Hans Hofmann, the great abstract expressionist and teacher, was a master of tensions. He taught his students in New York and Provincetown about the "push and pull" of composition: The contrasts in color relationships, juxtapositions of forms, and the conflict between spatial illusion and flat surface. Hofmann was a great proponent of intuitive, automatic drawing, yet he would have students labor for weeks over a single still life.
"Hans Hofmann Early Drawings," now up at ACME Fine Art, demonstrates the vitality of his line. Executed with a matchstick dipped in ink, and sometimes made on the fly in his roadster, the drawings come across as breezy finger exercises. The more you look at them, though, the more you see.
A voluptuous leaf takes center stage in "Untitled Sunflower." The plant, with its sinewy stalk and lolling leaves, nearly bursts off the page, pushing into the extreme foreground, underscored by smoky shadows on either side. Yet it takes a moment to find the blossom: a spiky, awkward starburst atop a lean stem, seeming to float like a setting sun amid the far distant hills.
Hofmann simplifies forms in a way that makes them, strangely, at once idiosyncratic and archetypal. He dramatically telescopes space, jamming great distances into small frames. In "Untitled Landscape," for instance, the steering wheel of his roadster sits in the foreground, and Provincetown Harbor stretches out at a steep angle in the distance.
He drew the sunflower in 1943. Most of the works here were made in the 1930s, soon after Hofmann emigrated from Germany. He was in his 50s, so to call these drawings "early" seems a misnomer. But it was here that he made his name as a painter and teacher of abstract expressionism, an American wave that moved the focus of contemporary art from Paris to New York.
A small pendant exhibition, "Figure by Four," features drawings made by students in Hofmann's classes. Lillian Orlowsky's "Figure Drawing 01" shows the way he taught cubist figuration, blocking the body out in angles and volumes; this one pivots around vertical and diagonal axes. The teacher has mapped out an instruction in a box on the upper left; you can see its echo in Orlowsky's sharp angles, and in the small circle at one knee.
There are a couple of black and red gouaches here, but Hofmann's legendary strident colors are mostly missing. What we get instead, in his drawings and those of his students, is a relentless and lively investigation of structure, space, and form, pushed and pulled in ways that make them spring off the page.
Mira Cantor's glacial landscape paintings in "Meltwater" at Kingston Gallery are not huge, but they are expansive and generous. Cantor eloquently lets the paint's textures mimic the surfaces of water, ice, and mountain. Her cool, luminous colors feel charged with energy. Massive forms seem to quiver, as if on the verge of dissolution.
"Purple Majesty" sets a peak beneath a periwinkle sky. Along one side, it's shadowy lavender above icy blue-white. Slick white outlines the other side. But in between, the white thins to rivulets and drips, and the center vanishes into a gray abyss.
The paintings, with their monumental forms, verge toward abstraction. The title piece depicts a flat iceberg, mauve and tamped with pale, drippy orange, floating in a still, green-black sea. A thick frost of electric aqua green edges the berg beneath the water. That edge is no boundary. It's a threshold, through which light and form passes into blackness.
These are cautionary images about climate change. But they're extraordinary paintings, perilously active, filled with color, light, and texture, yet spare in composition. Marvel, and beware.
Grids and ribbons
In the two-person show "Time Pieces" at gallery@ArtBlock, a relatively new venue in the lobby of condos at 725 Harrison Ave., the art emphasizes accumulation.
Jesús Matheus fills his paintings with panes of color, and the hues of the many squares and rectangles along shifting grids accrue and harmonize. His monochromes, in which the colors murmur softly from one shade to the next, deserve special note. "Adan and Eva (after Dürer)," a diptych inspired by Dürer's portraits of Adam and Eve, is all yellow, from lemon to ocher. Like a large family in conversation, it's filled with similarities and distinctions, affinities and tensions.
Sculptor Danielle Sauvé's "Unfolding" comprises undulating ribbons of clay standing on edge along a low wooden bench. It casts dramatic shadows in the sun, as one piece curls and overlaps into the next. The curls tighten and loosen, giving the whole a feeling of expansion and contraction. It's a wave, of course, but made of earth and stilled atop wood.
Sauvé's "Workshop From Above" is a mockup of an installation with several such ribbons of ceramic. Here, they're stacked vertically; they look like piles of freshly washed towels, although some stretch up the wall. It's all in miniature. I'd like to see it fill a room. All that folding is laborious and humble, and a lot of it, at a large scale, might have the effect of a chiding chorus.
Mira Cantor: Meltwater
At: Kingston Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 29. 617-423-4113, www.kingstongallery.com
Jesús Matheus and Danielle Sauvé: Time Pieces
725 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 11. 617-338-7600, ext. 307, www.galleryatartblock.com
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.