaker. Greenberg praised the artist's ability to dissolve the picture plane only to reestablish the picture's flatness with bright opaque rectangles. "Restored at the same time by the interaction of warm and cool, light and dark, thin and thick, saturated and diluted. The outcome, like the outcome in every profoundly successful picture, is a stability that is sovereign because it is hard-won and precarious." (C. Greenberg, "Hofmann," in Hans Hofmann exh. cat., (ed.), Goodman, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1991, p.138).
Hofmann often referenced musical compositions to explain his paintings, and his recurring metaphor is gracefully realized in Te Deum. The artist lends power to the painting's compositional rhythm by creating echoes of shapes and colors, which poetically dissipate and emerge from the background. By appropriating the hymn's title as his own, Hofmann demonstrates his efforts to achieve harmony through paint. "My ideal is to form and to paint as Schubert sings his songs and as Beethoven creates a world in sounds." Frequently comparing the interrelated worlds of music and art, he wrote "The plastic artist is concerned with the music like relationships of plastic units just as the musical artist is concerned with the harmonic relationships of musical units" (H. Hofmann, "The color problem in pure painting--its creative origin," in K. Wilkin, op. cit., p. 40). This longstanding interest in the intersection between music and painting was doubtlessly influenced by his exposure to the work of Wassily Kandinsky. Kandinsky, who famously said, "Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul." Living in Munich during the war, Hofmann met Kandinksy's former companion, Gabriele Münter, while running his own art school, the Hofmann Schule für Moderne Kuns. Münter entrusted Hofmann with Kandinsky's legendary Compositions and Improvisations, asking him to safeguard them during the war while Kandinsky was in Moscow. That year, Hofmann read Kandinsky's book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Such unrestricted access to Kandinsky's paintings cemented his influence within Hofmann's style and ideology. Executed nearly fifty years after he met Münter, Te Deum's balance of sporadic marks and restrained compositional harmony demonstrates Kandinsky's enduring impact.
Te Deum's confident arrangement is the result of Hofmann's longtime devotion to color. Here, color self-governs its own figuration, defining its form through contrasts of pigment yet working within a unified composition. In Te Deum, his color relationships evoke pictorial depth as they assert the flat surface of the picture. Painted just two years before his death, the exhilarating tone of this work belies the artist's old age. A wonderful late contribution to his oeuvre, Te Deum shows the ease and confidence of the master painter, in the last years of his life, when his perspective is at its most developed.