Executed three years prior to the artist's death and residing in the present collection since 1973, Nirvana by Hans Hofmann is a simultaneous culmination and rebirth of the artist’s prodigious life's work. Despite being a generation older than many of his peers, Hofmann bridged the School of Paris and the Abstract Expressionism movement with energetic innovation, especially during the last decade of his life when he was in his eighties. Nirvana definitively embodies this critical link between tradition and the avant-garde and is a masterful example of the artist’s sensational 'push-pull' synthesis of formal compositional structure and vitally energetic expressionist mark-making. The conflation of rigid forms and the exuberant application of impasto material, all infused with the sheer brilliance of vibrant color, is precisely characteristic of the very best examples of his revered and enduringly influential oeuvre and makes this a simply outstanding exemplar of his output.
With Hofmann’s retirement from teaching in 1958, he was able to devote himself to his own painting exclusively for the last eight years of his life. This extraordinary work Nirvana broadcasts arresting vibrancy as geometric shapes and planes intersect and connect in energized cubistic style above a field of expressionistic vitality. It is a perfect example of the late paintings from this period in Hofmann's life, which are defined by a spectacular outburst of vigor partially contained within architectonic compartments. Irving Sandler has suggested that “Hofmann may have derived the idea of using rectangles in his painting from one of his teaching techniques: attaching pieces of construction paper to the canvases of his students’.” (Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism, New York, 1970, p. 147, note 5) In the present work Hofmann has abandoned illusionistic space and representational imagery entirely in favor of dramatic graphic arrangement and exuberant color, as the rigid architecture of the rectangular forms vies with the flurried brushwork of the multi-faceted ground and the glowing orb towards the top left. Hofmann also used sheets of commercial Color-Aid paper to organize his compositions, and a circular form template in this paper of the same diameter as this orb, as well as that in the related painting Pre-dawn of 1960 (National Gallery of Australia, Canberra) was found among his papers after his death (Cynthia Goodman, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1986, p. 103)
Here the entire chromatic spectrum is surveyed through pure yet dissonant hues, as shockingly intense today as they surely were half a century ago. The entire effect is one of arresting power and alluring seduction. In the year of this work, 1963, Hofmann stated: "push and pull is a colloquial expression applied for movement experienced in nature or created on the picture surface to detect the counterplay of movement in and out of depth. Depth perception in nature and depth creation on the picture-surface is the crucial problem in pictorial creation." ("The Painter and His Problems: A Manual Dedicated to Painting" in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and travelling), Hans Hofmann, 1990, p. 177)
Nirvana is an elegant and refined pictorial summation of the economies of color and form, conflating a reductive sensibility for outline and shape together with the apparently arbitrary process of action painting. It also celebrates color as the foundation of visual communication, off-setting rectilinear blocks of intense blue, red, yellow, green and orange against a chaotic field of the same colors presented in disorganized chaos. This sophisticated re-ordering of primary and secondary hues comprises a complex essay on color-theory and the psycho-somatic effects of the chromatic palette. Moreover, Hofmann uses both heavy impasto and thin brushstrokes to create an ethereal richness to leave his working methods visible, imbuing his canvas with the intimate expressions of his creative process.
In his earlier years in Europe, Hofmann knew Braque, Delaunay, Picasso, and Gris: artists who all had a great influence on the development of his technique and career. When Hofmann came to the United States in 1932, he sought to create an international style that drew from a variety of sources, including the work of Wassily Kandinsky. Hofmann was enthralled by the spirituality of Kandinsky and Mondrian. As Sam Hunter has noted, "For Kandinsky, abstraction was a road to the individual's liberation and fulfillment. For Mondrian, abstraction became a simulacrum of a new, rationalized social order, and a new Universalist spirit. Something of the Utopian tone of uplift and high seriousness of these two great artists echoes in Hofmann's writing, but the social applications that might give his concepts larger meanings were absent." (James Yohe, ed., Hans Hofmann, New York, 2002, p. 16) Hofmann was a fundamentally intellectual artist, who communicated his philosophy with tremendous spirit and emotion. Nearing the end of his prolific life, with Nirvana he delivered the summation of his vision, drawing together the sum of his extraordinary experience into a canvas of alluring vitality.