Old Man River

Hans Hofmann resurgent at Berkeley Art Museum.

The abstract expressionist wild men of yore have become our old masters. SFMOMA has its Clyfford Stills, and BAM has its Hans Hofmanns: 47 works the artist donated in the mid-1960s in gratitude for the Bay Area’s early recognition of his art. He taught at UC Berkeley during the summers of 1931 and 1932 at the invitation of two former students, Worth Ryder and Glenn Wessels, and his first American public exhibition took place at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 1932, three years before he fled Hitler’s Germany.

Despite such critical esteem, Hofmann was known primarily as an influential teacher and conduit of “European master” modernism until late in life (he stopped teaching to focus on painting only at age 78!). His friends and colleagues from pre-1915 Paris included Kandinsky, the Delaunays, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Brancusi, Miro, and Matisse. His students (in Munich; New York; and Provincetown, Massachusetts) included Robert De Niro Sr., Burgoyne Diller, Marisol Escobar, Helen Frankenthaler, Clement Greenberg, Red Grooms, John Haley, Alfred Jensen, Allan Kaprow, Karl Kasten, Lee Krasner, Erle Loran, Joan Mitchell, Louise Nevelson, Wolfgang Paalen, Larry Rivers, Frank Stella, and Irvin Kershner (yes, the director of The Empire Strikes Back). Hofmann’s lyrical abstraction, based on the imaginative observation of nature (“bursting with life … swaying with sublime divinity”) inflected by “cray-ah-teef” painterly intuition, was influential in the Bay Area; Cal’s art department, led by Messrs. Haley, Kasten, Loran, and Wessel, was lauded by critic Harold Rosenberg in 1964 as “one of the strongest … in the country.” (San Francisco social-activist painters under Diego Rivera’s spell criticized the “Berkeley School” as academic. Formalists, in Berkeley?)

Despite his fame as a teacher (reverential students watched how he tied his shoes), Hofmann felt that art was fundamentally a matter of temperament, and thus unteachable: He wanted, while painting, despite himself, not to know what he was doing: “Painters must speak through paint, not words.” The current show of nine paintings from 1937 to 1960, entitled Nature into Action (after a Rosenberg essay), reflects the variety of motifs and styles (“I am many people”) — airy agglomerations of feathery strokes jostling with densely packed magma flows — that led to his signature late style, depicting vibrantly colored rectangles hovering parallel to the picture plane at various pushed and pulled optical depths, above and in front of abstracted landscapes — nature and culture in dynamic equipoise. Nature into Action runs February 3 through June 30 at Berkeley Art Museum (2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley). 510-642-0365 or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu

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