Here we see the rectangles that would become his signature slide in and out of focus, mirage-like, noticeably present but not yet consolidated the formal geometric motif of his late work. These “slabs” of color, as Hofmann called them, grew out of his desire to “push and pull” depth out of the picture plane. A way of creating space without concealing the flatness of the canvas’s 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 travelling), Hans Hofmann, 1990, p. 177) In Terpsichore, depth is created through texture and color in an elegant painterly two-step. 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 lingering presence of his creative process. Furthermore, Hofmann amplifies the intensity of his atmospheric tones by placing them alongside contrasting colors – cool with warm, light with dark, primary with secondary – to produce an added layer of visual depth.
Indeed, the powerful and explosive hues of Terpsichore attest to the crucial importance of color in Hofmann’s work. His enveloping depths of brilliant pigment bear the legacy of the Fauvist penchant for vivid, concentrated, and dissonant tones, adding an emotional charge to the composition. Moreover, the calculated interplay of complementary and contrasting hues injects a dynamic rhythm to the work, each transition playing across the surface like a sheet of music. Flashes of luminescent white emerge from streaks of fuchsia, plum, and scarlet, while bars of lush green fold into swathes of warm golden orange. Here, Hofmann’s commanding colors become his subject, brought into focus by his masterfully varied strokes and shapes. As Frank Stella, whose work owes much to his teacher Hofmann, explains: “We revere Hofmann, as Pollock did and Rauschenberg does, for proving that the straightforward manipulation of pigment can create exalted art. To put it simply, Hofmann’s ability to handle paint, to fuse the action of painting and drawing into a single, immediate gesture, carried colored pigment into the viewer’s presence with the force of a bomb. The power of this visual explosion catalyzed the bond of European and American art, cementing the first half of twentieth-century art inseparably to the second half.” (Frank Stella, “The Artist of the Century,” in James Yohe, Ed., Hans Hofmann, New York 2002, p. 308)
Widely acknowledged as the crucial bridge between the School of Paris and the Abstract Expressionist movement as Stella implies, Hofmann began his career surrounded and influenced by great modern masters: after arriving in Paris in 1904, he frequented the legendary Café du Dôme in the company of artists such as Picasso, Braque, Léger, and Rouault. When Hofmann came to the United States in 1932, he sought to create an international style that drew from a variety of sources. Equally, he served as a crucial source of inspiration to such esteemed next generation artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Lee Krasner, and Louise Nevelson. It is evident in a painting such as Terpsichore that Hofmann shaped a new kind of painterly expression, enthusiastically incorporating elements of Fauvism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism, while also asserting his own uniquely modern vision. Fauvism in particular would play a prominent role in Hofmann’s practice, and indeed, the present work reveals daring tonal contrasts, overlapping blocks of color, and strong brushwork reminiscent of Henri Matisse. The architectonic structure of Open Window, Collioure almost serves as a template for Terpsichore, the shutters, windowsill, and swathes of color comprising the potted flowers collapsing into bricks of saturated color in Hofmann’s work.
Characterized by these features, the muscular surface of Hofmann’s masterpiece displays a joyous energy and symphonic presence. Even the title of this work alludes to the pleasure in motion that is inherent to Hofmann’s best work, as he christens the piece after one of the nine Greek Muses: Terpsichore, or “delight in dancing,” is the goddess of dance and chorus. Gracefully tying together several historical influences with a powerful modern sensibility, Hofmann produces a gleeful composition of colors that waltz across the canvas. With Terpsichore he delivers a harmonious summation of his unique vision, drawing together a lifetime of extraordinary experience into a canvas of alluring vitality.
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