Wednesday, March 10, 2010

George Hofmann on Ken Noland

George Hofmann, Chinese Landscape, 2009. Acrylic on linen, 68" x 85."

George Hofmann is a fine painter who came of age as Abstract Expressionism was waning and Color Field was on the rise - he personally knew many of the key players, including Jules Olitski and Clement Greenberg. He's remained steadfastly devoted to painting during the waves of painting-is-dead sentiment that have risen periodically over the last four decades, and maintains that emotion is the prime mover in all great art. He was my professor in the MFA program at Hunter College and I have an immense amount of respect for him. I recently received the following comments from him via e-mail, and I thought they were worth broadcasting:

I have been thinking about your Noland comments and the Artforum obit you mentioned, and talking to Mike Williams, who worked for him for a long time. Noland loved jazz, and Mike says he particularly was close, personally too, to Steve Lacey. He cites a tune called "Worms."

I think Noland was as close to the jazz musicians as anybody could have been. That that was his essence and that was how he was different from everybody else. He was cool, but it denoted, as it did in the musicians, a kind of torture of distillation, I guess what is called a crucible. He had that basic truth in his work; he aimed for it, and somehow, a lot of the time, he achieved the state in which he could produce it. I don't know if that meant that he drank, or took dope, or was cruel and indifferent to human life; but whatever it entailed, he got it, and a lot of the time too. Noland was not an Ab Ex killer like the Pop guys; he deepened it.

Rich Garrison directed me to the Olitski website - it does look awful - but it shows what went wrong with him too. In the end, what is wrong with Poons is what went wrong with Jules: all this repetitive, empty motion; unfelt. A good rule, in terms of gestural work, would be to look for what is slow, painful and impossible. I still believe, of course, that Abstract Expressionism was aborted - it was savaged by the back-street aborters with a broken Coke bottle - but of course, the artists themselves were careless; literally care-less, and they did themselves in too. All that false "action" (that's why Rosenberg got it so wrong, in a way: the action wasn't true) was just the "action" of avoidance. Like people running off at the mouth; like Poons, babbling.

Real feeling comes out slowly, painfully perhaps; purified by terror and abandoning all that seems to matter. We've seen very little real gesture yet, and of course, the color of it will matter greatly: the nuance, the exactitude (like the exactitude of Noland, the exactitude of a Degas or of Morandi, or of any of the great color painters). It will show Hans Hofmann to be closer to what Should Be, but it will also show him to be closer to the generation of Franz Marc and the German Expressionists; welded to Cubism, vehement, forceful, searching, driven, lost.

There are a lot of great painters out there, and a lot of them are women: Joanna Pousette-Dart, Emily Mason (and certainly her mother), Gabriele Evertz. If I am very lucky, I will be able to end up with one or two lasting canvases - enough for me! Just think, if you could leave one picture that lasts!