Hofmann's Rectangles (1969)
Artforum, Vol. 7 (Summer, 1969).
Hans Hofmann was the only Abstract Expressionist to use color as a free, fully relational pictorial element, full blast, undimmed by the usual dull requirements of Cubist space. This essay is not about that splendid color, nor about the very high quality of his art, which I leave aside as a prior assumption. It is about a purely spatial device which Hofmann contrived to let color in on a reluctant style: the superimposed "floating" rectangle which figured in so many of the paintings of the last ten years of his life.
Hofmann was a Cubist-Abstract-Expressionist. His chosen style was large-scale small-piece allover expressive Cubism, for which I have in previous essays substituted the initial word LASPAC, to apply to the work of Pollock or to de Kooning between about 1945 to 1955. Hofmann is not as "pure" a LASPAC painter as Pollock; his picture size is usually smaller and the piece-size proportionately larger, and he used figure-ground a lot. But the term serves well enough to describe his style.
Color does not bloom easily on the arid Cubist surface. Cubism, as it developed, suppressed hue difference and put value difference in the service of space. It apportioned an entire two-dimensional surface in terms of space; the attack was visually continuous all over that surface and visually realized by dividing the surface into pieces of different value. Strong hue difference would have impeded Cubist working-out for the following reasons:
1. Color areas must occupy the same surface as the spatially-varied Cubist piece; they would specify their own different surfaces which the Cubist piece would be forced to recognize and relate to. It would be like playing baseball on a football field.
2. Strong hue difference would not help the construction of the Cubist picture because hue difference does not easily contribute to the effect of relief.
3. Strong hue difference would present a mechanical difficulty which would lead away from the Cubist method, Each color area would have to be shaded in terms of its particular hue. This would force working the painting hue area by hue area, because, for example, a blackish green will not shade off a bright red. A picture would develop in terms of hue difference, and it would try to go flat, because color is above all a characteristic of surface and wants to spread, or it would divide in terms of hue. Either result would destroy the uniform Cubist surface. This is why highly colored abstract painting, which lacks the naturally-occurring depth illusion of realist painting, tends to go flat, and locks up across the surface, and must often be "pried apart" to effectively relate the various parts of the picture.
After Picasso and Braque cut subject matter into regular pieces, the pieces themselves became the backbone of the Cubist picture. This could be called applied Cubism; the characteristic form is collage. Strong hue came into this system to identify and differentiate the flat planes on the various levels of shallow depth. The surface of the applied Cubist painting or collage allowed strong hue difference because the surface itself was no longer broken into by the glyptic hatching of a subject represented in an illusion of interior space in depth. Instead the surface became a flat support for thin planes in shallow depth, each of which is an unbroken surface and thus could admit bright color on that surface. Because there were many surfaces on the applied Cubist painting the paramount problem of that style and the abstract art born from it was to devise a means to relate pieces which otherwise tend to become isolated on the two-dimensional picture plane. This can be done with the over-and-under available in the paper-thin space of the original applied Cubism but over-and-under breaks down if the picture becomes too complex or if the piece becomes irregular. An overtly complex picture necessarily contains pieces which are small in relation to the size of the picture. It is obviously difficult to relate any two widely separated small pieces on an opaque two-dimensional surface. This relational difficulty is compounded when the individual pieces become formally unique, irregular, calligraphic or eccentric, because they then lose forms-in-common such as those shared by the geometric Cubist pieces. Pollock beat both problems by rendering his Cubist space transparent so that the lines, which were the "edges" of his planes, could be seen continuously at any depth, and by handling his paint so that when it reached the canvas the shapes assumed were stylistically identical in very different configurations. He couldn't do much with color because to be effective on a two-dimensional surface color must stretch out, which creates opaque planes.
None of the other LASPAC painters, except Hofmann, really took bright-color opaque-plane LASPAC in hand and made great art of it. De Kooning tried and failed, 'from about 1945 to 1955, as I noted in an article in the April, 1969, Artforum; he then went on to large-piece Cubism (the easy way out) and finally has fallen back on a sensual-paint figure-ground style with which he is comfortable. No one succeeded at it except Hofmann, and he took his time getting to it. Among the amazing pictures of the last twenty years of his life are paintings which are the full flower of Cubism, works of supreme quality which bear bright fruit from the sturdy grey roots of the Cubist style.
Hofmann identified paint with bright color. He wanted bright color on his paintings, but he also wanted to use the relatively large-scale expressive Cubist style which he understood to be the high art style of his time. It may be fairly said that he started off with a double liability. But Hofmann was not one to take it easy. His experience, force of will, and wily awareness of the terms of his medium took on all the problems and turned them to his advantage; his full, high-pressure visual imagination scattered and squandered one brilliant "solution" after another - witness the pre-Pollock open paintings and the pre-Still non-Cubist edging of color areas of high value contrast, painted in the early '40s. Then, having anticipated them, Hofmann was content to turn around and ape their later mannerisms, and the wonder of it all is that none of it seemed to affect the quality of his paintings. But no "style", as such, really held him until the rectangles came along.
The rectangles started poking through the Cubist space of Hofmann's paintings around 1954, but gained no solid purchase until 1957 and 1958. Even then, and indeed until the end, because of his penchant for wild careening among methods, there's not always a rectangle to be found. But they infected his late paintings - when physically absent they left the imprint of their authority.
Radiant Space, 1955, shows us the nascent rectangles of the later paintings not yet fully formed and free. It also shows the effects of the problem of opaque-plane LASPAC painting: impaired relationships because of mutual isolation of pieces. But Hofmann almost miraculously maintained the picture.
1. He struck a delicate and particular balance between the size of the picture and the size of the piece, actually a balance between complexity and isolation. Hofmann always kept this balance; whenever he used a disproportionately small or large piece he made up for it in other ways. The "typical" Hofmann piece takes up about five to ten percent of the picture area - big enough to assert itself, small enough to allow other elements of similar size on the picture. Hofmann usually kept away from the huge canvas because a very large painting would demand a very large piece, if he maintained his proportions. The large piece, and the disposition of these large pieces, would get out of hand, away from the quick shaping by hand and eye which is the muscle of Hofmann's method, just as Cubism is the skeleton. A very large piece usually must be shaped by plan instead of stroke. It will stiffen and harden and ultimately dictate different terms of structure. (Guernica is the classic example of the overextension of the Cubist piece; the "veil" paintings of Morris Louis may be good examples of a proper use of the very large single piece-the natural curve of flowing liquid takes the place of mind-to-hand brush-work.)
2. There's a bit of figure-ground which draws the very squarish composition toward the center, helped out by the bits of drawn "detail" in the center of the painting and the broad use of yellow background against which the pieces can play a modified figural part.
3. The rectangles line up with and to some extent duplicate the proportions of the edge of the painting. A solid piece of color laid down on a two-dimensional surface for relational purposes must come to terms with the edge because the edge is the strongest element of design of that surface. A piece that lines up with and reflects the borders of the canvas may lose energy and expressiveness but it makes up for it by the compositional "rightness" and solidity incurred because the lining-up design seeks no excuse for being the way it is, and, for Hofmann, because it lets color in easily. A piece that is off-kilter, or manifestly complex in itself, or which otherwise departs from the reflecting~of~the~edge setup is obliged to demonstrate just what has been gained by the varying. Hofmann saw quite clearly that color was likely to suffer if his space was varied too much. Spatial variation tends to push color out, as I explained previously.
4. The pieces all have "breathing space" around them in the form of bare canvas or light-value paint. This is a very important compensation for the isolation of the colored areas:
A) It declares the existence of a fundamental undifferentiated ground. The visual effect of the exposed canvas background is an insistence that all other elements are somewhere in front of it. Because the "where" is not declared, as it would be if the two-dimensional surface were locked up all across, each piece is free to take its place in depth wherever that place seems to be visually, which is determined by its appearance relative to its neighbors. So the planes shake loose and "reach" each other across an induced illusion of a void rather than through the infinitely more resistant unbroken single sheet of surface.
B) The open space allows each piece to complete its own identity by keeping the natural edge visible. Few edges are pinned down and cut off. It seems at first that the stronger and more individualistic piece will be hard to relate and will tend to be isolated. This is true in general, as I have said above. But here the pieces are very much alike in character; the strength given by the free edge is not that of individuality but of completeness. The pieces are like fingerprints: each is evidently unique but each looks like the other. The completeness and freedom of the piece gives it visual authority to act for itself, to reach across to another, and the similarity of form puts every other piece in the same family and the same situation. Here again Hofmann has struck a clever balance between freedom and individuality and the need to "get along" in a group.
Though Hofmann may seem to switch style from picture to picture his treatment of any particular picture is marked by the careful and moderate balancing of all the forces we see in Radiant Space. Hofmann was eminently consistent in this respect, and it's the picture that is obliged to be consistent, not the artist. There's a spirit about Hofmann's paintings that is big, open, positive and very "human," if I may use a creaky bromide. What I have said here about one of Hofmann's paintings casts an imperfect image of this spirit, like one of Plato's shadows. Besides the balance and caution described above it has a great force and "lift" which carries everything with the strength of inspiration. It comes across most clearly to me in the way Hofmann's paintings figuratively "come off" the canvas. The concentration of most painters goes from the brain, hits the canvas and spreads, solving things laterally, so to speak. But Hofmann seems to use the canvas as a trampoline, to bounce the painting right back at the viewer. His paintings are always fresh, eager, willing to meet us halfway. It is a positive art. I think this spiritual impetus became tangible as the rectangles lifted off the rather ambiguous side-by-side space of Radiant Space to float in front of the picture plane in pictures such as the others illustrated here. This is Hofmann's brilliant "final" solution to the problems of high-color LASPAC.
1. The illusion of another plane is evident and straightforward. The clarity of this illusion of a specific void, which is rather foggy in Radiant Space, enhances the relatability of the various picture elements. The illusion of behind-before is very strong and definite and permits a background color to "go beneath" a rectangle, extending its apparent size and allowing it an importance visually which it cannot have actually. Furthermore, the whole arena of activity is pulled together and rendered more intimate by the box-like illusion of space in depth.
2. The rectangles permit thorough working-out, which is a decided convenience for opaque-plane painting in color. This was not allowed for Radiant Space because the background had to show in certain places and because the edges of the rectangles had to be free and visible; working-out means shifting on the surface, and that means covering background and cutting one piece over another. De Kooning's Excavation, for example, is a great battleground of openness versus working-out in the LASPAC style. He stayed with working-out and lost. But the floating rectangles created a new kind of open space that could be maintained through any working-out by turning the rest of the picture into background. Unlike the partly actual open space of Radiant Space, that of the floating rectangle paintings is all illusion because it is all frontal. The "distance" we see between one plane and another is either all transparent or completely hidden beneath a painted rectangle, and is just as easily induced on a thickly, thoroughly painted canvas as on a half-empty one. The pieces of the background can be scraped off and repainted indefinitely; the rectangles are so geometrically specific that they can be cut down, built up, moved over or eliminated at the artist's whim.
3. The body or "background" of the painting no longer must line up with the edges. The rectangles anchor the painting very strongly. Not only do they reflect it edge-for-edge, often in the same proportion, but they imitate the very entity of the painting, itself a floating rectangle on a flat surface. They leave plenty of room on the canvas for background, free of edge-obligation, which can assume any variety of configuration: thick or thin, random or rigid, lopsided or symmetrical, open or closed, lined-up or canted. The background can become quite literally anything possible in paint, as the three illustrated floating-rectangle paintings clearly show. The advantages are obvious.
4. The pronounced and consistent difference of character and apparent location in depth between the floating rectangles and the background provides increased relational opportunity for color. The rectangles were not compositionally committed because their spatial duties were in terms of shape rather than placement. They could gather and disperse easily over any given background. Because the rectangles anchored the painting the background was completely free of any prior compositional obligations within its own two-dimensional surface. Any color had a "right" to butt up to any number of others just by cutting across them as a rectangle. It is the nature of the rectangle to do this, and it is by cutting a strict edge across a "random" background that the illusion of covering and floating is maintained. The space-rules of the Hofmann picture are very permissive and allow color every freedom of combination.
Hofmann used this freedom to advantage. The red rectangle in the upper right of Te Deum, 1964, cuts across a number of colors of various hues and values below and "behind" it, but the top-most portion fades into the similar hues and values surrounding it; all around it the evidence of its frontal separation changes. Ave Maria, 1965, sports a green rectangle completely immersed in a blackish-red "mess" of a background. The two colors are of very similar value but are complementary hues and different saturations. This produces a super-concentrated glimmering slow-burn effect. Above it is a bright reddish-yellow of a very different value than the background which it cuts across; it jumps out as much as the green sinks in. It's a brilliant bit of color-play. Pendular Swing, 1964, is also lovely, contrasting two blues and a bright red on a very greyish green stained and runny background. The internal space of the painting is so free and devoid of incident that Hofmann indulges himself in a little extra fun with the curvy eccentric light blue shape and the slightly canted red rectangle.
5. The rectangles free value from the service of space. This is one of the revolutionary things hidden deep in Hofmann's superbly balanced style. Cubism traditionally employs light-dark difference to induce an illusion of depth in space. By so concentrating on one of the coordinates of color (value) the others are stifled, as previously described. But the rectangles achieve a very strong illusion of depth by the device of totally frontal superimposition which uses all the simple elements of color - one does not pin down the other. The freeing of value was the freeing of color. Hofmann was thus able to use color with the advantage of full choice because no color element color was obligated to take up any previously specified place or function in the painting.
The floating rectangle was an inspired invention but it was not the only trick in Hofmann's bag. Other paintings, like Le Gilotin, 1953, Moonshine Sonata, 1961, Hazy Sun, 1961, and some of the late, all-rectangle paintings seem to contradict many of the "rules" I have set out here. That's the trouble with art writing. I used to think that art quality was a mysterious thing somewhere "inside" a work, hiding from words the way electrons hide between light waves. But my experience with Hofmann makes me think that the goodness of art is just the whole thing, in all its full richness and complexity. Maybe the reason it cannot be brought over in words is simply because there's too much to describe - you must talk around it and nibble off a little at a time, especially from a body of work as rich and difficult as Hofmann's. His paintings are too full of surprises. A Hofmann can look kinky and full of problems one minute and great and brilliant the next. I have too often dismissed one out of hand only to come back to it and find it creeping up on me. Now I just have favorites, which change from time to time, like any condition of life. The rectangles themselves first struck me as odd, ugly, disjointed and unintegrated. It took time and repeated contact for me to get a grasp of what they were all about - I mean esthetically, not verbally; that I was worked out after I admired the paintings. Hofmann was so inspired and so inventive, so impatient with small stuff and detail, and with the fussing and adjusting to bring the picture around to look like "art," as so many of his colleagues did, that he left his potential public behind. Because he did not bother to fix his painting according to prior notions of how a painting should look they are unlikely to fit neatly into our patterns of liking. More than any other painter of our time Hofmann must be felt rather than "seen," in an absolutely open, objective and non-literal way. His work is hard to see and hard to take. The art public has made Hofmann a "modern old master" because of his energy, presence, inspired teaching and huge output rather than because of the quality of his art. You've got to have a Hofmann or two in your well-rounded modern collection but you don't have to like them. I find few who really do. It will take time.