Last May I wrote about the painter Milton Avery in this space. Avery excited me not only for what he could do on canvas but also for what his canvases could do to the world at large. Red Rock Falls (1947) unlocked a host of memories in me and provided inspiration to set fingers to keyboard.

This drive to create has led me to wonder if Avery’s particular brand of modern art, rooted in color and flatness, can activate the world in ways that set such art apart from the rest of modernism. Avery’s use of color often takes precedence over subject matter and “becomes” his painting’s subject matter—dominating both representation and authorship while never subsuming them. An Avery painting is not about something. In the end it is something. Free of other associations, the closest connection between a painting like Red Rock Falls and the world is then not through a place on the map or an artist named Milton Avery, but rather through the engaged viewer. While he painted in a personal style, Avery could create something that became the viewer’s own, a living object, long after the time and place of a painting’s origin had slipped from recognition. Reception could become a new point of creation.

This month, in a spot of gallery serendipity, the special properties of a host of other colorist painters are now on view and worthy of similar investigation.

Considering the output of his students’ work along with his own, perhaps no twentieth-century painter gave us more color than Hans Hofmann (1880–1966). Hofmann is now better remembered for his school and his famous students than for his own painting, but a small, well-executed show at Ameringer & Yohe seeks to right the imbalance.[1] At the heart of this exhibition, to which has been added more of Hofmann’s work from the period, is a set of paintings that first appeared in his 1948 retrospective, “Search for the Real,” at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover. In addition to a catalogue, Ameringer & Yohe has also made available a 1994 reprint of Hofmann’s monograph essays from the time. Here he begins:

Art is magic. So say the surrealists. But how is it magic? In its metaphysical development? Or does some final transformation culminate in a magic reality? In truth, the latter is impossible without the former. If creation is not magic, the outcome cannot be magic. To worship the product and ignore its developments leads to dilettantism and reaction. Art cannot result from sophisticated, frivolous, or superficial effects.

The avoidance of practicality never sounded so practical. In the mid- to late 1940s, however, with a nod to the surrealists, Hofmann failed to follow his own advice; he busied himself experimenting with automatic drawing. The automatic elements on display at the current show—doo-dads, gew-gaws, and dipsy-doodles drawn as though with a felt-tipped pen—serve little more than a decorative role. At times these “sophisticated, frivolous, or superficial effects” bind up Hofmann’s work and get in the way of his more fundamental interests in color, form, and the dynamics of “push-pull,” which he never abandoned. Pink Painting I (1945), an abstraction with fussy graffito, anticipates little beyond the hour of its own creation. Meanwhile Abstraction B (1946), with only the last vestiges of automatic activity and featuring a bright palette, appears ten years ahead of its time. If there is a uniting factor in the output, it is Hofmann’s knack for balance without resolution. Deliberately and at times by chance, the consummate teacher left his questions open for the next generation to answer—Hofmann understood the regenerative better than the generative properties of modern art. It took his students to take up where he left off.

One of Hofmann’s best students, as Hofmann knew, was the painter Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922–1993). De Niro, who shares a name with his movie-acting son, is now enjoying a large exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly galleries timed to the release of a lavish monograph.[2] Peter Frank in his catalogue essay writes that “De Niro was closest in spirit to Bonnard and Hélion, the former an impressionist painter après la lettre and the other a former geometric abstractionist who returned to figural painting despite the approbrium of his non-objective colleagues.” De Niro’s indebtedness to Bonnard comes through clearest in one of his early paintings. Venice at Night is a Negress in Love from 1943–1944 features a Bonnard bather in radioactive meltdown, the palette more intense and atonal than anything Bonnard could have imagined.

One of the joys of the Salander monograph is reading De Niro’s own thoughts on Bonnard reprinted from 1981: “the humble, modest, self-effacing painter of light, who had a discreet private life and a dedication to depicting the non-flamboyant, the quieter joys of life in France during the early part of this century.” De Niro concluded that, “His works are not about happiness. They are happiness”—from one colorist to another, a not unexpected sentiment.

If Bonnard’s compression of space and Hofmann’s sense of composition informed early De Niro, his choice of palette took on a life of its own. Clement Greenberg made note of this in 1946: “Where De Niro usually goes wrong is in his hot, violent color, which, although he had digested the favorable influence of Matisse, often overasserts itself and distorts the drawing.” By the mid-1960s and through the 1970s and 1980s, De Niro reached a signature style that was colorist and representational. He distinguished shape through wide, wavy brushstrokes of thick paint. Frank writes that De Niro “conflated the École de Paris (especially Fauve) palette with the gestural painting of his New York School peers.” Action painting was in the air. Yet De Niro’s success or failure hinged on how he interpreted his idea of gesture, and the results could vary painting by painting. In 1980 De Niro wrote against the idea of action painting, which he called “foreign to me, and, I believe, detrimental to painting, which is what Leonardo called it, ‘a mental thing.’” But like the automatic drawing that invaded Hofmann’s canvases a generation before, so gesture found its way into much of De Niro’s work. These gestural indulgences brought the artist forward and pushed the viewer back, diminishing De Niro’s potential for resonance. The large swizzles delimiting his Figure Group (1977–1982) speak to the nervous tic that affected more than one painter of the New York School. Compare this with a more successful, hands-off De Niro of similar composition, Four Nudes (1983). Subject matter, like the heavy hand of authorship, could also distract, and some of De Niro’s religious scenes from the 1980s ring false in displacing the usual bric-à-brac of the colorist’s world with iconography. The direct connection between a colorist’s art and the viewer’s eye has never been guaranteed—a fate that haunted De Niro’s more than once.

It is a good time to be thinking about color, because New York will be awash in color this season. Exhibitions of George McNeil and Paul Resika, both Hofmann students, are upcoming at Salander. And at Tibor de Nagy, Jane Freilicher, another Hofmann painter, and one enjoying her own monograph, is on display.[3] Freilicher, born in 1924, began studying with Hofmann in 1947. Her circle included De Niro, Virginia Admiral (De Niro’s ex-wife and another Hofmann favorite), Albert Kresch, Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, Paul Georges, Resika, Wolf Kahn, Richard Stankiewicz, and Robert Goodnough. Like many of her colleagues, including De Niro, Freilicher emerged from Hofmann’s abstractionist instruction to become a representational painter. She also learned to walk a fine line between the gesture of Abstract Expressionism and the coldness of New Realism. Bonnard was an early influence, especially after an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948. But if De Niro took the flatness of Bonnard and pressed it even flatter, Freilicher followed the lead of another Nabi, the more cerebral Edouard Vuillard, and stretched out her perspective depth. Paintings from her New York apartment and her Long Island home often employed Vuillard-like techniques of close objects set against distant landscapes—screens of flatness at wildly divergent distances. In Casement Window (1974), one of her most successful in this regard, the black squares of her windowframes form a background to a hanging plant while demarcating the city beyond. Amaryllis, poppies, peonies, and other plants and flowers pop up in front in many of her best scenes. Where these contrasts are missing, the picture plane becomes more transparent, the scenes more simply representational, and something is lost.

How appropriate then to return to Avery (1885–1965), a contemporary of Hofmann’s but a painter very much of his own school. For the past few months Knoedler has put on a tight exhibition dedicated to Avery’s seascapes—specifically to the violent sea, which of course recently has taken on a new dimension.[4] In the catalogue entry for this show, after a great deal of intellectual throat-clearing, Arthur C. Danto concludes with a statement that is right on: “The calm is not the sea’s but his. His paintings transfer that calm to us.” From Lone Fisherman (ca. 1941) to the near-abstract Onrushing Wave (1958), Avery’s style could change around remarkably in each image, even as the effects produced by his sense of color and form remained constant. But if it is true that the outcome cannot be magic without a magic in creation, then Avery put something more than just color and form into each of these paintings. That final addition must remain inscrutable.

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  1. “Hans Hofmann: Search for the Real” opened at Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, New York, on January 6 and remains on view through February 5. Go back to the text.
  2. “Robert De Niro, Sr.: Paintings” opened at Salander-O’Reilly, New York, on January 12 and remains on view through February 5. A monograph of the artist has been published by Salander-O’Reilly. Go back to the text.
  3. “Jane Freilicher: An Overview” opened at Tibor de Nagy, New York on January 13 and remains on view through February 12. A monograph on the artist has been published by Harry N. Abrams. Go back to the text.
  4. “Milton Avery: Onrushing Waves” was on view at Knoedler & Company, New York, from November 4, 2004 through January 29, 2005. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 6, on page 43
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