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The Inspiration of Hans Hofmann

The saying goes “those who can do; those who can’t teach,” but artist Hans Hofmann put the lie to the expression, Acknowledged worldwide as the father of abstract expressionism, Hofmann also made his mark as a teacher of art, inspiring decades of students who went on to become great artists themselves. It’s that tradition , and those apprentices, that are celebrated in Tales of Hofmann (a play on the opera by the same name), an exhibition at the Julie Heller Gallery showcasing work by Hofmann students, opening this week.

But don’t expect them to all look alike. “What is unique about him,” says Heller, “is that his students absorbed the information and moved on and took on their own personalities in their work. There’s variety. Often with others you see where students are clones of the teacher. This is unique - I don’t think you see it very often, that the students actually find their own style.” Artist Robert Henry, whose work is included in the show and who studied with Hofmann, concurs. “My current work doesn’t look anything like his,” he says. “But I learned from him what art is, what painting is. I use the same devices, but the product comes out differently.”

Hofmann’s legacy, both as an artist and as a teacher of art, is rich. Known for his Friday critique sessions, where he’d often draw alternative compositions directly onto students’ canvases, he helped catapult America to the forefront of mid-twentieth-century art and influenced generations of artists.

“What he taught went beyond style,” recalls Henry. “It was the syntax of painting. I worked ‘abstractively,’ I worked figuratively, and he never made any judgement about what was preferential. He didn’t see style as important.” He pauses. “The culture has changed since then,” he says.

Hofmann became renowned as a teacher, both in his native Germany and subsequently in the U.S. - at UC/Berkeley and in Brooklyn and Provincetown. Here on the Cape, starting in 1935, he established summer schools: first at the Hawthorne barn, then at Fritz Bultman’s studio in Day’s Lumber Yard, and finally in 1945 at 76 Commercial Street, a site he purchased from artist Frederick Waugh. During those same years he also ran the Hans Hofmann School of Fine Arts in New York; he closed both schools in 1958 to devote himself to his own work - about which he was modest. “He never showed you his work, “ says Henry. “I saw it in a gallery, but that was because I went to see it, it wasn’t because he showed it.”

Memories of working with Hofmann make Henry smile. “I had quit school,” he remembers. “I was doing chemical engineering and hated it. A friend was living with Grace Hartigan and I hung out a lot there - much to Grace’s annoyance! I asked her where I should study and she directed me to Hofmann, and so there I was, at age 19.” And Hofmann welcomed Henry in. “He was a very jovial and kindly man. When I first went to the school, I was going to night classes because I was working during the day. He had every young artist work in classes as a model - he gave us all work. In many ways he became my substitute father.”

Hofmann pioneered work that has since become part of the accepted art canon. He taught the importance of applying and combining opposing forces in art - known as the push/pull principles or spatial theories - and in his writings articulated a clear and original philosophy of art. “It’s a search for the real,” explains Henry, echoing the title of Hofmann’s influential book. “The practice of art is searching. To stop would be totally antithetical to what he was teaching. He taught you that change was essential in the process of working.”

Not surprisingly, Hofmann is known for bringing out emotional intensity in each of his students. “He said you have to start out with no preconceptions,” says Henry. “I don’t start out on the canvas very much anymore, I start with a drawing, and then it develops into something. Underneath it all is the sense of composition and structure, and that’s what he taught. When I look at a painting and there’s not a structure to it, I’m not interested in it, it’s boring.”

Along with Paul Resika, also represented in the exhibition, Henry is one of the very few Hofmann students still alive and working. “The show was a couple of months from conception to opening,” says Heller. “We considered ourselves very lucky that - fortunately! - one of the few students of Hofmann was living locally.” Local because he’s followed Hofmann from New York to Provincetown: in 1953 Henry found himself renting a room in a house on the corner of Commercial and Vine streets, very close to Hofmann’s studio. “It was owned by a Miss Williams,” he remembers. “There were two Misses Williams, actually, sisters. The house was full of Hofmann students. It was a good time; I was finding myself.” Henry went on to teach art at Brooklyn College from 1960 to 1990; every summer he taught - and continues to teach - classes at both Provincetown Art Association and Museum and the Fine Arts Work Center, and now lives in Wellfleet.

Besides Henry and Resika, the show includes work by Fritz Bultman, Edward Widmayer, Dorothy Gees, Jerome Seckler, Jan muller, and Flora Schoenfeld. Henry’s presence on the cape made the show easy to conceptualize for the team at the Julie Heller Gallery. “It’s always hard to make decisions about what I’m going to show,” admits Heller, “because I like a sense of continuity. I try to make things correlate to what’s going on at PAAM and FAWC - we try to make it a supportive situation.”

There is nothing more supportive of Provincetown’s artistic heritage, perhaps, than honoring one of its outstanding artists through the work of his proteges. Tales of Hofmann does just that.

The Tales of Hofmann exhibition runs July 10 through August 6 at Julie Heller Gallery, 2 Gosnold Street, Provincetown. There will be an opening reception on Friday, July 10 at 7pm.

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