Saturday, May 10, 2008

Paintings I Like, pt. 18

Hans Hofmann, Sanctum Sanctorum, 1962. Oil on canvas, 84" x 78."

For a number of years, I've felt that Hans Hofmann was unfairly relegated to the second team of Abstract Expressionists, behind DeKooning, Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Kline. The fact that many of the leading and less-than-leading lights of the Ab Ex era studied with Hofmann is some indication of the regard in which those painters held him, but this fact aside, some of his paintings are, with the passage of time, looking better and better.

Sanctum Sanctorum, included in the small but nice Action/Abstraction show at the Jewish Museum, is an example of Hofmann's "push/pull" theory of pictorial space at its very best. The earthy oranges and reds of the ground and the bright, impastoed rectangles could easily lapse into a rudimentary figure/background relationship; "apocalyptic wallpaper," as Harold Rosenberg would call it. But at the top of the picture, a semi-transparent orange-brown stroke embeds the uppermost blue figure into the painterly ground, and because their similarity in shape and scale, integrates all of the other rectangles into the ground. A simple but brilliant device.

Besides its formal excellence, the painting has a surprising newness about it. Ab Ex paintings, even the best of them, often look old, like historical paintings. This is not a dig, paintings by Titian and Velazquez look kind of old, too, and this doesn't diminish their greatness. But when I came upon the Hofmann at the show, it looked like a new picture, painted this year, and had the visual urgency of a new idea as well.