MASTER/REVOLUTIONARY: Hofmann in Provincetown 

A Summer Exhibit Celebrates a Renowned Teacher and Painter

      “If I had not been rescued by America, I would have lost my chance as a painter.”
                                        —Hans Hofmann

Originally published in ArtsAroundBoston, Summer 2000

In July and August, Provincetown brings to a close its celebration of 100 years as an art colony with a major exhibition of the work of Hans Hofmann, masterful teacher and revolutionary painter. The exhibition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, curated by Hofmann's friend and former student Lillian Orlowsky, will include seldom seen works from the Hofmann estate. There will be a concurrent exhibit of the works of artists who were Hofmann's Provincetown students and a group of Hofmann’s Provincetown drawings at the Berta Walker Gallery.

From his earliest days in Munich, to his schools in New York and Provincetown, Hofmann was an enormously popular teacher. His pupils of note include Louise Nevelson and Richard Stankiewicz, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Larry Rivers, Vaclav Vytlacil, George McNeil, Robert Henry, Selina Trieff, Paul Resika, Myron Stout, Peter Busa, Fritz Bultman, William Freed, Wolf Kahn, Robert De Niro, Red Grooms, Lillian Orlowsky, Emily Farnham, Tony Vevers, Robert Beauchamp, Haynes Ownby, Marisol, John Grillo, and Brenda Horowitz.

By 1930, when Hans Hofmann arrived in America, he was already 50 years old and internationally famous as an exceptional teacher. He had founded the Hans Hofmann School for Modern Art in Munich in 1915 after a decade in Paris, where he was acquainted with many of the leaders of the modern art movements. There, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism and German Expressionism fermented. It was there, at the epicenter of the seismic shifts taking place in art, that he developed the theories that would travel with him to America and powerfully influence the history of American painting.

The Munich school was so successful that at the end of the war, by1918, students were traveling from all over Europe and from America to study with Hofmann. One of those students became Chairman of the art department at Berkeley and invited Hofmann to teach there during the summer of 1930 and again in 1931. Hofmann welcomed the opportunity to escape, even if briefly, the oppressive atmosphere of the growing political turmoil in Germany. In later years, he often expressed his deep, lifelong gratitude to the University of California for offering this refuge, saying "If I had not been rescued by America, I would have lost my chance as a painter."

In the fall of 1932 Hofmann was invited to join the faculty at the Art Students League. He left his wife, Maria (Miz) Wolfegg, in Munich to run the art school, and moved to New York. Students were eager to study with him. According to Cynthia Goodman, in her catalogue raisonné, "his modernism was a welcome relief from the dreary Regionalism being offered by other teachers at the league, such as Thomas Hart Benton." Goodman quotes Vaclav Vytlacil, speaking of Hofmann's teaching, saying he had an impressive ability to explain the complexities of post-Cezanne development so that "those who were innocent could be made to understand."

Hofmann left the Art Students League in 1933, in the midst of the Depression, to found his own school. Many of his students were artists working for the WPA in New York. The school's statue grew as Hofmann began to show his own work in 1944 and the GI Bill brought an influx of new students.

After two summers at the school of his former Munich student Ernest Thurn, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, Hofmann opened his own summer school in Provincetown in 1935, first located in the old Hawthorne house overlooking the Bay. Many of Hofmann's New York students followed him to Provincetown, and others came from across the country bringing a renewed youthful energy to the colony.

With his forceful presence and personality, Hofmann became the central figure of the Provincetown art community. It is said that students followed him everywhere, listening to his every word. As one townie tells it, "his students paved the way for him." There were even suggestions of a "student cult." Haynes Ownby explains the attachment in saying, "he truly loved his students. He saw in us comrades embarking on a great mission." On Fridays, the studio overflowed with artists and others from all over the Cape who came to observe his dynamic critiques. In her 1980 ARTnews article, Gwen Kinkead quotes Robert Motherwell as saying, "Hofmann was very much what young artists wanted in a father figure. He was vital, optimistic, filled with the conviction that creation is the joy of life."

In 1939, his wife Miz joined him in the US and they moved seasonally between New York and Provincetown. Still intensely private, Hofmann rarely let anyone but Miz into his private studio at Days Lumberyard, now the Fine Arts Work Center, where he is said to have painted in the nude. He continued his strenuous year-round teaching schedule, although he was concerned that the demands of teaching drained his own creative energy.

It was always a balancing act for him, between teaching and creativity, and for many years, his legendary success as a teacher over-shadowed his reputation as a painter. He was reluctant to exhibit. In fact, so few had seen his work that some New York critics questioned whether he could paint. He said that he feared his students might not develop independently if they saw his work. Not until 1944, when he was 68, did he have his first solo exhibition at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery.

As soon as he began exhibiting, Hofmann's work attracted widespread interest, although not consistent critical acclaim. He kept changing and evolving; his stylistic diversity (Hofmann said, "If I ever find a style, I'll stop painting.") put off many art critics, and it took a long time to gain their support. As late as 1958, Hofmann was omitted from the crucial "New American Painting" traveling show mounted by MOMA. After 1958, when he was approaching 80, Hofmann broke through to a style that won unqualified praise. In 1963, MOMA mounted a retrospective exhibiting many important works for the first time.

After teaching more than forty years, Hofmann closed both his schools in 1958, and devoted himself full time to his painting. The paintings he created in the last years of his life are exuberant exaltations in color and form. Those attending the exhibition will again be captivated by the brilliance, vigor and sheer beauty of the work of this extraordinary man who was the primary force in the development of Abstract Expressionism and whose influence continues as a vital presence in the studios, galleries, and museums of Provincetown and beyond.

© 2005 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved


©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved