The Defining Gesture: Modern Masters from the Eppler Family Collection
Selected to grace the cover of Hans Hofmann’s landmark retrospective exhibition at MoMA in 1963, Lava is one of the finest paintings of the artist’s celebrated late career. Uniting succulent impasto with a cascade of exuberant, jewel-like colors, the work reveals the astonishing painterly prowess that the artist achieved in his final years. Included in retrospective exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C (1976-1977), the Tate Gallery in London (1988), and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1990), Lava dates from a particularly significant time for Hofmann. In 1957, three years before this work was painted, he ended his hugely influential teaching career to concentrate solely on his own art. Reflecting his flourishing creative energies, it was a period that saw his work attract mounting critical acclaim. Testament to the esteem in which his late works are held, paintings executed by Hofmann around the same time as Lava reside in public museum collections in both America and Europe.
Evoking the viscous, fiery substance after which Lava is named, paint erupts over the entirety of the canvas, flooding it with a vital sense of movement and energy. The color has been applied so generously that in some areas it rises from the canvas in miniature waves, cresting into stormy peaks. In the catalogue for Hofmann’s 1963 retrospective at MoMA, William Seitz described the treatment of the surface of this “great” painting as “an organically boiling and breathing impasto, a maelstrom into which a hundred or more tubes of paint can be squeezed” (W. Seitz, quoted in Hans Hofmann, Museum of Modern Art, exh. cat., New York, 1963, pp. 43-46). Ranging from blood red to earthy ochres, Lava’s palette intensifies the sense of sublime ferocity that emanates from the work. Hofmann has applied these colors with an infinite variety of gestures, ranging from short, staccato bursts to long, lavish strokes, allowing each tone to leap from the picture plane with a joyous and independent force.
Lava is the culmination of a lifetime spent exploring, developing, and articulating his ideas about art. One of the most influential and important theories he advanced was of the “push and pull” within a painting, which described how he used balance and contrast between colors and forms to create pictorial dynamism. Rejecting the traditional practice of creating depth through graduations of tone, it was a way of creating space without denying the flatness of the picture’s surface. Although he was greatly inspired by nature, as the name of this present work suggests, his intention was never to attempt to imitate it. Instead, he believed in the innate integrity of pictorial space. As he wrote in a late essay, “Pictorial space is an aesthetically created space and is as such as real as nature. Its reality is based on the reality of the hidden inherent laws of the picture surface” (H. Hoffman, quoted in S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, p. 44).
Hofmann studied in Paris for the decade before World War I, where he became interested in Cubism and Fauvism, which would eventually lead to a total commitment to gestural abstraction. He admired the work of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse, whose bold treatment of color remained a significant influence on his work throughout his career. The critic, Clement Greenberg, later said of their relationship, “One could learn Matisse’s color lessons better from Hofmann than from Matisse himself” (C. Greenberg, “The Later Thirties in New York,” Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, p. 232). But Hofmann was also greatly inspired by music, likening his rich tapestries of harmonic and dissonant color to musical composition, and claiming that his ideal was “to form and paint as Schubert sings, and as Beethoven creates a world in sound” (H. Hofmann, quoted in Hans Hofmann 1880–1966, Tate Gallery, exh. cat., 1988, p.12).
Hofmann’s innate understanding of painterly rhythm is manifest in Lava, which resonates with a pure sense of delight in the simple pleasures of handling paint. Yet despite its seeming spontaneity, the joyful dance that Hofmann orchestrates between color, texture, and gesture is born of decades of experience and executed with a masterful level of skill. A year after Lava was painted, Clement Greenberg pronounced: “Hofmann’s name continues to be the one that springs to mind when asked who, among all recent painters in this country, deserves most to be called a master in the full sense of the word” (C. Greenberg, quoted in C. Goodman, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1961, p. 9).
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The Defining Gesture: Modern Masters from the Eppler Family Collection
signed and dated 'hans hofmann '60' (lower right); signed again, titled and dated again 'Lava 1960 hans hofmann' (on the reverse)
Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
New York, Kootz Gallery, Hans Hofmann, March 1961, n.p. (illustrated).
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Hans Hofmann, September-November 1963, pp. 44-46 and 64, pl. 4, no. 21 (illustrated in color and detail illustrated on the cover).
Cambridge, Hayden Gallery, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, The MIT Art Collection: Selections from the MIT Art Collection and Loans from Members of the Art Committee, May-September 1967, p. 25 (illustrated in color).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, American Art at Mid-century 1, October 1973-January 1974, n.p. (illustrated in color)
Washington, D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Hans Hofmann: A Retrospective Exhibition, October 1976-April 1977, pp. 14, 18, 21, 27, 33 and 88, no. 49 (illustrated in color).
Cleveland Museum of Art, The Art of Collecting Modern Art, February-March 1986, n.p., fig. 12 (illustrated in color).
London, Tate Gallery, Hans Hofmann: Late Paintings, March-May 1988, pp. 38 and 59, no. 13 (illustrated in color).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hans Hofmann, June-September 1990, p. 120, no. 93 (illustrated in color).
C. Burrows, "Hofmann Event," New York Herald Tribune, 12 March 1961, p. 19.
R. M. Coates, "The Art Galleries: The Splendid Century," The New Yorker, vol. 37, no. 6, 25 March 1961, p. 128.
I. H. Sandler, "Reviews and Previews," ARTnews, vol. 60, no. 2, April 1961, p. 10.
S. Hunter, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1963, pl. 130 (illustrated in color).
H. Rosenberg, "The Art Galleries: Hans Hofmann and the Stability of the New," The New Yorker, vol. 39, no. 57, 2 November 1963, pp. 100 and 103.
H. Rosenberg, The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audience, New York, 1964, p. 248.
S. M. Kootz, "The Credibility of Color: Hans Hofmann, an Area of Optimism," Arts Magazine, vol. 41, no. 4, February 1967, p. 38.
G. Kinkead, "The Spectacular Fall and Rise of Hans Hofmann," ARTnews, vol. 79, no. 6, Summer 1980, p. 96.
C. Goodman, Hans Hofmann, New York, 1986, p. 84.
R. Wollheim, "Hans Hofmann: The Final Years," Modern Painters, vol. 1, no. 2, Summer 1988, p. 16.
J. Yohe, ed., Hans Hofmann, New York, 2002, p. 206 (illustrated in color).
J. Perl, New Art City, New York, 2005, p. 6.
S. Villiger, ed., Hans Hofmann: Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Volume III (1952-1965), Farnham, 2014, p. 270, no. P1270 (illustrated in color).
Kootz Gallery, New York
Paul Tishman, New York, 1961
Pace Gallery, New York, 1976
André Emmerich Gallery, New York, 1976
James Johnson, New Jersey
Robert Miller Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1980