Connected \\ September 23, 2019

Inspiring abstraction

Herbert Matter, Hans Hofmann Painting in the Dunes, 1942

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

The apocalyptic traffic reports might scare you away. But that would be a mistake. Anyone who has traveled to the extreme tip of Cape Cod in the summer months can attest to the appeal of Provincetown. Just three miles long and two streets wide, the town is surrounded on three sides by ocean. It’s not every day you get to experience being at the edge of the earth.

Courtesy photo

Hans Hofmann: The Wind, 1942

Hans Hofmann: The Wind, 1942; oil, Duco, gouache, and India ink on board; 43 7/8 x 27 3/4 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.

Hans Hofmann first arrived in Provincetown in the summer of 1935 to set up an art school. He would return for the next 20 years, painting his bold, color-filled canvases and inspiring countless numbers of students with his exuberant and exacting methods of instruction. He advocated the use of nature as a starting point, and this magical spot with its windswept dunes and shimmering light offered plenty of source material.

to the studio sign

Photo by Kalyn Fay

Provincetown is an enormous part of who he was and the character of his work,” says Lucinda Barnes, curator of Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction and curator emerita at UC Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). “For those coming to Salem, I think there will be a good deal of shared experience between the visitor and the artist through this familiar landscape.



PEM’s new exhibition offers a fresh perspective on one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century, a man equally celebrated for his skills as a painter and a teacher. Hofmann played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism, an art movement that flourished after World War II. In fact, Hofmann was the first artist ever labeled an Abstract Expressionist in a review written by a critic for The New Yorker.

Hans Hofmann: In the Wake of the Hurricane, 1960

Hans Hofmann: In the Wake of the Hurricane, 1960; oil on canvas; 72 1/4 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 Jonathan Bloom.

The exhibition, organized by BAMPFA, which holds the world’s most extensive collection of Hofmann’s works, presents 45 paintings that deepen our understanding of his development as an artist and offer an unprecedented look at his studio practice, focusing on his experimental approach to painting.

Hofmann relentlessly worked with a concept he famously labeled “push and pull,” which involved exploring how contrasting colors and textures created the effect of movement. Color was everything to Hofmann. “Our entire being is nourished by it,” he once said. In a special experience exclusive to PEM, visitors can take a seat in a “color room,” a space with constantly changing hues, to consider how color affects their emotions.

What we are trying to do with this exhibition is show the arc of Hofmann’s career, the ways in which he was constantly evolving, experimenting, asking questions,” says Lydia Gordon, PEM’s Associate Curator for Exhibitions and Research and the exhibition’s coordinating curator. “We begin to see that he took everything he taught his students all those years and internalized it for himself. You will experience this crescendo by the end of the exhibition, revealing his creative spirit in full force.

Hans Hofmann: Indian Summer, 1959

Hans Hofmann: Indian Summer, 1959; oil on canvas; 60 1/8 x 72 1/4 in.; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; gift of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California, photography by Jonathan Bloom.

Raised in Munich, Hofmann showed early promise as a painter. From 1904 to 1914, he studied in Paris during a heyday of artistic experimentation, crossing paths with Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque. Then, in the summer of 1914, Hofmann and his future wife, Maria Wolfegg, were traveling outside France when World War I began. As German nationals, they were not allowed to return to Paris.

Back in Germany, Hofmann opened his first art school to support himself. “He never intended to go into teaching,” says Barnes. “I think teaching was a way for him to stay alive, truly. Also, because of the encroaching Nazism, avant-garde art was a dangerous practice in Germany. He had next to no hope as a practicing artist in Munich.”

It was one of his students in Germany, an artist by the name of Worth Ryder, who invited him to teach at the University of California, Berkeley campus. A few years later, Hofmann opened his own school in Greenwich Village followed by the summer workshops in Provincetown. His classes were popular. “Hofmann fostered individual creativity. It was less about what a painting looked like and more about this process of emergence,” says Gordon. “He was dedicated to his students and their own individual needs and that is reflected in the types of students he had. He didn’t just teach painters; he taught performance artists, major sculptors, famous filmmakers and furniture designers.”

Many of his pupils went on to become nationally distinguished artists, including Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Red Grooms, Wolfgang Paalen, Allan Kaprow, Lillian Kiesler, Robert De Niro Sr., Mercedes Matter and Wolf Kahn, among many others. His Provincetown studio manager was a founding faculty member at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly.

All these years later I don’t think his fame as a teacher has ever diminished. That’s one of the things that inspired me in terms of this show,” says Barnes. “You might talk to the general public and they might not be as familiar with Hofmann’s work, but ask an artist, a painter, they will tell you, ‘He is the most important teacher and influencer of our time.


In 1957, at the age of 77, Hofmann closed his schools permanently and turned to painting full time for the first time in more than 40 years. “He was quite prolific in his last decade; there were really no misses,” says Barnes. “It’s only in the last decade of his life that he is achieving his dream, if you will, of being the painter he started out to be. It’s an inspiring story.”

Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction runs through January 5, 2020.

A new PEM is launching this September — a new wing, new installations and a whole new museum experience. PEM Members get to see it all first. Join or renew on our Membership page to ensure you don't miss out! Follow along and share in the excitement using #newPEM.

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