"Matisse was the artist of this century from whom Hofmann learned most about color above all...Unlike Matisse, Hofmann has come to require his color to be saturated corporeally as well as optically. The weight and density of his paint—attributes it has even when it is not thickly impastoed—contribute to the presence his pictures have as objects as well as pictures."
Clement Greenberg, "Hofmann," in Exh. Cat., New York, The Whitney Museum of American Art (and traveling), Hans Hofmann, 1990, p. 132
A radiant example of Hans Hofmann’s painterly excellence, Setting Sun presents a glimpse into the greatness of Hofmann, not only one of the most influential teachers of art history, but also one of the most important American artists of the post-war period. Painted in 1957, when the artist was 77 years old, Setting Sun is rich in hues of Aureolin yellow, marigold, azure and magenta. The present work is thick with dense peaks of impasto and its vivacity lures one into the depths of the canvas. An example of Hofmann’s premier technique and innovation, the work was completed at the end of the artist’s teaching career. Hofmann was a teacher to so many (among the likes of Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson and Larry Rivers) but simultaneously a critically important artist in his own right. Setting Sun has been held in the same collection since 1960 when the work’s brilliance stopped collectors in their tracks as they passed Kootz Gallery in New York.
Visually, Setting Sun is arresting. Hofmann’s passion for color is elevated to the surface through not only the intensity of the color but also the density of the color throughout the work. In the years leading up to World War II, Hofmann studied in Paris. There, as a young artist, Hofmann began his journey to eventual abstraction, immensely influenced by both the Cubists and the Fauvists. In the Paris light, surrounded by great artists, who would eventually become some of Hofmann’s self-described favorites, Hofmann also started down the path to find true and essential understanding of color like Matisse. As Clement Greenberg later said of Hofmann’s relationship with Matisse, “One could learn Matisse’s color lessons better from Hofmann than from Matisse himself” (Clement Greenberg, “The Later Thirties in New York,” Art and Culture, Boston 1961, p. 232).
The present work is rife with color and shapes; the canvas seemingly simultaneously pulsating and breathing. Energetic swashes of impasto trace across the surface of the painting. The tactility of these impasto crests along with the luscious brushstrokes give the painting a three dimensionality, almost like that of an object. Furthermore, Setting Sun is populated with colorful rectangular “slabs” that break up the plane of the canvas. Remarking upon the artist’s characteristic use of varied rectangular forms, Irving Sandler 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). Within the present work, Hofmann’s use of both heavy impasto and thin brushstrokes creates an ethereal richness that leaves his working methods visible, imbuing his canvas with the intimate expressions of his creative process. Meanwhile, the inclusion of spontaneous, bursting strokes of paint and textured surface reveals the influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Of this apparent juxtaposition, Sandler contended, “Each canvas was to be an arena in which opposites vied: nature and abstraction; the material and the transmaterial or spiritual; the preconceived and the impulsive; and the romantically free and the classically ordered and disciplined" (Irving Sandler, “Hans Hofmann: The Dialectical Master” in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hans Hofmann, 1990, p. 77).
Between the swaths of color and slabs of geometric rectangularity, beneath the sun are bountiful examples of Hofman’s prime teaching: the concept of push-pull. A way of creating space without impinging upon the flatness of the canvas’ surface, the concept was promoted by Hofmann not only in his decades of teaching but also in his own work. The notion gives way to a unique visual sensation. As the artist explained, “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 artist quoted in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art (and traveling), Hans Hofmann, 1990, p. 177). Constructing a complex and colorful spatial illusion while simultaneously asserting the primacy of the flat picture plane, Setting Sun serves as a masterful demonstration of Hofmann’s artistic legacy as a critical link between tradition and the avant-garde.
Evoking the luminosity and intensity of the setting sun, the present delivers an ultimate version of the best of Hofmann. Later in 1957, Hofmann’s retrospective at the Whitney opened to much fanfare and critical acclaim. To mark the occasion, Harold Rosenberg commented, “No American artist could mount a show of greater coherent variety than Hans Hofmann” (Exh. Cat., Berkeley, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction, p. 36). The show marked an important occasion: as the sun was setting on Hofmann’s teaching career, a new day was beginning for his career as an artist. Setting Sun presents a seminal moment of pureness and greatness for which Hofmann is today revered.