SALEM — Hans Hofmann, the German-American painter whose work paralleled — maybe even presaged — Abstract Expressionism, feels like the Zelig of the 20th-century avant-garde. Born in Germany in 1880, Hofmann landed in Paris in his 20s, smack in the middle of its simmering artistic revolution. From 1904 to 1914, he was a bystander to art history at its fever pitch, passing close enough to touch: He knew Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque when they hatched Cubism in 1907. He sketched alongside Henri Matisse at the legendary Grande Chaumière academy. Robert Delaunay, a pioneer of abstract painting, was a close friend. He even nursed espresso night after night at Café du Dome, a favorite hangout of Dadaist ringleader Marcel Duchamp. By the time Hofmann reached the United States in 1930, he was an oracle of European Modernism, able to give off a contact high. And so Hans Hofmannn, painter, deferred to Hans Hofmann, teacher, almost to the very last.
A new exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum takes that “almost” very seriously, nudging the bright, boisterous German out from behind the lectern for a star turn of his own. The museum also takes its title, “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,” a little too seriously, with twinkling lights and birdsong blanketing the exhibition’s entry, like a Disney princess aside.
It’s weirdly superfluous — just window dressing and a distraction from Hofmann’s “The Garden,” the lone canvas hanging in the opening space. All the sparkles and twittering make their point — Hofmann saw in the natural world something spiritual and unerring, an unwavering lodestar for his artistic ambitions — but they hardly steal his thunder. “The Garden,” with paint larded in thick layers of color, has the sense of freshly-excavated earth, yielding all of nature’s splendor in dense chunks. It’s so wildly alive it feels like it might shift with a breeze.
That was Hofmann: Stylistically promiscuous, connected to the natural world, and bursting with a joy for all of it. That might be why he doesn’t occupy a more prominent role in the mythos of American abstraction. Abstract Expressionism was rooted in postwar angst, a declaration that fresh atrocity and a world soaked in blood was more than mere depiction could possibly represent. Its players were a famously morbid lot: Jackson Pollock, whose alcoholism brought about his end at the wheel of an Oldsmobile convertible in 1956, or Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky, who both committed suicide, in 1970 and 1948 respectively.
Hofmann, on the other hand, entered the postwar period feeling very, very lucky. He had to abandon his Paris sojourn — which he loved, for its creative fire and limitless sense of possibility — while on holiday with his fiancee in 1914, his German citizenship barring him from France due to the outbreak of the first World War. Returning to Munich, a respiratory ailment kept him from being conscripted — lucky, then lucky again. Instead, he started a small art school, where he taught until 1930.
With the Nazis rising, teaching the fundamentals was safe. The Nazi party’s disdain for Modern art put budding Modernists like Hofmann on notice; their work was banned from public display, with the “Modern” label putting their teaching positions in peril. By 1930, when Hofmann started receiving invitations to teach from former students in America, he was eager to move on.
Hofmann arrived that very year at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught for two years before setting up art schools in his own name in New York and in Provincetown (grateful for his start there, he donated more than 50 of his paintings to U.C. Berkeley’s museum in 1963; this show was built largely from that collection). Hofmann’s timing was perfect: New York had built a reputation as a welcoming place for radical art thinking, and an influx of Europeans fleeing the carnage of war made it a cosmopolitan hive of forward-thinking idealism. Hanging out a shingle made him visible to a growing cohort of young artists and critics fomenting a Modern revolution, and he became part of the superstructure of burgeoning American artistic dominance.
Clement Greenberg, the critic whose near-fanatic endorsements of Abstract Expressionism helped make it the dominant strain of American art, attended Hofmann’s lectures in the 1930s. So did Gorky, whose work was one of the building blocks of the movement. Hofmann’s advice could go unheeded — when he counseled Pollock to look to nature for his work, the surly painter replied, gruffly, “I am nature.” Yet Hofmann’s influence was viral and omnipresent.
Hofmann’s teaching stood in the way of his own practice much of the time. It wasn’t that he didn’t produce work; but his time was split, and so was his attention. That might explain why “The Nature of Abstraction” presents such an eclectic assortment of work. Hofmann almost perpetually looks to be trying things on for size, rapt with gleeful experimentation. “The Garden” is built with thick daubs of oil paint, smeared with a palette knife brick-by-brick. Nearby works like “Landscape” (Landscape no. 100)” and "Landscape,” both from 1943, are fluid and loose, quivering with joyous brush strokes.
Look at the exhibition’s small watercolors like a pair of “Untitled” works and you’ll see the influence of Kandinsky and Miró. A 1936 “Still Life,” with its sharp angles and collapsed perspective, might put you in the mind of a much sunnier Picasso. Hofmann’s 1934 “Apples,” a gloomy piece filled with shadow, is a direct nod to Cézanne. In the early ’40s, around the same time he was painting landscapes, Hofmann also was making abstract works using the drip technique made famous by Pollock, and around the same time.
The show builds to a point of departure in 1958, when, after more than four decades, Hofmann stopped teaching and finally allowed himself to be an artist. He was in his late 70s, and it would be a short run: He died in 1966. But it was a fertile time. Hofmann loved color — bold, bright, sometimes discordant color. Unchained from his professorial duties, he cut loose.
“Summer Bliss,” from 1960, plants thick swipes of magenta and deep blue in a field of green anchored with bright orange blocks. It feels almost like a seascape, with its hovering mass of navy up high. “Sanctum Sanctorum,” from 1962 — loosely translated, the Latin title means “a holy place” — floats sharp blocks of color on a sea of fiery red.
There was no specific pursuit for Hofmann, or so it seems, except the pleasure of a quest without end. He went along every divergent path with passionate glee. “Agrigento,” from 1961, feels barely there, ochre stains on raw canvas that recall the works of a favorite student, Helen Frankenthaler. “Nocturnal Splendor,” from 1963, is the cheeriest nocturne you’ll ever see, a dark hazy mass of deep green and black all but cuddling a field of red.
Hofmann seemed to be making up for lost time, trying anything and everything at once. If it all led to any one thing, it has to be “The Castle.” Made in 1965, it’s a pale canvas vibrating with a collision of the things Hofmann held dear: sharp forms and soft haze, light touches and thick strokes, earthy green-browns mixing with pale yellow, deep orange, and aubergine.
It all tumbles downward from — or maybe it builds up to — an aerie, the place to which Hofmann had been climbing his entire life. And what a life it was. “If I had not been rescued by America,” he said in 1944, “I would have lost my chance as a painter.” When you go to see “The Nature of Abstraction” — and you should — take a moment to think about the gratitude and joy with which Hofmann paid us back.
HANS HOFMANN: THE NATURE OF ABSTRACTION
Through Jan. 5, 2020. At Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. 866-745-1876, www.pem.org