Connected \\ November 26, 2019

Frank and Hans

After about 10 minutes of walking through our about-to-open-to-the-public exhibition Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction, PEM’s new director Brian Kennedy, turned to me and said, “We’ve got to get Frank to see this.”

Of course, I knew he was referring to none other than the prolific abstract artist Frank Stella. With a resounding “Yes!” I knew my chances of experiencing Hofmann’s paintings through the eyes of one of my artist heroes was not just a possibility, but a dream that would undoubtedly become a reality. Within three months, plans were in place to welcome Stella to tour the exhibition and reflect on Hofmann's lasting legacy and impact on painting.


Hans Hofmann: Goliath, 1960; oil on canvas; 84 1/8 x 60 in.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California, photography by Ben Blackwell.

While a student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Stella first encountered Hofmann's innovative practice. Hofmann’s lifelong goal to translate the visual and spiritual essence of nature has made it possible to build an entire career by thinking abstractly and exploring imaginatively. Hofmann’s consistent experimentation with paint is evident in the exhibition and had a profound influence on Stella’s own need for innovation of abstraction. “To think we are just at the beginning of abstraction is quite the concept,” Stella said, looking around our galleries at Hofmann’s paintings.

At the beginning of Stella’s career, Hofmann passed away. As a second generation student of Hofmann, Stella walked through the exhibition remarking just how wrong Hofmann’s techniques would have been viewed at the time.

All of the transitions are broken,” Stella observed while looking at Ora Pro Nobis, a large canvas from the 1960s that exemplifies Hofmann’s “push and pull” principle. In this painting, Hofmann centered a yellow rectangle against a gestural background of darker paint and a more loosely formed blue rectangle. “You would never just leave this mud here,” Stella said, referring to the darker reds and yellows. “This wasn’t possible anywhere else.

In 2010, when Brian Kennedy was Director of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, he organized an exhibition of Stella’s Irregular Polygons, a painting series of large shapes from 1965-66. The accompanying publication authored by Kennedy documents the 44 paintings that originally conceived the series. In the Irregular Polygons, varying numbers of shapes are combined to create daringly irregular outlines with varying color combinations. The series stands out with large fields of color on asymmetric canvases. Stella did not only play with the illusion of space and volume through color and shape, but also titled each composition after small towns in New Hampshire where he went with his father during family trips. Kennedy then took the exhibition to the Toledo Museum of Art when he assumed the directorship.


Brian Kennedy's 2010 book on Stella's Irregular Polygons.


PEM Director Brian Kennedy and Frank Stella. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.

Both of these well known leaders in the art world — this museum director and world-renowned artist — have immersed themselves into lifelong explorations of visual thinking in terms of space and volume through the language of abstraction. It is the straightforwardness of painting that continues to occupy Stella, who has also worked in three-dimensional sculpture. In fact, he considers great painting three-dimensional, as he noted while looking at Exaltment--a painting of Hofmann’s he knows well as it hung in the living room of his art teacher’s home at Phillips Academy. Looking at the canvas almost 70 years later, Stella remarked how the painting felt huge to him as a boy, emphasizing Hofmann’s ability to create such direct force through his manipulation of paint in color and shapes.


Hans Hofmann, The Garden, 1956. Oil on plywood. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Gift of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California. Courtesy of Renate, Hans and Maria Hofmann Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Of the first painting in the exhibition’s entry experience, The Garden, Stella remarked how this was a work of reverse impressionism: noting that the color isn’t coherent, the figuration not easy to digest, but rather it’s about constant change. The Garden is exemplary of Hofmann’s love of primary colors but also his love of the medium. In almost a pointillism manner, he lays down layer upon layer of thick impasto, leaving one to imagine the type of physical dance the artist performed while working, which left Stella wondering what the physical act of painting meant to Hofmann.


Herbert Matter, Hans Hofmann Painting in the Dunes, 1942. © Herbert Matter Estate. Photograph courtesy of Staley-Wise Gallery, New York.

The late paintings captivated Stella, who spent a lot of time looking at the rectangles in Sanctum Santorum. “It’s hard to know when he put the rectangles in,” the artist marveled as he inspected the surface. For Stella, Hofmann made painting mysterious. Where did he start? “No one was better at giving you the possibility than Hofmann,” Stella says of Hofmann’s teaching.


Frank Stella, Dr. Harriet McGurk and Curator Lydia Gordon. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing

As a young and rising curator, I’m struck by Stella’s concept that we are just at the beginning. For Hofmann too, it was the last 10 years of his life that he was the most productive, painting the largest most prolific colorful canvases. We are constantly evolving as creative individuals, and if Frank Stella, who has already had a long and prolific career, is just at the beginning, there’s no other place I’d rather be.


Curator Lydia Gordon speaking with students in front of the painting The Garden and listening as their professor reads a quote of his on the wall: "Nature speaks to us in space, color and light."

Toward the end of the tour, I asked Stella if he could ask Hofmann one question, what it would be. Stella smartly responded, “I’d ask him where he bought his paint.”


Brian Kennedy, Dr. Harriet McGurk, Frank Stella, Lydia Gordon in front of Magnum Opus. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.


The author, curator Lydia Gordon, and Frank Stella. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.

Now in his 80s, Stella is receiving local praise in his hometown. A massive mural reproduction of his 1970 painting "Damascus Gate (Stretch Variation I)" was recently installed along Seaport Boulevard in Boston. See this story in The Boston Globe for more.

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