DescriptionHANS HOFMANN (American, 1880-1966)
Red Sun, 1949
Oil on canvas
24-1/8 x 29-3/4 inches (61.2 x 75.4 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Hans Hofmann '49
Numbered on artist's estate stamp verso: M-566
Estate of the above;
André Emmerich Gallery, Inc., New York;
Acquired by the present owner from the above, circa 1970s.
S. Villiger et al., Hans Hofmann Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, London, 2014, n.p., no. P696, illustrated.
Like his painting Red Sun, Hans Hofmann the artist was colorful, exuberant, complex, and hard to categorize, at various times in his long career called an Expressionist, neo-Cubist, Surrealist, the leader of the New York avant-garde, the Father of Abstract Expressionism, and the "best art teacher of the twentieth century" (F. Stella in B. Buhlmann, ed., Hans Hofmann: Magnum Opus, Germany, 2013, p. 26). Paris in the early 1900s provided the German-born Hofmann with a strong foundation in Fauvism and Cubism; he met Henri Matisse at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and palled around with Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, and André Derain, all regulars at the famed Café du Dôme. During World War I, Hofmann returned to Munich, where he befriended Abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky and opened his first art school, a center for European avant-garde experimentation. His reputation as a charismatic teacher followed him to the United States, his new home beginning in the 1930s; after teaching at New York's Art Students League, he founded his own Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York, as well as a summer academy in Provincetown, Massachusetts, both meccas for Abstract Expressionism during the 1950s that attracted the likes of Helen Frankenthaler, Wolf Kahn, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, and Red Grooms. It wasn't until the end of his career that Hofmann, who had purposefully defied definition by any art movement, became lauded for his abstract "Slab" paintings -- pulsing, overlapping rectangles of vibrant colors and viscous paint, of which the present work is a stunning example.
Hofmann painted Red Sun, one of his first forays into pure abstraction, at the end of the 1940s, an exciting decade for him in terms of artistic development and gallery promotion. In 1941, Hofmann became an American citizen, and the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art in New Orleans held an exhibition of his work, mostly Provincetown interiors and landscapes that combined Cubist fracturing of planes with Matisse-ian color. By the mid-1940s, his canvases showed signs of Surrealism, both in technique -- a more autonomous application of line and color -- and in subjects -- birds, amphibians, and other biomorphic creatures. It was these paintings that prompted Peggy Guggenheim to give Hofmann his first major New York show in 1944 at her Art of This Century Gallery. This attention from Guggenheim, followed by exhibitions with Betty Parsons Gallery and Samuel L. Kootz Gallery in 1947, put Hofmann on the map as a leading figure in the American vanguard. By the end of the 1940s, Hofmann had shifted to complete abstraction, producing boldly colored, vigorously painted geometric "symphonies" like Red Sun, yet his unwillingness to pin down a "signature style" kept him on the fringes of the Abstract Expressionists.
During the late 1940s, Hofmann was also revising his writings on painting technique for his texts Search for the Real: And Other Essays (1948) and The Painter and His Problems (revised 1948). His most famous theoretical concept was that of "push-pull," the dynamic relationship of pictorial elements that simultaneously asserted the flatness of the canvas and the illusion of space. For Hofmann, counterbalanced colors, values, and textures, as well as overlapping shapes, were the major agents in achieving this pull-pull tension. In Red Sun, for instance, thinner background washes of forest green and hazy lavender give way to lava-like encrustations of butter yellow or striated blue; a bright red circle on the left is juxtaposed with a muted purple one on the right; and zigzagging blue and rose-plum brushstrokes skate over and energize more static rectangular or circular forms beneath. Such pictorial opposites effect a vibrating optical sensation forcing the brain to shift between surface and depth. Yet our eye consistently returns to the electric cherry-red circle giving the painting its title, Red Sun, thereby underscoring yet another of Hofmann's tenets: color, more than any other compositional element, was a vehicle of expression and could lead to "the highest aesthetic enjoyment" (H. Hofmann in S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 48).
With its particular title, Red Sun also points to Hofmann's theories about art and nature. Hofmann believed that nature both inspired and symbolized the creative process. Although his paintings from the late 1940s onward are abstract, many of their titles reference the cycles of days and seasons, the ocean and the cosmos, and extreme weather conditions and, by extension, evoke these same natural entities on the canvas. A sampling of titles from this period includes Storm (1946), Nocturne (1950), Spiral Nebulae (1951), Early Dawn (1957), Prelude of Spring (1958), Above Deep Waters (1959), and Golden It Glows into a New Day (1965). The art historian William Agee notes that Hofmann's joyful color explosions were a manifestation of his love of nature, his love of life. Agee's description of Black Diamond (1961) applies equally well to Red Sun:
"[The painting] is a perfect metaphor for Hofmann and his art - a mass of huge energies waiting long years to be released. The countless variations of . . . hues here, rendered in myriad degrees of surface thickness and texture, matte, or glossy, compel us to run our hand over it, as if it were a mini-model of the surface of an extra-terrestrial body. Within these surfaces there are streaks, dashes, and overlays of whites, yellows, and alizarin, all intertwining, each acting as a theme within a theme. Then we see there is a . . . circle of intense colors. . . [and] only then do we realize that this circle is an abstract depiction of the sun as it rises, reaches its peak, then begins to descend into twilight and dusk. It is Hofmann's own solar system, his cosmology of color and life" (W. Agee in B. Buhlmann, ed., Hans Hofmann: Magnum Opus, Germany, 2013, p. 146-47).
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