The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., is one of the world’s most notable modern art destinations: a Smithsonian Institution component that promotes its “groundbreaking exhibitions” and “important collection of twentieth-century art.” That art includes the work of Hans Hofmann, the acclaimed German-American abstract painter, but on a recent SF Weekly visit to the Hirshhorn, the number of art-goers who stood before its Hofmann painting titled Oceanic — a colorful, mysterious, and almost mystical work — was exactly zero. Even waiting a few minutes and circling back produced the same number of art-goers: zero.
One reason there were so few Hofmann devotees that afternoon was that, in a nearby space, the Hirshhorn was exhibiting the stunning, 13-part film Manifesto, which stars Cate Blanchett as 13 different people who channel an art manifesto of the recent or not-so-recent past. A seemingly static Hofmann painting can’t compete with a multi-screened film that has Blanchett portray such figures as a screaming homeless man who has this to say about Situationism: “The present crisis has stripped capitalism naked. It stands more revealed than ever as a system of robbery and fraud, unemployment and terror, starvation and war.” Dozens and dozens of people stood at rapt attention inside the darkened gallery where Manifesto was on cascading screens — which was too bad for Hofmann.
Seeing his paintings in isolation, as it were — with just a single work — is no way to experience an artist who helped change the scope of abstract painting. Hofmann, who died in 1966, needs the Cate Blanchett treatment: Multiple ways to take in his breadth of work. Which is why BAMPFA’s retrospective, “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,” is so rewarding. We see more than 60 pieces, including some never before shown in a museum, that crystalize Hofmann’s ability to saturate canvases with colors, shapes, and moods.
Like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, who were Hofmann’s contemporaries, Hofmann made abstract paintings that were a kind of performance art. Yes, they were canvasses that didn’t literally move, but their forms and formations were — and still are — portals in motion. A piece like Oceanic at the Hirshhorn or Nocturnal Splendor at BAMPFA takes your eyes all over the canvas, into areas of the painting that dip down, flatten, retreat, or overlap into other segments of the work. It’s a mélange of movement — a movement of your eyes, and a movement of your brain as it tries to interpret the depths of the paintings.
And at BAMPFA, there’s the movement of your feet as you traverse the different rooms that comprise the first-floor exhibition. So many art-goers who see Rothkos in multiplicity — which you can do at London’s Tate Modern or Houston’s Rothko Chapel — talk about the visceral, almost religious feeling they get from hanging out with the artist’s canvases. Hofmann’s works have that same capacity. But where Rothko frequently muted his colors or relied on just a few shades for each piece, Hofmann goes full throttle, as with Auxerre [Auxerre, France], a 1960 canvas of jutting squares and rectangles that Hofmann filled with variant after variant of yellow, red, green, and blue.
Yellow is the dominant color of Auxerre [Auxerre, France], suggesting planes of splayed sunlight. In fact, Hofmann was reportedly inspired by the light that emanates from the stained glass of Auxerre’s medieval cathedral. So there is a religious element to Auxerre [Auxerre, France], but art-goers don’t need to know that. Nor do they need to know that a private collector bought Auxerre [Auxerre, France] for $6.32 million in 2015. All they need to know is that — until July 21 — Auxerre [Auxerre, France] is in a room at BAMPFA that, appropriately enough, is airy and well-lit. And that Hofmann himself would have wanted it that way: For Auxerre [Auxerre, France] to be on public display for anyone to visit, in a museum that Hofmann helped establish.
In 1963, after turning 80, Hofmann gave UC Berkeley 47 paintings and pledged $250,000 toward its University Art Museum, which would open in 1970 on Bancroft Way. (After morphing into BAMPFA, it remained for decades until seismic issues forced the institution to move to its current location, where it reopened in 2016.) The groundbreaking donation — giving Berkeley a Hofmann collection unparalleled in the world — was Hofmann’s way of honoring the university for bringing him from Germany to teach there in 1930, at a time when Hitler’s Nazi Party was rising to power in his native country. Hofmann also taught at UC Berkeley in 1931, initially brought to California by Worth Ryder, chair of the school’s Department of Art, who had studied at Hofmann’s acclaimed Munich school in the 1920s. Hofmann was as well known for his teaching as his art-making, and when the New York Times published Hofmann’s obituary on its Feb. 18, 1966 front page (which was dominated by news of the Vietnam War), the paper headlined Hofmann as both a “painter” and a “teacher.”
Ryder and other students described Hofmann as the art professor of their lives, and Hofmann’s indelible philosophies about art are embedded in his paintings and, thankfully, in words that Hofmann penned for a 1948 book that, in 1967, was translated and published as “Search for the Real, and Other Essays.” The writing is as dynamic as Hofmann’s paintings, and one of his brilliant passages explains how two single lines on a page create tension between those lines, and tension between the unity of those lines and the paper’s outline — which ultimately creates “movement and counter movement … the lines may now give the idea of being two shooting stars which move with speed through the universe. Your empty paper has been transformed by the simplest graphic means to a universe in action. This is real magic.” And it’s magic that, Hofmann says, can contain “visual and spiritual movements.”
That’s what’s evident in Oceanic at the Hirshhorn and in virtually every work in “Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction.” That’s why it was so surreal to see art-goers at the Hirshhorn rushing to see a film about art when they could have stopped and seen a work that said everything about art, and movement, and the ways that abstraction can produce both a clarity of ideas and a freeing of them.
This simultaneous “clarity” and “freeing” is also evident in two exhibits at the Luggage Store gallery. “Amy Trachtenberg: Covered in Sky” and “Eva Mitala: Float” take art-goers into an otherworldly realm where practical, discarded objects are repurposed into shadowy, layered abstract works of silkscreens on paper (Mitala) and repurposed into colorful alchemies of stitched textiles, painted surfaces, odd papers, bicycle parts, and other materials (Trachtenberg). Trachtenberg incorporates studio drop cloths and other personal items into her art pieces, but they don’t advertise their origins on initial viewing. Like Mitala — and Hofmann, for that matter — she makes connections that visitors can discern at their own pace. The Luggage Store exhibitions give visitors a wide collection of each artist’s work. Patterns of abstraction fill the gallery’s two spaces, but no definitive pattern emerges as you move from one arresting piece to the other.
“Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction,” through July 21 at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. $11-$13, 510-642-0808 or bampfa.org.
“Amy Trachtenberg: Covered in Sky” and “Eva Mitala: Float,” through July 13 at the Luggage Store Gallery, 1007 Market St. Free; 415-255-5971 or luggagestoregallery.org.