Sunday, May 31, 2009

George Hofmann at Martinez Gallery

George Hofmann, "Breaking Joy," 2008. Acrylic on linen, 67" x 48."

The Essential George Hofmann at Martinez Gallery in Troy, New York is a mini-retrospective of 50+ years of the artist's work. There are certainly some high water marks on display from his previous stages, but Hofmann is currently making what I consider to be the finest paintings of his long career. About a third of the paintings exhibited are from the past year, and many of the formal issues that the painter has been working out for quite literally decades are now being adressed with flair: color, gesture, space, and edge all coalesce with the kind of confidence that could lull the casual viewer into thinking it was easy. This is in an enviable position - so many artists who reach the point where a retrospective seems in order have long since past their peak. Hofmann, Like Mondrian, Monet, and Titian, is mining new pictorial ideas well into his mature period.

Hofmann is steeped in the grammar of two successive periods in painting centered in and around NYC. The Abstract Expressionists were older than him, and he venerated them while still quite young; he was particularly moved by their efforts to mine the sub-conscious and evoke the sublime through an intuitive, gestural handling of paint. Hofmann has always asserted emotion as the primary issue in his work, and this is largely modeled on the example set by the post-war New York School. The other influence that looms large is the color-field group that immediately followed Ab Ex. They were also a little older than Hofmann, but closer to his own generation, and Jules Olitski was a friend and mentor of sorts early in the younger artist's career. Olitski's spray-gun paintings, which created the experience of color as a kind of disembodied cloud, swelling in and in front of the picture plane made a strong impression on Hofmann as a developing painter.

In the formal sense, these two camps are in many ways at odds with one another. Color and gesture do not always work well together, and many of the Ab Ex painters, like Franz Kline, simply skipped it in favor of an achromatic palette - color, when mushed around too much, turns into pea soup in a hurry. Another big difference between the gesture painters and the color painters had to do with the center of the canvas; the former group tended to fill it up and the latter to leave it open. This marvelous openness achieved by the color group had an Achilles' Heel, though: what to do with the edge. Without some notation, the picture might look like an arbitrary sample of a much larger piece of something; but with too much framing, the openness could be choked off.

Balancing the above issues, some of which are quite contradictary, are at the heart of Hofmann's project, and the new works address them all. In Breaking Joy (2008, pictured above), the transparent grey-violet in the center of the picture partially obscures and serves to lash down a vibrant red, keeping it from visually detaching from the surface. The red, itself like a pool or cloud, appears to be in front of an impastoed green and white closer to the top. The spatial organization here is counter-intuitive; the natural expectation is that the materiality of the impasto would aggressively bring it to the surface. But the red is strong in hue despite it's thinned-out application - it presses the green and white, thicker in fact but weaker in hue, back into the shallow space.

More than half of the spectrum is present in the picture, from green to blue to violet to red-violet to red, but the reading is of one open, continuous veil with a small tear where the red meets the impasto green and white. The color feels expansive and spreading, but small flecks of raw canvas on the right and bottom, the small dots of violet on the top, and the loose "L" shape of the blue on the left and bottom left, make the picture fully anchored to it's shape and size, even as it feels like it is growing far beyond its edges. It is large in fact, but enormous in its perceived scale.

Hofmann has been practicing gestural abstraction single-mindedly for decades and the results are impressive. It would be easy to get stuck when working within such a time-honored idiom, but the painter's recent investigations and inventions, particularly as they relate to color, make the pictures feel fresh. The shows stays up until June 20, and I highly recommend it. Martinez Gallery is located at 3 Broadway in Troy, NY.