We’ve come to see Hans Hofmann (1880–1966) as one of the great Abstract Expressionist painters as well as a major formative influence on American art in the 1930s and 1940s. Hofmann was born in Germany and painted in Munich and Paris before moving to the United States in the early 1930s. Unusually for a modern master, his late work—in a new style pursued from the late 1950s until his death in 1966—is considered by far his greatest. An important group of his paintings from 1950, shown recently at Miles McEnery Gallery in New York, is touring selected German museums in 2022.
The renown of Hofmann’s prior work was somewhat delayed because he was an experimenter and, apparently, not concerned with establishing a signature style. Indeed, his lack of inhibition left a striking influence on the younger artists who flocked to his art school, active until 1958 in both New York and Provincetown.
His work changed definitively in the late 1950s. In contrast to his previous work, it was completely abstract, with no overt reference to forms and space outside itself. While Hofmann’s paintings continued to feature diverse experimental looks to some extent, his style became more visually powerful and coherent. That style remained clearly his from painting to painting. One of the main new qualities was distinct, free-flowing, very broad brushstrokes, which were undoubtedly influenced by the 1940s and 1950s manner and spirit of Abstract Expressionist artists, including some that he had taught, though his use of these marks was all the more explosive and extreme. Another characteristic quality of his later paintings was the presence of slabs of thick paint, usually rectangular and of a single color. These dominated—and often completely made up—many of his works. Where did they come from?
Nothing in art starts with a tabula rasa. Artists are influenced by everything they see, hear, or know. And as an old saying goes, “Young artists are influenced, older artists steal.” (Or, “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”) In part, the color slabs in Hofmann’s late work came from the thread of relatively large hard-edge colored shapes that had been prominent in abstraction since Picasso’s Synthetic Cubist period (ca. 1912–14). There is some of this in Hofmann’s Kandinsky-influenced work shown at McEnery. But there was something else that might have prompted the slabs.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s in Paris, Nicolas de Staël (1914–55) developed a style based on thickly applied blocks of paint, emphasizing its material, color, and expressive application in abstract composition, sometimes with a figurative or landscape reference.
During World War II, much of the European art world moved to the United States, especially New York. After the war—owing to the success of Abstract Expressionism and its unruly progeny—most in the New York art scene sensed that the city had supplanted Paris as the leading center of painting. Having taken thirty years to get out from under the influence of Picasso, New York painters admitted to no longer paying much attention to what was going on in Paris.
A few younger French artists, however, did interest New York. The Russian-born Nicolas de Staël, in particular, was a phenomenon. In the late 1940s, he became a great success in France, and in the early 1950s, his fame spread across the Atlantic. His work was shown in major venues in New York, such as the Janis, Knoedler, and Rosenberg galleries, as well as the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Collectors bought him avidly. Serious New York artists paid attention. There’s little doubt that Hofmann and his students looked at his work. At the time of his March 1955 suicide, de Staël was considered the most important abstract painter in Europe. The Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris mounted a huge retrospective of his work a year later. In 1965–66, five major museums in the United States and Europe put on a large de Staël exhibition.
Both Hofmann and de Staël championed the life of abstract forms, the communicative presence of the material of paint, and comprehensive expression from color. De Staël’s fame and breakthrough use of painterly blocks, which asserted themselves as material color abstraction, very likely influenced Hofmann to make his slabs just a few years later. It’s not hard to think that Hofmann was impressed by de Staël’s invention. The tactile blocks of color in de Staël in the early to mid-1950s find a correspondence in Hofmann’s work from 1959 onwards.
De Staël’s Figure on the Beach (1952) appeared in his solo show at Knoedler in March 1953 and at the Phillips the following month. The similarity of Hofmann’s 1959 painting Pompeii to this de Staël is stark, and the likeness of styles is probably not an accident. It can be seen in many other paintings, for example de Staël’s Le Ciel Rouge of 1952 (shown at Knoedler in 1953) and Port de Sicile,(1954, on view at that year’s Venice Biennale), which can be compared to Hofmann’s Rising Moon of 1964 and Sanctum Sanctorum of 1962. Many more such correlations exist.
In 1953 and 1954 de Staël executed a lengthy—and soon famous—series of paintings in and inspired by Agrigento, an ancient town near the coast of Sicily. Paintings from the Agrigento series were shown at the Paul Rosenberg & Co. Gallery in New York in 1954, 1955, and 1958 and in the Venice Biennale in 1954. Hofmann titled a much-appreciated painting of his own from 1961 Agrigento, and although it doesn’t look like the de Staëls of the same title, its name comes across as homage.
Even in his personal development in the years before the large blocks of paint cohered, Hofmann seems to have taken in de Staël. The subject of the similarity of brush strokes to shapes is emphasized in related ways in de Staël’s Abstract Composition of 1947–48 and Hofmann’s Studio #2 in Blue (1954). Perhaps this wouldn't be so notable, if not for the clear influence of de Staël on Hofmann later on.
Hofmann had a solo show at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1949. At the time, Maeght was an important gallery of contemporary art. It is not known if Hofmann saw any de Staël paintings in Paris in early 1949, but de Staël was already famous there. It is also possible, of course, that de Staël was influenced by Hofmann, as Hofmann’s distinctive use of geometric shapes in open space was on display at his Galerie Maeght show in 1949. Hofmann’s teaching of the abstract power of the “push and pull” of colored shapes relative to the picture plane was already widely known.
De Staël continues to be, as Michael Klein wrote in 1997, “for many painters . . . just this side of a minor saint.” This has likewise held true for Hofmann, perhaps as a major saint. In 2003, Karen Wilkin characterized Hofmann’s paintings as expressing the exhilaration of abstract perceptions, and she wrote in 2017, “Hofmann’s influence on generations of younger artists is inestimable.” But the influences between them, particularly of de Staël on Hofmann, have not been well noted before.
Opinions of de Staël’s importance diminished in the United States after his untimely death in 1955. In light of today’s resurgence of abstract painting, which shows no fear of influence from any time or place (especially the 1950s, which was verboten for decades), perhaps we should now reconsider the status, in both quality and history, of Nicolas de Staël. Indeed, in light of French painting’s direct influence on Hofmann from 1905 to 1914 and again in the 1950s through de Staël, it may be time to take another look at French influence on American painting in the years following World War II.