Painted in 1958, the same year that 78-year old Hans Hofmann retired from his famed teaching career, Moonlit both embodies the totality of the artist’s oeuvre up until that moment, and emphasizes a new found freedom that his departure from teaching allowed. Hofmann not only trained as a painter in Paris during the height of Fauvism and the birth of Cubism, but he also moved to New York at the cusp of the city’s emergence as the new center of the art world, a byproduct of the burgeoning Abstract Expressionist movement. It was only when he ceased teaching others to focus on his own artworks that the painter’s manifold influences, which are particularly clear in Moonlit, were fully realized. Moonlit defies geographic boundaries and binds together movements as varied as Fauvism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism. The intense and vibrant coloration draws inspiration from Fauvists such as Henri Matisse, whose bold and non-naturalistic use of color and compressing of the picture plane was an inspiration to Hofmann. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table (1947) exemplifies Matisse’s mastery of these two techniques. The present work further abstracts the Fauve style in an exceedingly contemporary manner in abandoning reference to material objects, exiting in a purely transcendent realm. Similarly, Moonlit’s geometric composition and structure of overlapping planes is reminiscent of the revolutionary Cubist movement headed by Georges Braques and Pablo Picasso. Whilst some critics have criticized Hofmann’s resistance to hone in on a singular style, Irving Sandler argues that “each canvas was to be on 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 or disciplined” (Irving Sandler, “Hans Hofmann: The Dialectical Master” in Exh. Cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hans Hofmann, 1990, p. 77).
Born in Germany in 1880, Hofmann moved in 1904 to Paris, the center of the Avant-Garde, to pursue a career in art. In 1915, he opened his own art school in Munich, which operated until 1930, later relocating the school to New York. Hofmann’s students in America, most notably Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell, were exposed to his unparalleled wisdom of the European art world, adopting many of these lessons into their own artworks. Clement Greenberg proclaimed “Hofmann as ‘in all probability the most important art teacher of our time’” (Clement Greenberg, in Cynthia Goodman, Hans Hofmann (Modern Masters Series), Berkeley 1986, p. 9). Hofmann’s lessons were certainly influential to his American students, but perhaps as important was the exposure to the inner circle of the constantly evolving New York art scene that Hofmann gained.
Moonlit’s canvas is bisected horizontally into two painterly sections, one of fiery oranges, and the other sumptuous yellow hues, appearing like the foundations of a Fauve landscape. By contrast, the geometric blocks of richly saturated red and greed appear to simultaneously float outward and recede inward with a rhythmic weightlessness, plunging the painting into the realm of visual abstraction. These blocks of color in the present work are examples of his revered late-career Slab technique. These two opposing painterly techniques embody what Hofmann refers to as “push-pull,” a term that Hofmann coined that 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). In the present work, this technique imbues the painting with a sense of dynamism as the slabs appear to recede and protrude from the canvas through both their shape and color, which intentionally contrast with the background. Combining a complex range of visual citations to produce something so unique and compelling, Moonlit serves as a masterful demonstration of Hofmann’s artistic legacy as a critical link between tradition and the avant-garde.
Unlike some of his Abstract Expressionist peers, Hofmann’s belief in an artwork being grounded in nature never wavered. Whilst abstract in appearance, the title, Moonlit, has clear material references. Composed much in the same way as a traditional landscape, with a horizon dividing the canvas in the middle this painting arguably relies on principles found in nature, namely the time of day. This is just one example of Hofmann’s titling his canvases in this manner: Setting Sun (1957), August Light (1957), and Rising Moon (1964) are among these. In his 1955 statement for his exhibition at Kootz Gallery, Hofmann wrote, "In nature, light creates the color: in the picture, color creates the light" (Cynthia Goodman, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1986, p. 81). These bold and intense colors in the present work act as a vehicle not to portray nature, but to ground his abstractions within it.
A product of his time and unique life experiences, Hofmann’s artistic legacy is recognized as one of the most influential of the 20th century. Through the artist’s cultural, social, and artistic experiences, he developed a visual style of comparable significance to Jackson Pollock’s iconic drip paintings or Barnett Newman’s use of the zip. Painted at a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, Moonlit is an exceedingly significant artwork that truly encapsulates the diverse facets of Hofmann’s life.
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