Thursday, March 24, 2011

How I learned to stop hating Hofmann.

Hans Hofmann’s “Effervescence” 1944, A(n in)Formal Analysis.

Examining Hans Hofmann’s “Effervescence,” a painting he completed in 1944, in the very institution that was built to house this collection of 47 masterworks his wife gave to the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught in 1930 and 1931, is an ouroboros exercise — where does the tail of the snake who eats itself end? I selected Hofmann’s piece because I’ve never like Hofmann’s work and I don’t understand why it’s important, especially this work which is given prominence in the exhibit by its dominating location. Perhaps this paper will help me discover his relevance. In that light I also purchased and read Hofmann’s Search for the Real, to better help me understand and respond to this work.

Hofmann’s “Effervescence” is a painting approximately 36 inches wide by 54.5 inches tall utilizing the materials of oil paint, casein, enamel, and India ink applied to a plywood panel. Hung in a room devoted to Hofmann’s work, it is backlit by a floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooking a portion of the Berkeley Art Museum’s exterior gardens. The walls and floor and ceiling of the museum are the neutral gray of its concrete building material with no softening modern building design elements or colors. The net effect is not entirely unlike creating a cave or a cavern where the art is meant to be the most prominent element of the landscape, and it is clear that displaying artworks was the most important design criteria for the curators and architects. It should also be noted that this structure has distinct and unique acoustic properties that may play a role in creating a sacred space for the viewing of art. The painting is well illuminated by gallery display lights that are far from the painting and out of sight for the viewer. Neither the painting’s frame nor its surroundings visibly overwhelm or even intrude on the work and there are no readily visible placards identifying the work. Despite that the painting was viewed during a class visit, and that there were at least two different classes visiting the museum that day, the gallery is not crowed and the painting is not obstructed and was easily approached. Even the museum guards kept a respectful distance from the object and the viewer.

The structure of the painting is immediately discernable: Over a thin neutral gray wash which does little to conceal the texture of the surface of the painting, which presumably was coated in gesso, the artist has imposed two large triangles of color. A soft, cool, organic green wash roughly bisects the canvas diagonally from upper right to lower left claiming more than the lower half of the painting. It varies in density and tone allowing multiple brushstokes to build up a color density that gives the work both warmth and intrigue. Similarly a warm flesh- pink color, green’s complement, washes over the image defining a rough triangle in the upper left quadrant of the painting, oppositional to the vegetal-green shape. In both cases the underlying gray brushwork is allowed to show through, especially in those areas surrounding the center image of the painting. The pink and green brushwork is loose and irregular causing the pigments to pile up in some sections creating a texture and density of color that further defines the organic, natural and nature-like qualities of the image’s defining edges. I have the sense that Hofmann was intent on creating a frame within which to constrain the exuberant central image yet to come, and he is noted for saying that the first line placed on a canvas is in fact the fifth line in the composition. He uses his colors, pink and green with added white pigment, to add texture and depth in the major color-fields he has created, and to define a hard pink, slightly curved line at the top of the painting, which encloses the image and forces our eye back down into the composition.

The next application of paint on the image are two large black areas that have a solidity, fluidity and high gloss appearance suggesting the pigment was poured on to rather than brushed on to the panel. In that the Hans Hofmann catalogue states that this image was created using oil paints, enamel paints, casein paints and India ink, it is reasonable to assume that this is black enamel paint, and that after pouring the media onto the panel in a circular glob at the top of the ‘canvas,’ Hofmann manipulated it to create a bubbled derby-looking top shape with a bold black curving line, similar to the brim of a hat. The black line is parallel and in opposition to the previously noted nearby pink line that tops the painting. A second large black structural element appears to have been splotched and blotched into a large roughly rectangular shape that is allowed to drip and run down the vertical surface of the composition, pulled by gravity but restrained by the viscosity of the material in a slow moving barely controlled ooze that actually runs off the lower left edge of the painting in a thin diagonal streak. These two dense black elements dominate the central third of the image and the contrasting color value of the black against the soft pastel pink and green forces a great depth into the image, almost as though the viewer were staring into an abyss. As an aside, the resulting black shapes Hofmann created in “Effervescence” are strikingly similar to ink sketches the artist composed while teaching in California in 1931. This is also suggested in Search for the Real: “In Hofmann’s simplified representations of landscape, such as the drawings (“Island in the Bay, California” and “Trees and Landscapes, California,” both 1931), it is possible to observe shapes which reappear in his later abstract paintings” (pps 16-17). Despite the obvious similarities, the painting “Effervescence” is not specifically identified as such an example.

Reasserting control over the painting’s liquid ‘accidents,’ Hofmann uses the diagonal runaway drip as impetus to create two black slash lines upon the image, both starting on the far right side of the composition. The first, a thick black brush stroke that breaks the painting’s edge, parallel but in the opposite direction of the drip, fights gravity, and rises out of the upper portion of the dominant black rectangular element to pierce the upper right side-edge of the work. The second, a much more tentative gesture, takes a runaway drip and directs it diagonally from the bottom right edge into the center bottom of the composition. The quality of this line is similar to the thin, indistinct quality of the original runaway drip. Tending toward transparency and ending directly in the middle of the work, this insubstantial black line frames the composition at the bottom just as the hard pink line frames the composition at the top. Each line, pink and black, directs our attention back into the image.

At approximately the same time the artist established the painting’s heavy black gravitational foundation, which defines the deepest depth of “Effervescence,” using his brush he developed an ash-blue shadow on top of a portion of the triangular pink area that resembles a large skeleton-key hole shape in the upper left center of the painting. This element is possibly responsive to the upper right black hat-shape. While not exactly complementary colors, the pink and the blue work together to create a sharp vibrational contrast that draws our attention more than one would normally expect. This is the only place in “Effervescence” where Hofmann has used the color blue, and he carefully modeled the shape to give it a texture and substantial solidity that might balance the density of the nearly monolithic, abstract black hole that also demands our focus at the top of the painting. While the bottom of the keyhole shape dissolves into the central image, even in its dissolution it implies a solid, deliberately artist-crafted element, receding yet still balancing the central image. Atop this blue shape and at several intersections of colors throughout the work Hofmann has dribbled an earthy brown pigment that struggles with the black voids in a war for control of our focus. Toward the center of the painting and on the right side of the blue keyhole shape, where the dribbled brown paint intersects the brushed blue shape, this color has created a plane or ‘face’ and a hard right edge which draws the viewer’s focus into the central image and down the canvas. Like blood the loose brown line works further down the painting only to then follow the original runaway black streak diagonally off the lower left edge of the composition. Spiritually, not figuratively, it suggests death’s black hand wrestling in a battle for supremacy with life’s bloody, fecal earthiness. Another dribbled and smudged heavy brown streak vertically bisects the rough black rectangle, cleaving deep up into it, while a third, much lighter and thinner downward dribbling streak, like the third tine on a trident, approaches but does not penetrate the far right edge of the image, constraining the gloom and delicately redirecting our attention back into the painting.

The penultimate layer of the painting is an explosion of thick, glossy liquid white casein splotches, while organic and accidental, clearly also referencing Hofmann’s earlier sketches, but in white this time rather than black. The thorough art history researcher learns from the “Guide to the Hans Hofmann Collection of the Online Archive of California” that “‘Effervescence’ consists of pools of pigment poured and dripped onto the canvas with little premeditation.” Further the casual researcher is told: “By welcoming chance effects, Hofmann introduced the aesthetic of controlled accident into his work.” In “Effervescence” it is obvious that Hofmann slopped and poured and pushed around the thick, glossy, brilliant white casein on the surface of his carefully layered composition as an antidote to the gravitational pull of his large dark black voids. Like clotted cream Hofmann freely layered numerous organic globules of this ancient milk-based pigment onto his work creating a perfect, nearly-sterile counterpoint to the organic, natural lushness of the colored elements of the painting while also using the powerful stark white to contrast with the heavy dark black holes he had earlier created. It is with the white elements — one might suggest ‘highlights’ — that the magic of creative transformation occurs. What had previously been simply a process suddenly becomes a “living object.” Like fresh flower buds, two white blossoms, also breast-like, define the center of the painting. Pushing out, up and away from the mass of the central form, these twin white globules both draw our eye’s attention and push our gaze out into either side of the painting. Another small splotch of white casein, higher on the image, establishes a central axis for the composition. These shapes, lacking color, work together to create a strong vertical orientation to the ambiguous central image. While there are several additional small splotches of casein descending on the far right side of the image, the remaining dominant white element is a large, amputated white triangular shape centered in the image that falls off the bottom of the painting. This white shape also works to anchor the composition while reaffirming a white vertical axis for the central image. Attached to the top of this truncated triangular shape is a poured white casein gesture that dribbles diagonally up and to the right into the image encouraging our eye to continually move restlessly around the painting.

Hofmann’s final gestures are delicate black India ink lines, mostly in the white areas at the bottom of the painting, which are deliberately introduced to define texture, volume and direction to his otherwise mostly accidental applications of pigments. These are “the hand of man,” working both visually and symbolically to reassert the artist’s control over the various accidents of process that have created this painting. It must be plainly stated that this work, which resembles but precedes Jackson Pollock’s famous dribble paintings, does not appear to be crafted as a representational image. That said, in the final analysis, all human gestures are symbolic, and all symbols are representational if one has the proper tools with which to interpret the message. Hans Hofmann was 64 years old when “Effervescence” was created and he’d been a studio artist and art instructor for many decades. His “casual” gestures and the “accidents of process” not withstanding, this work is balanced and has a composition that not only references the outer world but demands that the viewer also seek to understand and interpret what may have started out as a series of random processes but inevitably must be resolved into a meaningful image.

Fred Dodsworth © February 23, 2010

Hofman, Hans, edited by Sara T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hays, Jr. Search for the Real, and other essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts. M.I.T. Press, 1967.
“The Guide to the Hans Hofmann Collection.” Online Archive of California. University of California’s Digital Library. Web. February 25, 2011. (